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Cardinals’ brand of excellence has a way of continuing

St. Louis Cardinals' Mike Matheny baseball game against HoustAstros Tuesday June 5 2012 Houston. (AP Photo/PSullivan)

St. Louis Cardinals' Mike Matheny in a baseball game against the Houston Astros Tuesday, June 5, 2012, in Houston. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

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Updated: July 18, 2012 6:29AM

ST. LOUIS — Those White Sox followers who traveled 300 miles to Cardinals Country last week to see Gavin Floyd take an interleague whipping were a stealthier group than their Cubs counterparts.

A Cubs visit to Busch Stadium brings out fans who are conspicuous by their colors: blue, blue and more blue. It’s a proud but futile effort to stand out in the Red Sea, which is what the Busch ballyard becomes for every Cardinals game. No matter how many Cubs fans are in the stands, they always look surrounded.

But they never look menaced. Busch patrons are known for being as nice as they are knowledgeable. The ballpark ambience calls to mind a county fair, with 40,000 cheerful folks strolling the grounds and eventually making their way inside to enjoy Redbirds baseball as the main-stage attraction.

The Busch experience was part of the draw for White Sox fans who hit the road to catch the team’s first St. Louis appearance since interleague play began 15 years ago. Their various shades of gray, white and black apparel were not Cubbie Blue-obvious within the Red Sea, but some of the names on the jerseys and T-shirts prompted a wistful second look: Rowand … Crede … Podsednik … Jenks … and, of course, Buehrle. Letter-winners for the Sox’ 2005 world champions. If you’re visiting a land where World Series victories are something of a custom, why not dress the part.

The World Series the Cardinals won last year was their 11th; only the Yankees, with 27, claim more. Each title is acknowledged on a wall overlooking center field at Busch, along with half a roster’s worth of retired numbers. The tribute is more subtle than ostentatious. The Cardinals know they’re good, and they expect to be. No need to brag about it.

The 11th Series title might well have been the most satisfying. The epic collapse that cost the Boston Red Sox a playoff spot was the story of the offseason, with ramifications in Chicago (it facilitated the Cubs’ hiring of new baseball boss Theo Epstein). But if the Atlanta Braves hadn’t unraveled just as stunningly and as thoroughly as the Red Sox, the Cardinals would have sat out the postseason. Tony La Russa would not have walked away a world champion. And Albert Pujols’ departure would sting a lot worse.

The Cardinals won 16 of their final 21 games to overtake the Braves in the wild-card race on the last day of the season. La Russa already had decided he’d had enough, and a remarkable run through the playoffs didn’t change his mind. In 16 seasons he gave the Cardinals 1,408 victories, a .544 winning percentage, seven division titles, three pennants and two World Series wins. The Hall of Fame awaits him.

He is missed, of course, but not mourned. Baseball was always a grim, joyless business to La Russa, more serious than life and death. The friendly folks of St. Louis felt more at home with affable Whitey Herzog, whose 11 seasons produced a .530 winning percentage, three pennants, one World Series title and a lot less angst.

He’s in the Hall of Fame wearing a Cardinals cap.

Whitey’s way was to load up a cooler and go fishing after a game. La Russa would rather pore over stats, scouting reports, the rule book and the astrology charts to gain an edge. The Cardinals had the good sense to let each man be himself and do it his way. Who’s to argue with the results.

Mike Matheny, taking over this year, falls somewhere in the middle. He’s not as flinty as La Russa, not as jovial as Herzog. The championship roster he inherited was depleted by the loss of Pujols, the best hitter of his generation. And a rash of injuries has disrupted Matheny’s mix-and-match efforts to replace an irreplaceable bat.

Four bench players were in the starting lineup Thursday, and the Cards aren’t counting on Chris Carpenter or Lance Berkman for much of anything the rest of this year. But a lineup with Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran and David Freese in the middle still can do damage. Yadier Molina quietly has become baseball’s best two-way catcher. They have 10 wins from a hulking flinger named Lance Lynn, and the bullpen that shut down the White Sox two nights running can take over late in games.

Assuming better health, the Cardinals will hang around and be there at the end. They always do, and they always are. Theo Epstein should give them a look if the goal is sustained excellence.

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