Recapping The Cardinals Improbable Run To The 2011 World Series

Wednesday night at Busch Stadium, St. Louis plays host to its 18th World Series as the Cardinals take on the Texas Rangers. If the Cardinals find a way to win yet another series, someone is going to make a LOT of money writing a book about this team.

They can title it “11-11-11.”

*It takes 11 wins in the playoff to win the World Series.

*A win would be the Cardinals’ 11th championship in franchise history.

*And of course, it would happen in the year 2011.

If the author has a smart publishing company, the release date of the book will be November 11th of this year. Eleven-eleven-eleven. It would make a great stocking stuffer to say the least. I don’t think the author would have any trouble writing the book, because the Cardinals have pretty much written the script already. Here’s a peek back at some of the things that have made this postseason run so improbable.

Chapter 1: Injuries

A baseball team plays 162 regular season games every season. Inevitably, some injuries are bound to happen. A team would be lucky to have its best lineup intact for 75% of the season, or about 120 games. The Cardinals didn’t even come close. Out of the team’s first 90 games… their best lineup took the field together exactly four times. It’s not like they were missing role players, either, we’re talking 3-time MVP Albert Pujols, former batting champion Matt Holliday, NLCS MVP David Freese, Comeback Player of the Year Lance Berkman, and Gold Glove Catcher Yadier Molina. All of them missed at least a week’s worth of games in the first half of the season, some of them were out for months. The second half of the season wasn’t kind either, with the team losing Matt Holliday and Rafael Furcal at crucial junctures in the season, including the final series of the year at Houston. The biggest injury came in Spring Training, when the team’s top starting pitcher, Adam Wainwright, was lost for the season with a serious elbow injury. The Cardinals missed the playoffs in 2010 despite 20 wins from Wainwright, how could they get there without him?

Chapter 2: Stars Start Slow

Albert Pujols started the season batting .128 in mid-April. He finished the month batting .245… well below his then .331 career average. Chris Carpenter, the Cardinals best remaining starting pitcher on the staff, recorded exactly one win the first two months of the season. One.

Chapter 3: Beating the Brewers

The Milwaukee Brewers went all-in to go the World Series this year, and they showed it for most of the season…bullying the Cardinals for 8 wins in their first 11 games against St. Louis. The Cardinals looked helpless against their pitching staff and bullpen, which was improved at the trade deadline. How could the Cardinals make a serious postseason run when they’d have to face Milwaukee seven more times and perhaps in the playoffs?

Chapter 4: The Comeback

Playoff runs are a month-long celebration. Teams and fans countdown their “Magic Number” (the number of wins or losses by the second place team necessary to clinch a playoff berth) as the season draws to a close. Of course, you have to be in first place or leading the wild card race to have a magic number. The Cardinals were last in first place on July 26th, their magic number was in the sixties. The next time they’d have a magic number was September 28th, the final game of the season. Their magic number on that day was 2.

Between July 26th and September 28th, the Cardinals were looking up at teams in the standings. As late as August 24th, the Cardinals were 10.5 games behind the Brewers and Atlanta Braves. As late as September 5th, they were still 8.5 games back with just 21 games to go. To put that into perspective, the Braves would’ve had to win 14 of their final 22 games to clinch a playoff spot and eliminate the Cardinals…and that’s only if the Cardinals went 21-0 down the stretch. The Cardinals went 16-5 in those 21 games… making Atlanta’s job simpler: They needed to finish winning just 8 of 22 games… but they won 7. Perhaps the turning point was September 9th in St. Louis, when the Braves held a 3-1 lead over the Cardinals with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th. A loss would’ve pushed the Cardinals back to 8.5 games behind the Braves with 18 games to play. Instead, the Cardinals came back and won…closing the lead to 6.5 games. The Cardinals then took the next 2 games against the Braves to put St. Louis a manageable 4.5 games back with over 2 weeks of baseball to go.

Chapter 5: The NLDS vs the Phillies

Philadelphia was the odds on favorite to head back to the World Series in 2011. They went in 2008 and won it. They returned in 2009 only to fall to the Yankees. In 2010, they lost in the NLCS… and to make sure they’d return to the Fall Classic this year, they added a fourth ace to their starting pitching staff: Cliff Lee. He’d join Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt. They also added an impact bat in the Hunter Pence at the trade deadline. This was hands down the best Phillies team of the all. Making matters worse, the injury bug hit the Cardinals yet again, and Matt Holliday was held out of the starting lineup in the first 3 games on the series. No one thought the Cardinals would find a way to win…and by win, I mean win one game… much less the series. But find a way, they did. After losing Game 1, the Cardinals were trailing 4-0 in Game 2. No big deal against an average pitcher, but Cliff Lee was on the mound for the Phillies. TBS showed a grim statistic at the time: in roughly 90 games in which Cliff Lee held a 4-0… he’d loss only once. Well… better make that twice.

The Cardinals fell behind again in the series after losing in Game 3… but found a way to win Game 4 in St. Louis and got a gem from Chris Carpenter in Game 5…who held a 1-0 lead for the entire game. In other words, with the season literally on the line, Carpenter faced 31 hitters who represented the tying or go-ahead run at the plate… and managed to keep all of them from scoring. It was a performance for the ages.

Chapter 6: NLCS vs the Brewers

We already discussed the Cardinals’ struggles against the Brewers. They lost 8 of their first 11 games vs Milwaukee to start the season. But as part of the team’s dramatic playoff run, the Cardinals managed to go 6-1 vs the Brewers down the stretch to clinch the National League Wild Card. Now, they’d have to face their division rivals again to see if that was more about Milwaukee coasting to the finish-line than it was about St. Louis finally figuring them out. After Game 1, things didn’t look so good. The Brewers beat the Cardinals 9-6, and looked like a team that would take it to the Red Birds. But all at once, the Cardinals hitters went off… outscoring the Brewers 37-17 over the next 5 games in the Series… including blowout wins of 12-3 in Game 2, 7-1 in Game 5, and 12-6 in Game 6 to clinch a trip to the World Series.

Chapter 7: The World Series

This Chapter is incomplete, but I’ll toss out a couple fun storylines to consider:

– A Dallas sports columnist wrote a piece in late August titled “5 Reasons the Rangers Should Go After Lance Berkman.” At the time of the article, the Rangers had just lost power-hitting right fielder, Nelson Cruz, to an injury…and the Cardinals were 9.5 games out of a playoff spot. Trade rumors where swirling that Lance could go to the Rangers. The columnist’s reasons for landing Berkman included his leadership and familiarity with National League pitching that could help in the World Series. Not addressed, of course, was avoiding facing Berkman in the World Series.

– The Cardinals have often been criticized this year for not being able to string together a long winning streak. The team’s longest winning streak is five games this season. After winning Games 5 and 6 vs the Brewers, the Cardinals enter the World Series with one last chance to string six wins together. It would take a sweep, but it’s still a possibility.

And by the way…five and six makes eleven. Maybe it was meant to be.

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