MILWAUKEE -- The time has come to move past the assumption, a mistaken one all along, that the Cardinals were already content. This is not -- and never was -- a team satisfied by merely playing in October.

Public perception has been that the Redbirds were fortunate to even sneak into postseason play. That was hardly reality.

Inside the Cards' clubhouse -- one filled with players heartily spraying champagne and emptying beer bottles after a 12-6 victory over the Brewers on Sunday closed out the National League Championship Series and sealed the franchise's 18th trip to the World Series -- the idea of playing with house money never came up. That's because it never was an opinion shared by this bunch.

This outcome was not only desired. It has come to be expected in St. Louis.

Remarkable Redbirds
Most National League pennants won
Rank
Team
Pennants
1.
Dodgers
21
Giants
21
3.
Cardinals
18
4.
Braves
17
5.
Cubs
16
6.
Pirates
9
Reds
9
8.
Phillies
7
9.
Mets
4

"St. Louis has been in the playoffs since I've been in baseball," said reliever Octavio Dotel, who joined the club from Toronto as a key Trade Deadline acquisition. "They've always been in the playoffs. It's great to be on a ballclub like this one in St. Louis because you know something is going to be around this team."

What's around this team is standards of the highest level, backed by resources and sustained by stability. The Cardinals are not only a model of year-to-year consistency, but one that, under manager Tony La Russa, has become the envy of the NL.

The Cards have missed the playoffs only four times since 2000. They've advanced to the NLCS on seven occasions and have now clinched a third trip to the World Series.

That makes the Cardinals -- not the Phillies, not the Red Sox, not even the Yankees -- the only team able to boast that many trips to the Fall Classic since '04.

"I thought about that in the last inning, about how unbelievable it is to not only be in the postseason, but have the opportunity to go to the World Series three times," said Chris Carpenter, a nine-year member of the organization. "I've played with many guys who never got to play in the postseason and were around for a long time. It's a great credit to the organization, ownership and our club."

Grand expectations of being among the final teams standing are widely shared, but rarely justified. It's become the latter in St. Louis, where the sustainability of winning is exceptionally impressive.

The Cardinals, who have finished first in the NL Central in six of the last 12 seasons, lead the NL in postseason games played since 2000. It's not even close, either. For all the chatter about this recent period of dominance by the Phillies, they have played 46 playoff games to the Cards' 75 since the start of the century.

Perhaps it's no coincidence, too, that the Redbirds stand as the only club not to have made a managerial change during that period.

"You know, it's not my approach; it's the Cardinals' approach," said La Russa, whose 66 postseason wins puts him one behind longtime Atlanta manager Bobby Cox for second all-time. "That's what this franchise is famous for -- play hard every day, minimize mistakes."

Incredible, too, is that St. Louis has managed to remain among the elite despite having a payroll that cannot be described the same way.

The Cardinals have been outside the top 11 in Opening Day payroll dollars nine times in the past 12 years. Their highest rank was sixth, back in 2005, when they fell two wins short of the World Series.

Only four times during that 12-year span has the club even been the highest spender in its own division. And this year actually marked the first time in franchise history that the Opening Day roster totaled more than $100 million in guaranteed money.

The Yankees have been blowing away that benchmark for more than a decade.

Lance Berkman admired the Cards from the other side for 12 years, while he was a member of the Astros, before he signed with the Redbirds before this season.

"It's got to be one of the model organizations in all of baseball," Berkman said. "They've been successful for well over a decade, and I think that it's hard to imagine that another franchise has been run any more efficiently than this one."

The recent string of postseason success is only a part of the franchise's storied history. Beginning with a 1926 World Series win over the Yankees, the Cardinals have claimed 18 pennants and 10 World Series championships. No other NL club has achieved more.

So while the 2011 Cards are on an improbable run, the destination is hardly unfamiliar.

"We thought we had good character, not just good talent," La Russa said. "That means you can't quit and can't give up. We did get to the end, and a lot of it was our character. This one here has its own mark, because coming from that far back is historic."