2011 St. Louis Cardinals: How Did it Happen?
I was watching the MLB Network count down the 25 greatest comebacks in MLB history earlier tonight (single-game or in a season), and the first thing that came to mind was the Cardinals’ miraculous run to a World Series title this past October. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the top 7, but the Cardinals had not been named yet. I have periodically thought of the run that the Cardinals made since it happened, and every time I think about it, I still cannot believe that it happened. The simple facts of it are amazing by themselves: down 10.5 games in the NL Wild Card race in late August, making the playoffs on the last day, and then defeating the Phillies, Brewers, and Rangers to win the title. The story beyond the basics is even better.
Following a series against the Los Angeles Dodgers in late August, the Cardinals sat so far back in the NL Wild Card standings that most fans had given up on the season. The Cardinals felt otherwise, and went on a tear, winning 18 of 26 in September while the Wild Card-leading Atlanta Braves won just 9 of 27. On the last day of the season, Cardinals’ ace Chris Carpenter shut out the Houston Astros, and then sealed the Wild Card when the Phillies beat the Braves in 13 innings later that night after tying the game in the bottom of the 9th.
After getting help from the Phillies, the Cardinals had to go to Philadelphia and beat them. Just about everyone favored the Phillies, who had three of the best starting pitchers in the game. The Cardinals came back and won Game 2 against outstanding lefthander Cliff Lee, and then won in Game 4 in St. Louis to force a deciding Game 5.
While the series was in St. Louis, the world was introduced to the Rally Squirrel, a squirrel that ran across home plate during play in Games 3 and 4. The squirrel became a rallying point for Cardinal Nation, and as stupid as it was, we all liked it.
Game 5 was epic. Carpenter against Roy Halladay, one of the best pitchers of the last decade. The Cardinals scored in the top of the first to lead 1-0, and managed to hang on. Carpenter threw a 3-hit shutout to advance the Cardinals to the next round.
Next was division rival Milwaukee. Again, most people pinned the Brewers as the likely winners, but the Cardinals played 6 solid games and advanced to the World Series to face the Texas Rangers.
As with the rest of the playoffs, the Cardinals were heavy underdogs against the AL champions. Just looking at the Rangers’ lineup, the Cardinals seemed outmatched. More power, more speed, better hitters, and especially better relievers in the bullpen. But that’s why baseball isn’t played on paper.
The Cardinals eked by in Game 1, and seemed to have control in Game 2, until the Rangers took the lead in the top of the 9th against Cardinals closer Jason Motte. The series went back to Arlington tied at 1 game apiece.
Game 3 was one to remember. The Cardinals scored early and often, but the Rangers countered for the first few innings. Cards first baseman Albert Pujols made sure that the Rangers wouldn’t come back, hitting three home runs in the game to tie the World Series record.
Games 4 and 5 were close, but both went to Texas. Rangers pitcher Derek Holland shut out the Cardinals in Game 4, and ace C.J. Wilson kept the Rangers in the game until catcher Mike Napoli hit a game-changing 3-run home run in the 7th.
Entering Games 6 and 7 in St. Louis, the Cardinals had their backs up against the wall again. Game 6 will forever go down in history as one of the best games ever, at least in my opinion. Cardinals third baseman and hometown St. Louisan David Freese hit a game-tying two-run triple with the Rangers one strike away from the title in the 9th, but the Cardinals couldn’t get him home. Next inning: Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton hit a two-run homer that supposedly put the game away. Wrong. The Cardinals put together a string of good at-bats, and again, with the Rangers one strike away from the championship, Lance Berkman singled to center to tie the game. After a scoreless 11th from Texas, Freese came up and hit the biggest home run of his life, a game-winning solo home run that forced Game 7.
After the craziness of Game 6, Game 7 was fairly mundane. Texas jumped out ahead 2-0, but the Cardinals immediately tied it, and then took the lead a couple of innings later. The Cardinals pitchers shut down Texas for the rest of the game, and won the game and the World Series 6-2.
Now some brief personal thoughts (kudos if you’ve gotten this far):
For me, a lifelong Cardinals fan, this championship could not have been more special. The comeback in the regular season was amazing enough (largest ever, mind you), and taking down the Phillies and Brewers was definitely satisfying. However, I will never ever forget Game 6 of the World Series. In my opinion, and I am VERY biased, it was the greatest game ever played. Ever. That game summed up the Cardinals’ season perfectly: backs against the wall, one false move and it’s done, but still find a way to get it done.
I also think that everyone knew that the Cardinals would win Game 7. Just like everyone knew that the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team would win the gold after beating the Soviets in the semifinals. The story just had to finish correctly. I really feel for Rangers fans, but how can you not appreciate what the Cardinals did just to make the playoffs in the first place? An amazing end to an amazing story.