During Spring Training, I pondered if the Cardinals could stay at the top of the NL Central without Adam Wainwright anchoring the top of their rotation for the entirety of the 2011 season. Well, they couldn’t. The Brewers took the Central with the best home record in all of baseball. For parts of the season, it looked as if the Reds and Pirates could finish ahead of the Cardinals. Albert Pujols was having his worst statistical season of his career. Matt Holliday and David Freese couldn’t stay healthy. Colby Rasmus and his father were constantly bitching and moaning every single day until he was shipped out of town. The St. Louis Cardinals were a mess of an organization.
The Cards went 15-13 in August. The players General Manager John Mozeliak brought in at the deadline were not clicking – yet. It seemed as if Pujols may be ending his St. Louis career with a dud of a season. From there, we know the story. 10.5 out of the Wild Card on August 25. Three games back of the Braves with five on the schedule. The Braves joined the Red Sox as teams packing up and heading home early, without a date to the big dance.
All that fighting from the Red Birds just to get a trip to Philadelphia, the team with the best record in baseball. The team with Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt in the rotation. The pre-season favorites. The team who they had just taken three games from in a four game set during the ides of September. As expected, Halladay took game one. The Phillies needed just two more wins to advance to the next round. Then, Lee lost game two. No problem, Hamels will take care of game three. Which the only member of this staff with a ring did. The team with the best record in baseball needed just one win in two games to advance. AND THEY COULDN’T.
Edwin Jackson and Chris Carpenter won games four and five, with Carpenter out-dueling Halladay 1-0 IN PHILADELPHIA. Chalk it up to whatever you want, the reality is the Phillies were just the newest member of the 2011 Choke Artist Association. The Cardinals survived the first round and were once again rewarded with another tough task: traveling to division rival Milwaukee to face the best home team in the game.
Once again, the Cards dropped game one. At this point in the playoffs, their number two pitcher Jaime Garcia was 0-2. With Shaun Marcum and Yovani Gallardo behind Zach Greinke, it seemed that the Brewers had set them up to, at worst, have a 2-1 lead after three. Instead, they were outscored 16-6 over the two games and trailed in the series. Randy Wolf beat Kyle Loshe in possibly the worst pitching matchup in all of the playoffs and the series was even again. But the Cardinals kept their bats hot scoring 19 runs over the final two games against Greinke and Marcum and the Cardinals advanced to their first World Series since they defeated the Tigers in 2006. Meanwhile the Brewers joined the Red Sox, Braves, Phillies, and Yankees as they choked away their best chance to win a World Series since they were an American League team in 1982.
But thanks to the Brewers, Prince Fielder more specifically, the Cardinals had home field advantage against the
Buffalo Bills Texas Rangers. For the first time in the entire 2011 post-season, the Cards were able to throw their ace in game one of the series, and that was the difference maker. In games one, five, and seven, Carpenter never allowed more than two runs to the vaunted Rangers lineup. Albert Pujols was not much of a factor game-in and game-out. Matt Holliday was less than a non-factor for the entire series.
The Cards and Rangers were tied 1-1 going to Arlington. In the first game at Texas, Pujols was his old, epic self. His three homeruns led the way as St. Louis put up 16 in total to go on to reclaim the series, two games to one. Then, Derek Holland spun a gem to retie the series (which was even more significant because it was the first time a Texas starter had won a game since their series against Tampa Bay). In their last home game of the season, Mike Napoli led the way with two RBI and Adrian Beltre and Mitch Moreland chipped in solo shots to give Texas a 4-2 win as well as a game lead heading back to St. Louis.
The Rangers just needed one. Much like the Phillies, they only had to go .500 over their final two games. 7-4 with six outs to go. Six outs left with a three run lead and one of the best bullpens in the league. After the season the Cardinals had experienced, could it end any other way?
Allen Craig. The team’s fifth outfielder at the onset of the season. The team’s fourth outfielder at the start of the World Series. Will go down as a legend in St. Louis for his performance throughout these seven games. He never got more than one hit in any playoff game this year and he was arguably their most important player. In the six games when he only got one chance to bat as a pinch hitter, he went 4-6, with four RBI. After coming in for the injured Matt Holliday in game six, Craig added another level to his dimension in the bottom of the eighth with a solo shot to bring the game within two with an inning left.
Then came the bottom of the ninth. Neftali Feliz has been one of the more dominant closers in the league over the past two seasons. He already had World Series experience after being there the previous year. He had a two run lead. Ryan Theriot struck out swinging. Two outs away from their first World Series title in the history of the Texas Rangers. Pujols doubled. The Cardinals had life. Lance Berkman walked. The tying run was on base. Craig was up. He had played the role of hero to this point. He struck out on a filthy slider from Feliz.
Two down. Then comes a kid who grew up in the shadow of Ryan Howard. The oft injured third basemen who Mozeliak had traded the beloved Jim Edmonds for seasons ago. David Freese, the NLCS MVP, came to bat with ducks on the pond, with two outs, in the bottom of the ninth, down to his last strike. While we all know what happened, the moment deserves the respect to be remembered and revered as one of the greatest clutch moments in the history of sport. Make no mistake, there are few moments in professional sports which can live up to that amount of pressure in that moment. Buzzer beaters, last second field goals, penalty kicks/shots, etc. Every watching eye is fixed on the next pitch, the next swing. Every ear is waiting for Joe Buck to make that World Series call that will live on forever.
If Freese had grounded out or struck out, no one would have held it against him. The Cardinals had no right to be there. They were playing with house money. The fact that they were in the situation to begin with was enough for most people. There was only one problem. The pressure wasn’t on Freese. It was only Feliz. And boy did he and Nelson Cruz LeBron up the situation real quick. Freese roped a triple over the alligator arm of Cruz and tied the game. The improbable dream lived on.
