Deep breath in….and exhale. Okay, here we go.
Elliot Ness once said, never stop fighting until the fight is done. The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals did just that. Faced with unmistakably tortureous odds, the Cards bared down and outlasted the Atlanta Braves with a 90-72 record to win the NL Wild Card. On September 5th, The Cardinals were 8.5 games out of first place. On September 29th, we are a playoff team. Ask anyone in baseball or in St. Louis, myself included, if this team had a shot of making the playoffs in late August and you would have been laughed at. However, once the Cards swept the Braves in September and cut the deficit to 4.5 games, everything changed. There were many nights of comebacks and second chances, but on September 9th, the Cards proved they were in it for real. Facing one of the best closers in the game, young gunner Craig Kimbrel, down 3-1 in the 9th and facing two outs with runners on second and third, Albert Pujols stepped to the plate. Pujols worked the count to 1-1 and then bounced a base hit inside the first base line to tie the score and keep the Cardinals breathing. A loss could have knocked us out. Instead, an extra inning win that night kept us alive, gave way to a sweep and started the improbable run. After that game, Albert Pujols went on a terror. Kimbrel blew 3 more saves, including a huge one last night to set up the Phillies for their extra inning win. The Cards rotation went into lockdown mode and the bullpen proved reliable. How did the Cards really make the playoffs? They finished the season 23-8, including 8 wins against the Brewers, Braves and Phillies. The Braves finished 9-18 and collapsed, blowing a 10.5 game lead they held on August 25th. Once again, the fight isn’t over until the fighting is done. While I grew despondent at times with the team, I never quit watching them and never lost hope. While their comeback was amazing, it’s surreal and hasn’t settled in yet. I woke up today late for work and in a mad rush, so I couldn’t soak in the slow pleasing pleasure of a ride to work knowing my team is in. As the hours roll by, I will sit here in wonder and amazed at my team. How did it happen, precisely? Allow me to explain.
The Recap-The Cardinals scored 5 runs in the first inning, added 3 more and easily dispatched the Astros 8-0 in less than 2.5 hours. Chris Carpenter took the big lead and shut the door like only an ace of the rotation could. Carp threw a complete game shutout, allowed 6 hits, and struck out 11 against only one walk. Carp dominated on the most important night of the year. Carpenter’s individual comeback, along with Pujols’, was impressive and worth the reward. After starting 1-7 through mid June, Carp finished 10-2 with a 2.29 ERA. The Cardinals used RBI hits from Pujols, Berkman, Freese and a late home run by Allen Craig to propel them to victory, but Carpenter was the engine behind the strong finish. When in need, true ace’s stand up. This is exactly what the Cards had to do against the horrible Astros. Get a big lead, throw the arm on the mound and punch this team in the mouth quick to strangle the momentum of the evening. The Cards victory was never in doubt after the first few innings where Carp looked filthy good.
Smaller Highlights of the Game-
*Allen Craig sure makes the absence of Matt Holliday sting less. Craig has done nothing but hit clutch home runs, collect a .315 BA and drive in nearly 50 runs in only 95 games played. Craig finished with 11 home runs and 50 RBI in a bench role. He gives you plenty of options next season. An exciting young talent.
*Nick Punto and Craig came up huge in the Astros series. In the last 2 games, Punto and Craig combined to go 11-16 with three home runs and 5 extra base hits. Teams win games when their bench players can perform as well or better than the players they replaced. When Rafael Furcal and Holliday went down Monday, Punto and Craig stepped up in a huge way and helped this team secure a playoff spot.
*The bullpen gets a full night’s rest for the first time in weeks. There aren’t too many complete gamers on the pitching staff, so the bullpen rest is vital before a playoff series.
Looking forward to The Phillies
*The rotation has to be Kyle Lohse, Edwin Jackson, Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia and Lohse for the five game set. There is no way you can let Jake Westbrook work a playoff game with his inconsistent arm. Short playoff rounds only need to carry 4 starters, so Jake will hit the bullpen for the Phillies series. Lohse shut down the Phillies twice during the 2nd half and had a great second half all together. He is a good candidate to get the ball twice because that’s the way the rest fits in. Garcia’s start needs to be scheduled at home and not in Philly.
