ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Cardinals confounded baseball experts by taking the National League East lead in late May and holding on.
The offense carried the team in the first half of the season with a .284 batting average, while scoring 5.7 runs per game as the Cardinals built a nine-game lead at the All-Star break.
The second half of the season was a matter of holding on as the lead shrunk to 1 1/2 games several times and the offense slumped.
But through it all the defense remained a staple as All-Star shortstop Ozzie Smith, in particular, was spectacular and second baseman Tommy Herr and third baseman Terry Pendleton were not far behind.
But the story of St. Louis' unexpected success was also one involving grit and the summoning of considerable personal mettle.
From April 19 through the end of July, the club was forced to go without its No. 1 starter, left-hander John Tudor, who suffered a broken bone below his right knee in a collision in the dugout. For eight days in August and for a crucial period of longer than three weeks in September, it also withstood injuries that idled Jack Clark, the team's only bona fide slugger.
Willie McGee, the center fielder who made a comeback from off-season knee surgery with a career-high 104 RBI, explained in part the Cardinals' resilience.
"We have a bunch of guys who won't give up on themselves," McGee said. "Sometimes, when the going gets tough, you respond. I feel that we have."
The response was never louder than on Sept. 11.
The Cardinals were in New York to face the Mets, who were just 1 1/2 games behind in second place. The Mets were one pitch away from cutting the margin to one-half game as they led 4-1 in the ninth inning of the opener of a three-game series.
Pendleton turned things right around with a two-out, two-run homer that tied the game and forced extra innings as the Cardinals won 6-4.
"It just seemed to characterize what we've always felt we could do," said Pendleton, whose 12 homers rank second to Clark's 35.
"We never feel like we can't come back -- no matter what the score is," Pendleton said. "In fact, we seem to do better sometimes when our backs are against the wall like they were then. It's just something that never leaves our minds."
Pendleton's dramatic homer didn't end the Cardinals' trials.
For longer than a week, the lead remained at 1 1/2 games. They opened a 3 1/2-game lead with 12 games to go, but again spurted to the finish as New York pulled within two.
Where hitting carried St. Louis through the first half, previously sporadic pitching finally came together as the end of the season.
Tudor returned to win six straight games. Veteran Bob Forsch provided needed consistency, too. And shutouts turned in by young left-handers Joe Magrane and Greg Mathews in a doubleheader sweep of Montreal in the season's final week gave the Cardinals their last lift.
That St. Louis will enter the NL playoffs without a pitcher boasting more than 12 victories does not bother Herzog.
"I think our pitching is finally where I'd hoped it would be at the season's start," Herzog said following the Magrane-Mathews performance. "We have five guys now that can go 6-7 innings until our bullpen guys take over. That means a lot."
Todd Worrell, who had 33 saves, remains a bullpen force and he is complemented by left-hander Ken Dayley.
En route to the title they relinquished last year to the Mets after winning in 1985, the Cardinals drew marked offensive improvement from Smith, .304, and Vince Coleman, .293, who also stole 106 bases and scored 119 runs.
The hope, however, is that Clark, who drove in 106 runs, will be healed from a sprained ankle in time for postseason play.
Herzog's title is his sixth in 12 seasons and certainly one of his most satisfying.
"If someone had told me all the crazy things that happened to us were going to happen, I'd have said we'd never stand a chance," Herzog said. "But this ballclub has held on. It hasn't always been pretty, but it's been exciting."