With the score knotted at 7′s, Josh Hamilton hit his only homer of the post-season to give the Rangers their second stranglehold on this very game. 9-7 in the bottom of the tenth and Theriot, Daniel Descalso, and Jon Jay (with some help from the Big Puma) are the players who put the Cardinals on their backs to keep their season alive.
The rest is history. The top of the eleventh held but a meaningless single for Mike Napoli. The Rangers came out for home half of the inning, warmed up, and walked off as quickly as they had walked on. Freese yet again delivered, this time with no outs, no men on, and no strikes against him. He crushed a homerun to deep center field and got to trot around the bases of his home diamond with his hometown fans erupting with jubilation only to be greeted by his teammates at home where they promptly beat the bag out of him. His jersey was torn, his body was bruised, he was short of breath, and at the time (I assume) it was one of the best moments of his life.
Until the next game. The first game seven in a decade. Because game six was pushed back a day because of weather, Carpenter was given an extra day of rest and, again, that was the difference. The fact that Carpenter went undefeated in the playoffs was a underrated storyline throughout the post-season. He went 2-0 in the World Series. He had a miserable first inning. The Rangers jumped to an early 2-0 lead and it looked like their hangover was non-existent. That lead lasted for about 15 minutes before Freese hit a double plating Pujols and Berkman. It was Freese’s third consecutive at bat with an RBI that either tied the game or took the lead. Craig started off this series on the exact same streak. And who better to break the 2-2 tie than Allen Craig who hit a solo blast in the bottom of the third which was subsequently the Series winning run.
Craig went on to rob Cruz of a solo homerun and with closer Jason Motte on the mound, who better to record the final out than Craig as he caught a towering fly ball to left. Yadier Molina dropped to his knees and threw his hands to the sky with glee before charging the mound and bounding into the arms of Motte.
Tony LaRussa looked shocked. It’s as if he thought this whole post-season was a big practical joke and he was just waiting for the jig to be up. For the curtains to rise so he could see the end of the trick. But his team was the one pulling the pranks on the rest of the league. They were the ones who left Freddie Gonzalez and the Braves awestruck. They were the ones who left Charlie Manuel and the Phillies shaking their heads. They were the ones who forced Prince Fielder to play his last game in Milwaukee sooner than he would have liked. And they were the ones who delivered the final blow to the Texas Rangers as they sent Ron Washington’s club home empty handed for the second year in a row.
Today, we learned LaRussa is hanging them up, stepping away from the game, going out on top. He announced his retirement as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals even though he was well within reach of the second most managerial wins of all time. He leaves the game with three titles (Oakland in 1989 & St. Louis in 2006, 2011). While there are some tantalizing coaching jobs available in the league right now (Boston, Chicago, etc.) it seems as though this is an appropriate time to graciously step away, to be remembered as the winning manager of possibly the greatest World Series ever played.
And to that point, “sports fans” in this country should be ashamed. The Super Bowl this year drew in a massive crowd with two of the storied franchises in the game with Pittsburgh and Green Bay as one would expect. But if the Browns played the Seahawks there would be a huge audience. Then the Bruins, members of the original six, played the Canucks and there was a decent audience even though it was seven games of passion-fueled, old time hockey. Then the Mavericks shocked the Heat in six games and it drew a crowd due to the collective despise of the Heat. But none of those titles. None of those series. None of those games were as good as this World Series. Yes, the Mavericks had an excellent 20 point comeback against Miami – in one game. Yes, Tim Thomas stood on his head – in four of the seven games of the series. Yes the Packers beasted the Steelers for pretty much the entire game. But the drama. The series lead changes. The three homer game by Pujols. Game six alone! This series should be made into a book and it should be taught with the rest of the epic classics. Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” do not hold a candle to the voyage the Cardinals trekked from August 25 until LaRussa’s retirement on October 31. There are three underdogs in the history of the world who should be uttered in the same breath and they all have one thing in common, their first name: David (from David & Goliath), David Ortiz (from 2004 vs. NYY), and David Freese (from the entire 2011 post-season).
26 million viewers for Game 7, the lowest since the Angels defeated the Giants in 2002. Shows like “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory” had larger audiences than these games. The phrase “piss poor” doesn’t even begin to encompass the American attitude towards our nations past time. And that’s what it has become. The past time. Baseball has become the sport of the civilized man who has yet to become overcome by technology, ADHD medication, and nonsensical Facebook updates. If the Red Sox and Yankees aren’t involved it makes for a better product. The drama is pure. The word “money” isn’t brought up because these teams play to win. The NCAA Championships draw huge crowds because the game is “pure”. While I enjoyed seeing Kemba Walker hoist the title at the end of the tournament, that game was won before it even started. That game was HORRIBLE.
Give me the pros and give me the World Series every day of the week. When Allen Craig caught that final out I smiled from ear to ear. Not because I like the Cardinals or hate the Rangers. It was because of how hard this team fought all season long. To get to that point was the top of Mt. Everest. They had been handicapped like no other, yet they prevailed. No movie, no book, no tall tale can bring about the type of human emotion that this run stood for. The only sporting events that I hold higher are the 2002 Super Bowl between my Patriots and the St. Louis Rams and the 2004 ALCS between my Red Sox and the New York Yankees. I was even in attendance for Game 6 of the 2007-2008 NBA Finals and I put it behind this World Series because the Celtics were supposed to win that title. They brought in two superstars and were the clearcut favorite before they even played a game together. The ’01 Pats, the ’04 Sox, and the ’11 Cardinals had no business hoisting their respective trophies at the end of it all. And that is what it’s all about. So get it together, America. You’re missing the show. And you are the final member of the Choke Artist Association.