*While Albert Pujols finished up the season right below .300 and a RBI shy of 100, he still needs to contribute big hits in this Phillies series. The Cardinals amazing September finish coincided with AP enjoying one of his best months ever. When AP is on, the lineup is destructive. If he comes up short in Philly, this will also.
*Cliff Lee scares me more than Halladay or Hamels. Lee has as good of pitches and the right mentality to start a playoff game. His stats are the strongest in the postseason and when he is on, the rest is history. Lee pitches game 1. The Cardinals will be tested right out of the gate.
*Craig blasted two homers off Cole Hamels on two badly timed pitches during the Sunday night game last week. Craig is an integral part of the lineup and that includes going against Hamels, who is a great pitcher but one that makes key mistakes(example being Dan Uggla’s 0-2 bomb last night).
*Matt Holliday and Rafael Furcal’s health are in question, but if they aren’t completely healthy, there’s no reason to push. Punto and Craig are doing a fine job and don’t need to be pushed off by a hurting regular player. Holliday can’t throw a baseball and Furcal can’t run. Sit them down if needed.
*The starting pitching is key and the lineup has to produce, but to me its the bullpen which comes under fire this month. Can Motte close games effectively? Will La Russa overuse Motte and not use Boggs, who pitched well against Houston? How many innings will Salas pitch, or will Sanchez(Tuesday’s winner) be able to help him? Who gets the ball first, Rhodes or Rzep? In my case, hopefully neither because they aren’t good lately.
*Do the Cards have a chance? Sure they do. All a team has to do is get into the postseason and let it rip. I’m smelling a 2006 style of play this fall from the Redbirds. Barely crawl into the postseason and then play your best baseball. Win or lose, the comeback was incredible and the Cards saved their best play for last. We were 6-3 against the Phillies in 2011, and played them very well in Philidephia two weeks ago. The Cardinals have a chance to make things happen here or make life a living hell for Charlie Manuel and his troops. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were beaten up but I also wouldn’t rule out a well played series. With this team, it’s so hard to predict a result. Facing Halladay, Lee and Hamels doesn’t faze me. Good pitching can be defeated. The small things worry me. Philly getting hot over the week. La Russa’s lack of confidence in his bullpen arms. The Tony mind games. What will get in the Cards way? Their manager or their play?
The Wrapup of the Cards regular season finish–
Allow me to throw something back here as I fight off a nap, handle the kid and prepare to add more juicy bits to my already forming Comeback Cards blog. I’ll call this the finishing touch. Mea Culpa indeed. The Cardinals surprised all of us, including me, who drew the sunniest outcome for them all the way back in April.
There are reasons for everything, so here is my quick list of reasons why the Cards came back and stole the wild card-
1.)Atlanta let them back in the house. I always imagined a final month surge as a family keeping their house safe and protected. The Braves had a 10.5 game lead heading into the end of August, and that seemed stable enough to seal the deal. However, they played horrible all around baseball and let The Cards slam right through the front door. Their pitching fell apart after injuries, their closer imploded and their offense couldn’t score runs. The Cards basically did the opposite. Hit with power, pitched great out of the gate and found their young closer in Motte. The Braves and Cards flip flopped fates. I’ll take it.
2.)You can’t count out the work of Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman in September. Both hit .360 plus and slugged homers and game changing hits during Matt Holliday’s sixth absence due to moth head and back cold. Pujols has always been a late season strong finisher, and Berkman supported him on his off nights. These two provided the basis of a foundation for our run production.
3.)The Bench kicked it up a notch. Nick Punto filling in for Furcal and slapping hits around the yard. Allen Craig hitting homer after homer in big games. Daniel Descalso filling in on defense. Adron Chambers and Tyler Greene giving us the speed factor late in games. With the large amount of injuries, the bench had to come through and did. Big plus.
