(I’m sorry for the title. I had to.)
If I asked you all to name the YCPB Team of the Year, most of you would probably say the Diamondbacks. It makes sense; they were a 97-loss team in 2010 with a bullpen consisting of dirty barrels of oil, firewood, and a whole lotta matches, and they weren’t supposed to sniff contention in 2011. Instead, they knocked off the defending World Series champions, won 94 games, and fought their butts off down to the very last three outs of their season. Maybe you’d mention the Pirates through July, or the Indians through June. Maybe you’d talk about the Twins, in a negative way. And on a big picture level, most of you are probably right.
But on a smaller level? Like, how a given team got to where they ended up? I propose a team not many of you are going to think of: the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cardinals entered Spring Training 2011 with a lot of questions, oddly enough. They’d spent most of the first decade of this century being probably the third-best overall team, but behind the loud fanbases of the Yankees and Red Sox, well, their Midwestern ways were never going to get too much attention (aside from Albert Pujols, the best player in baseball). Sometimes you’d tune in to a Cards game to hear the play-by-play guys gushing over the “best fans in baseball” and you’d roll your eyes and change the channel, but the Cards just weren’t that flashy. They were really good, though. They won well over ninety games most years, and their 105-57 2004 team has a claim to one of the best individual teams of the 2000s. When they had a mediocre team, the 83-win 2006 team, they ended up stumbling to the playoffs anyway and, funnily enough, that was the year they won it all.
But I digress. (No kidding.)
The Cardinals hadn’t made the playoffs in 2010, comfortably beat out by the upstart Cincinnati Reds. Before 2011 began, the Cardinals signed Lance Berkman, coming off an extreme down year and looking old and tired, to play… the outfield? Sure, they had. Best Player in the Universe Albert Pujols was set to be a free agent after 2011, and though baseball players are obviously professionals, the hysteria around his free agency would probably be at least a little distracting. In the absolute worst news, though, excellent ace Adam Wainwright – over 2009 and 2010, he’d thrown 463.1 innings with a 2.53 ERA, 157 ERA+, 1.131 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, and 3.48 K/BB, he is awesome – got hurt and needed Tommy John surgery. It would rule him out for all of 2011. With the Brewers trading away their whole darn farm system to acquire some really good pitchers and the Reds the reigning NL Central champs, full of great young hitting talent and a lot of pitching – well, the Cardinals didn’t look bad, but it wasn’t unreasonable to pick them for third place behind those two teams.
It was a weird first game of the season for St. Louis, against the Padres. Pujols went 0-for-5 with three GIDPs, probably the worst game in his entire professional career. Still, the Cardinals were in a position to win going into the ninth inning with a 3-2 lead, thanks to Chris Carpenter’s seven innings of two-run ball and Matt Holliday’s go-ahead home run in the bottom of the eighth. Only, Ryan Franklin blew the save – remember those words – giving up a game-tying home run to Cameron Maybin after two easy outs. Bryan Augenstein, who’d pitch 5.2 total innings for the Cardinals in 2011, would allow Maybin to hit the go-ahead single in the eleventh, and the Cardinals lost, 5-3.
Honestly, it only got weirder the next day. Before the second game of the season, the Cardinals announced that Holliday, who had the home run and two other hits in the season opener, needed an appendectomy. He was going to be out weeks, if not months. The Cards’ offense was now an oh-so-very-distracted Pujols (oh for five! Three double plays!), Colby Rasmus and his weird dad, the dessicated remains of Lance Berkman, Yadier Molina who can hit for a catcher, and then – not too much else. They’d added Ryan Theriot and Nick Punto in the offseason. Were they supposed to depend on them? In the actual game, the Cardinals blew a 2-0 and 3-2 lead en route to an 11-3 drubbing by the Padres. The Padres! It was only the second game, but people were understandably a little worried.
(Also, can we talk about Matt Holliday? He’s hit .319/.396/.553 with solid defense since 2006 began and proved he wasn’t just a product of Coors with his excellent performance in St. Louis. He’s a really, really good player. But at this point – though remember, LEGENDS ARE BORN IN OCTOBER – his career will be known for a. not touching home plate; b. having a ball bounce off his man-parts to doom the Cards in 2009; c. a moth flying into his ear.)
The Cardinals finally picked up their first W in Game #3, behind Jaime Garcia’s complete game shutout of the Padres. I could throw a complete game shutout against the Padres, and the Cardinals only scored two runs, so as much as a win is a win, I doubt any anxious fans were relieved.
