Not many expected the St. Louis Cardinals to make the 2011 postseason when it was learned that Adam Wainwright was out for the year. This team looked rough early on; in the first game of the year they experienced defensive lapses and a blown save, two bad traits that would follow the team all season. Albert Pujols had a down year. Colby Rasmus got traded. Some players spent extended time on the disabled list; others were gone for shorter but more numerous stretches. The Cards set a record for hitting into double plays. Based on perception alone, this is not a playoff team.
And yet, there they sit in Philadelphia awaiting their chance to take the field for Game 1 of the National League Division Series Saturday afternoon. Now what?
The NL Central’s playoff representation has been nothing short of abysmal since Wainwright struck out Brandon Inge to end the 2006 World Series. Every Central Division winner since has been swept in the first round. The only team to win one game was the 2008 Wild Card Milwaukee Brewers. But that’s all they won—one game.
This year the Comedy Central once again sends two representatives to the postseason. And the Cardinals have a tough task ahead of them. The Philadelphia Phillies do not screw around in the playoffs; just ask the Cincinnati Reds. The number of people outside of a 100-mile radius of St. Louis picking the Cards to win this series is infinitely low. But if an 83-win division winning team that almost missed the playoffs can be labeled the underdog in every series they play and come out World Champions, then a team 10 ½ games out that goes on a 23-9 run to end the year and win the Wild Card can certainly beat a “better” team in a best of five series. And here’s how:
1. Swing Easy at the Plate. Yes, Roy Halladay no-hit the Reds in Game 1 last year. Who cares? That was last year, and that was not this team. Don’t try to hit a 10-run homer with every swing of the bat. Relax. He is hittable, and so are Lee and Hamels. And the Cardinals just happen to be the best hitting team in the league.
2. Cardinal Pitchers: Keep the Ball Down. The Phillies have some mashers on their team: Howard. Utley. Victorino. Pence. Ibanez. Mayberry. Ruiz. The list goes on and on. And their stadium doesn’t help; Citizens Bank Park is a bandbox. Ground balls, ground balls, ground balls. Luckily that is already the Cardinal pitching philosophy; if they can stick to it they will have a better chance at winning, especially in Philly.
3. Catch the ball. Misplays in the field can no longer be tolerated, and they were a big problem for the 2011 Cardinals. Remember the circus sideshow that was the 2006 Detroit Tigers in the World Series? Their biggest problem was throwing the ball. And it cost them the championship.
4. Hold Late Leads. This one kind of ties the previous two points together, because a lot of the Cardinals’ 2011 losses came as a result of late game shenanigans. Kyle McClellan has been left off the roster for this series, so one experienced presence is already missing. Eduardo Sanchez, Fernando Salas, and especially Jason Motte: It’s your time to shine.
5. Don’t Be Afraid of Mistakes. Part of what got the Cardinals to this point was their resilience. Lose your ace? No problem. Lose your closer? Someone stepped up. Manager has shingles? Kept pushing. Injuries and slumps? Picked themselves up and played through it. Bad loss at the worst possible time? Came back with a win when they needed it. This team has thrived on adversity all year, so why even try to play perfect baseball now? Does such a thing even exist? Ride the momentum and have fun with it. They’re not supposed to be there, and now that they are they’re not supposed to win. So go show them.
It all seems oversimplified but the postseason really is a different kind of monster. Weird stuff happens. Can the Cardinals knock off the Phillies? Sure they can. Will they? Who knows? But the first team to get three wins advances, games still have nine innings, and each inning has three outs per side. Each day it is once again time to go win a baseball game.