4.)The starters shut it down in the final 3 weeks. Cards starters sported a 3.20 ERA and pounded out quality start after quality start. Carpenter, Jackson and a man named Kyle Lohse(2 huge starts in September) held up the weight while Garcia and Westbrook wandered.
5.)La Russa is a mad man crazy methodically insecure bitch, but he kept the ship moving, made some strong moves and created his own brand of crazy. I won’t give him too much credit but he did stir this team in the right direction in the crucial stretch.
6.)Jason Motte closed 9 of 11 games in the clutch hour as well. After setting a record of flawless pitching from June 23rd through September 6th, Motte took over the closer role, ran into exhaustion and growing pains but got the job done. He came a long way from April of 2009 to September of 2011. Big gain for this team in getting a closer.
7.)The defense improved. Furcal coming in at short. Jay coming in at center, and DD and Punto filling out the edges. Berkman played well in right field, and the errors were minimized in the last month.
We can dwell on things like double plays, blown saves, micromanaging leadership, starter wear and tear, but during the last month the Cardinals played their best baseball. Small things like Ryan Theriot becoming the ultimate late inning pinch hit threat helped. The return of Eduardo Sanchez this week. Chris Carpenter going 10-2 in the second half. Pujols coming back. Berkman finishing strong after a dry period in July and August. My friends, we can all lay down our picks in April, reestablish those ideas in July, August and September, but the team we watch and torture ourselves over controls the true cards. Predictions are halfhearted attempts at a GOD complex. This Cardinals team was the most frustrating group because they drove in so many directions throughout the year. When they traded Colby, they were in first place. A month after the deal, we were in 2nd place and buried. Two months and two days later(today), we are wild card champions. That’s baseball. That’s life. How did this team do it? Putting all the pieces together and getting a little help from the Braves. The 2011 Cardinals never gave up. They just kept on fighting. A never say die spirit that wasn’t always distributing a pretty display each night and game, but one that got stronger as the season got shorter. This is a special year because we will remember the hard times and stressful moments to go with the end result. We bleed this year and got a huge payoff.
Wednesday night, September 28th, was one of the greatest moments in baseball. The Red Sox, picked to walk to the World Series, dropped the ball horribly in September and were beaten by the Orioles in the clutch hour while the left for dead small salary Moneyball team Tampa Bay came back from a 7-0 deficit to win on a walkoff and steal the AL Wildcard. A dream of mine is seeing the Cards and Rays, the forgotten teams, battling for the World Series.
It’s easy to say the Cards face a tough challenge in the Phillies. Would they have it any other way this season? Facing Cliff Lee and the Phillies in Game 1 on Saturday is exactly what the Cardinals need and the perfect spot to shock the world again. Was this playoff entrance more thrilling than 2004, 2005, or 2006? I believe it was because of the manner in which they plowed towards it. Unpredictable, entertaining, heartbreaking and unforgettable. Years from now, I can tell my son Vincent that when he was born the Cardinals completed a highly improbable and thrilling comeback that the sport hasn’t seen in years right as he turned 2 weeks old.
Hey everyone, the St. Louis Cardinals are in the playoffs. Repeat that a few times until it sticks. What am I going to do on my night off from The Rogues in Red? Go watch Moneyball, a film about a renegade GM(Billy Beane) who figured out a different way to build a major league baseball team and make it into the playoffs. A fitting way to spend my time before the Cards make their desperate walk through October. The hardest part is over for the Cardinals. All a team has to do is get into the playoffs. From there, it’s anyone’s game.
That’s all I have for now. The surreal nature of this playoff ticket is settling in as we speak. All day, I have fought off sleep deprivation, tried to keep myself busy and not fall asleep on my forklift. It’s still a pleasure to hear on the radio that the Cards made it in. Unbelievable in fact.
Now, I am going to relax and let my eyes close for a few minutes. The past 24 hours has felt like a jet lagged trip on a french train. A lot of speed and no in between pauses. Here’s to the small plunge back into reality. I am not pinching myself but I do suggest a tiny reminder that what I am seeing is real.
So long for just a little while,