Things didn’t improve much by game #8. The Cardinals were just beginning a long West Coast trip, and had lost the first two games to the Giants. In the first game of the series, they’d rallied off Brian Wilson to take a 4-3 lead, only to watch Ryan Franklin blow the save, and they lost in extras; in the second game, they’d had a 2-1 lead going into the bottom of the ninth, only to lose because, yep, Ryan Franklin blew the save. (I told you to remember those words.) These were the Giants! Defending champions! They had walkoff magic! The Cardinals, well, they had none of that. They were 2-6, and had scored 3, 3, 2, 3, 3, 1, 4, and 3 runs in their first eight games. Their bullpen was looking scary. Pujols wasn’t Pujols, and who knew how long Matt Holliday would be out for? Nothing was going right.
They turned it around. Turns out, Holliday, who was supposed to be out for months, came back… April 10. Not even ten days after he had the appendectomy. Later on in the season, when Pujols seriously hurt his wrist in a game against the Royals on June 19; he’d return July 6, a freaky-quick turnaround, and OPS over .950 for the rest of the season. I cannot fully express how completely bizarre it was to see Pujols swinging a bat and murdering some baseballs mere seconds after he’d like, fractured his entire arm. (Note: Some of this may be exaggerated.) Looking at the rest of his team, I’m a bit surprised that Adam Wainwright didn’t end up spotting a nasty curveball to Ryan Howard to end the Phillies’ 2011 season as another bizarrely quick injury recovery. But, again. I digress.
Their offense woke up. In the next few games, they’d score 6, 8, 8, 15, 9, 11, and 9 runs, winning all but one of them, beating up on pitchers like Ian Kennedy and Clayton Kershaw. Take a look at who the winning and losing pitchers were in these two games and laugh.
Of course, all good things must come to an end. And that did in a spectacular pitchers’ duel between Chris Carpenter and Chad Billingsley against the Dodgers. After Billingsley threw eight scoreless innings with eleven strikeouts in a 0-0 game, Dodger closer Jonathan Broxton – you may have heard he had issues of his own – gave up the go-ahead run to the Cardinals. Trever Miller gave up a leadoff double in the bottom of the ninth, and LaRussa, not wanting to mess around, brought in Ryan Franklin to attempt to put out the fire. Of course, 2011 Matt Kemp vs. 2011 Ryan Franklin is about the most unfair thing ever – for the latter. Franklin’s fifth pitch went into the stands.
Not surprisingly, Franklin lost his closer role after that, demoted right to mostly mop-up duty. On June 28, after an awful outing against the Orioles, the team finally had enough; he was released. Franklin’s awfulness with the Cardinals – I’m talking his whole Cardinal career here – will be overstated. He was never a reliever where he came in and you figured “this game is over” Mariano Rivera-style, and his strikeout rates were pretty low, but he normally got the job done. Still, he was absolutely terrible in 2011, and fair or not that’s going to be most people’s memory of him. That, and the horrendous beard, for which he deserves all the crap he gets quite frankly.
Franklin wasn’t the only pitcher having issues early on. Carpenter was mediocre at best. He got the loss on a night his team scored eight runs against Arizona. He gave up seven runs to Cincinnati. After giving up five runs to the Royals on June 17, right after another five-run outing against Milwaukee, he was 1-7 with a 4.47 ERA. Still, the Cardinals were battling for first place, somehow.
The Cardinals were 57-51 at the trade deadline, which was plenty competitive in their division. They were 2.5 games behind the Brewers, who were about to run away with it, but only 2.5 games ahead of the Pirates; Pittsburgh had already started their second half complete collapse that had only just pulled them out of first place (!!!!!!!), though they didn’t know it at the time. So the Cardinals had room to improve, and any improvement would’ve likely helped them in a playoff hunt.
The Cards’ activities at the trade deadline could be best described as interesting. First, they traded for Rafael Furcal from the Dodgers. Furcal was a good shortstop in his prime, with some great years sprinkled in, but he wasn’t an elite bat and he’s one of those players you couldn’t breathe on funny, out of fear of them breaking into itty bitty pieces. In only 37 games with the Dodgers in 2011, Furcal had hit .197/.272/.248. If you’re gonna hit like that, you’d better catch every ball in play no matter where it’s hit. (He did not do that.)
Still, it wasn’t a seriously questionable move. The Cards needed some middle infield help, and they got someone who was available, if far from ideal. Fine. It was their other big move that truly raised eyebrows.
