Yes, it is December 31st and you’ll see plenty of these “year in review” pieces about all sorts of subjects. Not many will be as easy to write as the 2011 season in review for the St. Louis Cardinals. It was quite a year on and off the field from the outset of 2011 to the bitter end. A month to month selection of some memorable moments follow; along with an expansive review of the postseason. Give us your favorite moments in the comments.
The biggest storyline in January doesn’t finish until December. The Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak was hard at work trying to sign iconic first baseman Albert Pujols. Pujols let it be known from the outset of negotiations that he would not discuss the extension once spring training started. Despite Mozeliak’s best efforts, he and Pujols could not settle anything and talks ceased once the Cardinals reached Juniper, FL.
Teams arrive at spring training with renewed focus and optimism about their teams and themselves. This couldn’t be truer with Adam Wainwright. Wainwright was coming off another fantastic season, finishing second in Cy Young voting in 2010 and was third in 2009. This season was going to be his to lay claim as the best pitcher in the National League. On February 23rd, in a meaningless spring training start Wainwright felt a pop. His elbow gave out on him and the next day he was set for Tommy John surgery and the season was done for Wainwright. It is a tough proposition for any team to win the World Series, but how could this team do it without their ace? Time would tell.
The regular season began with a thud in the form of Ryan Franklin on the hill surrendering a game tying home run right after Matt Holliday had given the Cardinals the lead in the bottom of the 8th. They went on to lose the game and four blown saves later the closer carousel began for the Cardinals as Franklin was done in the role.
Holliday had an appendectomy the day after and missed a handful of games. The great surprise of the month was the resurgence of Lance Berkman. The Cardinals took a flyer on signing Berkman to a one year deal after he had gone through his worst season in 2010. He had an incredible month as did Holliday when he returned. This more than made up for the virtually non-existent Albert Pujols…
Pujols is mired in the worst stretch of games in his career. He ends the month with a .267 BA, .336 OBP, .419 SLG for a non-Pujols like OPS of .755. You’d have to wonder if the impending contract was putting pressure on Pujols. Despite this the Cardinals found themselves sitting 2.5 games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers with a 33-23 record.
And here comes Pujols! He hit five home runs in the first week of the month and pretty much didn’t look back for the rest of the season despite spending some time on the DL with a wrist injury. He did come back from that injury much quicker than expected which was welcome news for the Cardinals who at this point in the season had more total DL trips than the entire 2010 season. Even with the down time in the month he hit 9 homers and his OPS rose to .855. The Cardinals finished June tied with the Brewers atop the NL Central with a 45-38 record.
The Cardinals were active on the trade front in July, dealing much maligned outfielder Colby Rasmus along with Trevor Miller, Brian Tallet, and P.J. Walters to the Toronto Blue Jays for Edwin Jackson, Marc Rzepczynski, Octavio Dotel and Corey Patterson. Jackson, Rzepczynski and Dotel ended up being major contributors for the remainder of the season. Rasmus was unhappy in St. Louis and made his feelings well known. He had clashes with manager Tony La Russa and his performance was awful so the trade made sense in many ways.
On the field they started to lose ground to the Brewers. For the month they went 13-13 posting two separate three-game losing streaks and never winning more than three games in a row.
The Cards struggled through the better part of August. After August 24th, they had a 10-12 record for the month and found themselves ten games back of the Brewers. The series which ended on the 24th, saw them swept by the Dodgers, being outscored 7-23 in the three games. They were 10.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the Wild Card standings, and their chance of being a part of the postseason was dismal. This is the point that can be considered the start of their amazing comeback. The won five of the remaining six games in August and marched into September having swept the Brewers in a three game series at Milwaukee.
The Redbirds entered the final month of the season sitting 8.5 games behind the Brewers in the Central and 8.5 behind the Braves in the Wild Card standings. That left them 28 games to try to get back in the race(s). Essentially they would need to play temendous ball and hope that one of the two teams somehow falter down the stretch. Sometimes it is easier to play better baseball when there is nothing truly left to lose and everything to gain. So, the Cardinals went about their business. They won 20 games while the Braves went in the complete opposite direction. They finally handed the closer reins over to Jason Motte and he was stellar the rest of the way.
161 games into the season, the Cardinals caught the Braves with a 13-6 whipping of the Houston Astros setting up a day of unheralded finishes throughout Major League Baseball. On the last day of the season, the Cardinals got an excellent pitching performance from Chris Carpenter en route to a 8-0 win. Maybe destiny was on their side as the Braves lost a 13 inning heart breaker to the Philadelphia Phillies giving the Cardinals their ticket to the postseason.
Legends are made in October and the Cardinals had several players stand out at different times throughout the postseason which enabled them to win the World Series. Beginning with the NL Division Series against the heavily favored Philadelphia Phillies, the Cardinals were led by Pujols who hit .350 and Jason Motte was excellent. Carpenter sealed the series win with a dominant 3-hit shutout pitching against Phillies’ ace Roy Halladay.
