The St. Louis Cardinals are headed to the National League Championship Series after Chris Carpenter stymied the Philadelphia Phillies by hurling a three-hit shutout in Game 5 of the Division Series Friday night.
Try re-reading that lead sentence without smiling from ear to ear.
The Cards’ remarkable 2011 run culminated—yet again—with a do-or-die, back against the wall situation and the Redbirds never flinched. Set aside contracts and injuries and turtles and squirrels; these Cardinals can flat-out play. Everything else is icing on the cake.
It really is hard to believe this team has been able to do what they’ve done without Adam Wainwright and after essentially holding a closer clinic/tryout throughout most of the season. One of the oldest adages in baseball reads “Pitching wins championships.” But it doesn’t mandate how that is accomplished. Sometimes a team like the Phillies can stack up a stellar rotation and not make it out of the first round of the playoffs. And sometimes a team like the Cardinals can go with what they have, make in-season moves, and work guys into roles on the fly to make it all come together at the right time.
Normally, a one-run playoff win would sound like a typical Tony LaRussa substitution fest with match-ups being played to the hilt and a new pitcher coming in to face each batter that hit from a different side of the plate. But none of that was necessary Friday night; Carpenter was masterful, the defense was stellar, the offense scratched out a small ball run, and the bullpen got another night off. It was a typical St. Louis Cardinals ballgame historically, but pretty much atypical for this season. Great defense? Great starting pitching? Scoring the game’s only run on a triple and a double while the home run hitters take an 0-fer? Unheard of throughout most of 2011. But much changed as the season wore on, and this Cardinals team is not the same one that took the field back on Opening Day.
So the Cardinals—the team that was left for dead late in August before a ridiculous charge helped them overtake the Atlanta Braves and give them a Wild Card berth on the last day of the season—move on to face their NL Central nemesis Milwaukee Brewers in the NLCS. Does it get any better than that?
Before this year, the last time the Brewers won a postseason series was the 1982 ALCS. And we all remember how that season turned out. So get ready to see Bruce Sutter strike out Gorman Thomas about 100 times between now and the end of this series, especially on the big screen at Busch Stadium. But this series is much more than a rematch of long ago postseason foes; this could be the biggest rivalry week for the Cardinals since the 2005 NLCS against the Astros, if not the infamous fight series in Cincinnati in 2010.
Does it matter that the Cardinals and Brewers split their season series 50/50? Probably not. Does it matter that the Cards swept the last series in Milwaukee after the Brewers were so unbeatable at home all year? Maybe in terms of showing that games can be won there, but again both teams were in very different places then. This series has the potential to be a classic or a bust; one thing it definitely will not be is uninteresting.
The Cards certainly have their work cut out for them, but that’s as familiar to this team as their opponent in the next series. They’re hot, they just beat arguably the best team in the National League, and they are not afraid of any opponent. Their never-say-die attitude has served them well, and should continue to do so in the NLCS. Once more, the Cardinals have pushed their way into more baseball than almost everyone gave them a chance to have. Bring on the Brew Crew.