Colby Rasmus was a first-round pick who had been in Baseball America’s top five overall prospects twice. He had odd issues with LaRussa and his playing time, and his freaking dad caused drama too, but in 2010, he’d hit .276/.361/.498 as a 23-year-old. Even in a down year for him in 2011, Rasmus was hitting .246/.332/.420. Maybe Rasmus was a real butthole. Maybe he was an innocent angel, beloved by all his teammates, and it was all LaRussa. It doesn’t matter. Unless Rasmus is trying to skin Pujols alive in the clubhouse, you’re probably gonna keep a cost-controlled center fielder who can produce like that around.
The Cardinals, well, they didn’t. In a deal with the Blue Jays, who were already known for more or less robbing undervalued assets from other teams, they traded Rasmus (and a few bullpen pieces) for Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, Mark Rzepczynski, and Corey Patterson. Now, Edwin Jackson’s a pretty good pitcher. Wildly inconsistent, but you could do worse. Still, he was going to be a free agent at the end of the year, and for that, some non-elite relievers, and Corey freaking Patterson, the Cardinals traded a very good young player.
Jackson’s first start for the Cardinals was great, seven innings of one-run ball against their rival Cubs. But his second start was an absolute disaster – he went seven innings, again, due to a tired bullpen, but gave up ten runs to Milwaukee, including three home runs to Casey McGehee, who had an awful year. In the midst of serious second-guessing – to put it nicely – about trading Rasmus, Jackson wasn’t leaving the best impression.
It’s funny how these things work out, though. Overall, Jackson was quite good for the Cardinals, putting up a 3.58 ERA (only good for a 102 ERA+ – thanks, horrible run environment!!) with strong peripherals. Rzepczynski and especially Dotel were huge pieces out of the bullpen. Corey Patterson was bad even for him, but this had to hurt less when Colby Rasmus put up an outright awful line in Toronto. I still don’t think this trade was very smart, but it will “only” hurt them in the future. It helped them in 2011. I didn’t think even that would happen. Furcal turned out to be above average with the Cardinals, posting a 102 OPS+.
The Cardinals’ situation didn’t look so good at first, though. Milwaukee took off in August, leaving St. Louis as many as ten and a half games out. Sure, the Wild Card exists, but the Atlanta Braves had a firm grip over that.
On Wednesday, August 24, the Cardinals reached probably the low point. With a 9-4 loss to the Dodgers at home, completing an ugly sweep full of blown saves and weird managerial decisions and blowouts (Skip Schumaker pitching!), St. Louis fell to 67-63. Not awful, just thoroughly mediocre, ten full games behind the Brewers. The Cards had spent a week-plus going just 2-7 against the (bad) Pirates, Cubs, and Dodgers; they had a series against Milwaukee at Miller Park looming on the 30th. They were behind not only Atlanta by many games in the Wild Card, but the Giants too. You could excuse Cardinals fans for not thinking they were going much of anywhere.
Funny how quickly things turn in baseball. The Milwaukee series went pretty darn spectacularly for the Cardinals. After St. Louis won a tight game to begin the series, Edwin Jackson coming back with a vengeance after his first awful start against the Brewers, they won the next two by hitting Randy Wolf and Yovani Gallardo hard. They’d swept the Brewers, at Miller Park where they had a ridiculous record. This series meant likely very little to the Brewers, who were still over seven games up with less than a month to go despite getting swept, but it meant a ton to St. Louis.
The Cardinals could’ve just given up. That’s what they did in 2010, losing to mediocre and flat-out bad teams down the stretch. The Reds won that division, but the Cardinals handed it to them a little bit, too. This Cardinals team wasn’t gonna do that. In September, they beat just about everyone, while Atlanta crumpled. Early in the month, in fact, the Cards swept the Braves in St. Louis, including a blown save by the previously almost untouchable Craig Kimbrel to win one of the games.
Even late in the month, the Cards slid a little bit. They were playing the Mets, Cubs, and Astros in their last three series, three pretty bad to freaking awful teams. They won two of three against the Mets, but blew a 6-2 lead in the ninth inning in the last game, in what looked like a major blow to their postseason hopes. They lost to the Cubs the next day to give Milwaukee the division crown, and trailed 1-0 to them the day after in a tight pitchers’ duel between – Kyle Lohse and Rodrigo Lopez? Okay. Only, Cubs closer Carlos Marmol had a disastrous outing, walking in the tying run and wild-pitching home the winning run. They may have slid down a little, but they jumped right back up.
The Cardinals shouldn’t have had life in the playoffs. That’s not what’s supposed to happen to teams that are over ten games out with less than a month to go. But they did.