In the NL Championship Series, the Cards faced off against a familiar foe, the NL Central Champion, Milwaukee Brewers. They would again have to win while being at a disadvantage of playing without home-field advantage. David Freese, who won the NLCS MVP, turned in a remarkable series hitting .545 with 3 HR, 9 RBI and 7 R. Pujols hit .478 with 2 HR and 9 RBI and Holliday hit .435. The starting staff was not very good, all registering ERAs north of 5.40. So once again, the bullpen picked up the slack. Motte was untouchable, throwing 4 2/3 innings without walking a batter or letting up a hit. The Cardinals beat the Brewers 4 games to 2 and the storybook season would see one more chapter written.
Since the National League won the MLB All-Star game, the Cardinals had home-field advantage for the World Series. This would turn into a very important factor as the series wore on. The Cards took Game 1, 3-2 behind Carpenter. The Rangers won Game 2, 2-1, as Motte faultered, wasting a fine performance by Jaime Garcia. In Game 3, Pujols brought out his whipping stick. He went 5 for 6, hit three home runs and drove in 6. The Cards scored 16 runs in the game on 15 hits. Game 4 was the complete opposite as the Cardinals were only able to get two hits off Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz, getting shutout 4-0. Game 5 was another pitchers’ duel, this time between Carpenter and C.J. Wilson. The game entered the eighth inning tied at 2. Dotel allowed a leadoff double, struck out the next batter, and then was relieved by Rzepczynski after an intentional walk. He let up a single and then a two run double to Mike Napoli making it 4-2. That would be the final score and the Cardinals were now down 3 games to 2.
Fortunately they were headed back to Busch Stadium III for Game 6. Entering the top of the seventh inning the game was tied at 4. Lance Lynn entered the game and promptly let up back to back home runs to Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz. The Rangers tacked on another run to make it 7-4. The Cardinals failed to score in the bottom half of the seventh and the Rangers did not score in the top half of the eighth. With one out in the bottom of the eighth Allen Craig homered to cut the Ranger lead to 2. Motte held the Rangers scoreless in the ninth. The rest will go done in St. Louis Cardinals lore for years to come.
In the bottom of the ninth, Pujols hit a one-out double, Berkman walked and Allen Craig then struck out. Freese, with a 1-2 count tripled to deep right field scoring Pujols and Berkman. The emotional high turned into dejection quickly as Motte let up a one-out single to Elvis Andrus and then Josh Hamilton hit a two-run homer to give the Rangers the lead at 9-7. The Cardinals received back to back singles from Daniel Descalso and Jon Jay to open the tenth. Kyle Lohse came on and laid down a sacrifice bunt moving the runners to second and third. Theriot grounded out scoring Descalso. Up came Berkman, and again down to their final strike, he lined a single to center scoring the tying run. Jake Westbrook pitched a scoreless eleventh for the Cards. The Rangers sent Mark Lowe to the mound to face the hottest hitter on either side, Freese. On a 3-2 count, Freese homered to deep center winning the game. Another amazing comeback by the Cardinals.
Game 7 predictably didn’t live up to Game 6 in the drama department. Carpenter threw six gritty innings, settling down after allowing 2 runs in the first. The Cards tied it up quickly in the bottom half behind another big hit from Freese. Craig homered to give the Cards a lead they would never relinquish in the third. Motte pitched a 1-2-3 inning in the top of the ninth sealing the Cardinals 11th World Series title. Freese was named the World Series MVP.
This tidbit was submitted to me by staff writer, Chris Ferguson, on the atmosphere surrounding the Cardinals’ clubhouse – “Besides the excitement of the getting in by the skin of our teeth and winning it all, I think my favorite moments were post game interviews during the NLCS and World Series. I still can’t get the image of Berkman and Freese together looking like kids. It was easy to picture them 20-30 years younger after a ballgame going to get ice cream. You could tell they were having so much fun and were enjoying the moment. It really restored my faith in Major League players. It’s not always about the money. Some of them are still playing for fun and love of a game. From Berkman complaining about his beard to giving Freese a hard time about things it was just so enjoyable.”
Just three days after the series was over, manager Tony La Russa announced his retirement after sixteen seasons and two World Series Championships with the club.
After a three week process the Cardinals hired former catcher, Mike Matheny to replace La Russa. Matheny was a fan favorite during his time with the Redbirds.
Negotiations had picked back up with Pujols. At one point it seemed there was a decent chance that the Cardinals would be able to win his services back. But, out of nowhere the Los Angeles Angels made him an offer he left he couldnt refuse. He signed a 10-year $254 million deal. The icon would not finish his career in St. Louis as many had felt and virtually solidified Stan Musial as the greatest Cardinal player ever.
The Cardinals responded by signing Rafael Furcal to a two-year $14 million deal. Later in the month, they signed outfielder Carlos Beltran to a two-year $26 million deal hoping his presence in the lineup would ease the burden of losing Pujols.
The season started off with the season ending injury to Wainwright, putting the team immediately behind the eight ball. The team jumped out to a nice start and despite two mediocre months in the middle of the season, was able to mount one of the largest comebacks to make the postseason in history. They capped off the regular season run with the World Series victory, while twice sitting one strike away from losing. It was a spectacular season. The team is headed into uncharted territory in 2012 without La Russa and Pujols. Something tells me that the character of the remaining nucleus of the team will be able to carry them through.
Happy New Year Redbirds fans!