They took two of three from Chicago, and moved on to their last series in Houston. They lost the first game, on a walk-off bunt of all things – but Atlanta lost too. At this point, the Cardinals were only a game back, but they had just two games left. Time was simply running out, and losing to teams like Houston shouldn’t have been an option. So, they didn’t any more.
After spotting the Astros a 5-0 lead in the second game of the series, the Cardinals ended up winning quite comfortably, 13-6. Atlanta lost, again, to pull into a tie with one game left. On the last night of the season, the Cardinals won 8-0 rather anticlimactically, behind Chris Carpenter’s complete game shutout. Ever since bottoming out on that previously mentioned June 17 date, Carpenter had gone 10-2 with a 2.73 ERA, anchoring the rotation.
All that St. Louis could do was wait and watch Atlanta’s game, in extras after Kimbrel blew another save, to see whether they’d go right to the NLDS or have to play Game 163. Atlanta lost on a bloop infield single, and the Cardinals, who’d looked dead a few weeks earlier – heck, who’d looked shaky a couple of days earlier – were going to the playoffs. Their lineup had Pujols, Berkman, Holliday oh wait oops he’s out because he busted his hand, and a bunch of guys who dove into first base a lot, and their rotation was unsure and had Kyle freaking Lohse pitching Game 1, but they got there.
Still, all their playoff berth got them was a date with the Phillies, the team who’d just swept Atlanta to help St. Louis into the playoffs. Even with the skid at the end of the year, the Phillies were pretty clearly the best team in baseball. Maybe their offense wasn’t quite as good as the Cardinals’, but in the National League in this hitting-starved year, it was a fine offense, especially with their additions of Hunter Pence and a healthy Chase Utley.
And even if St. Louis had an edge in offense, well, their pitching couldn’t stand up, not even close. Mock the preseason hype all you want, but the foursome of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt had turned out to be more or less everything you could have asked for. Even if the Cards offense was good, well, pitching wins, and the 2010 Reds had hit just .124/.160/.213 en route to getting very quietly swept out of the NLDS the year before. They had a better offense than the 2011 Cardinals. The 2010 Phillies didn’t have Cliff Lee. Yeah, the playoffs are a crapshoot. It was still foolish to pick against Philadelphia.
Tell that to the Cardinals.
The 2010 Reds began the postseason by getting no-hit by Roy Halladay. It was a pretty appropriate foreshadowing of the whole series; they wouldn’t pose much of a threat at all. The 2011 Cardinals began the postseason by jumping out to a 3-0 lead against Halladay in the first inning, on a Lance Berkman homer. They weren’t going away so easily. They ended up losing that game, but won the next day, coming back from a 4-0 deficit against playoff god Cliff Lee. A loss in the first game in St. Louis put the Cardinals on the brink of elimination, but they’d been there more or less all September. They came back to win the next game, and hey, win or lose they’d forced Philadelphia into a must-win game. Pretty darn incredible.
In the first inning of Game 5, Rafael Furcal hit a triple and Skip Schumaker doubled him home (then, in Cardinal 2011 fashion, had to leave the game with an injury). That was the only run they’d get. That was the only run they’d need. Chris Carpenter, who’d gotten hit very hard in Game 2, threw a gorgeous complete game shutout. The Cardinals had been oddly good when he’d been mediocre, maybe due to guys like Jaime Garcia and KYLE LOHSE WHAT? stepping up, but they needed him to take the next step. The Cardinals left Philadelphia with a 1-0 win over a 100-win team; they’d beaten three of the four aces, beating up on Lee and Oswalt and flat-out outpitching Halladay in one of the games, and ended their season.
The Cardinals had a weird year. That’s the only way to describe it. Their stars weren’t what they could’ve been. Albert Pujols had a down year for him, they didn’t have Adam Wainwright at all, Chris Carpenter was inconsistent, and they traded away Colby Rasmus. Matt Holliday had a lot of injuries, some of them truly bizarre. Their closer was released mid-season. They were slow, hit into something like five thousand double plays, and didn’t steal bases, and they still had the best offense in the NL. They were 10.5 games out of a playoff spot in early September, their team was frequently horribly injured, and they made it, and they beat the best team in baseball. Lance Berkman totally resurrected his career, when he’d been Mr. Astro less than a year earlier. They got big hits by a September call-up named Adron Chambers – and to recycle a joke, I think that’s a video game level – to get them into the playoffs. And I hardly even talked about Kyle Lohse, for goodness’ sake!
It’s not that the Cardinals were unexpectedly good or unexpectedly bad. They were a pretty good team, and even after the Wainwright injury, even if you didn’t think they’d make the playoffs, you probably could’ve predicted that. (Though I probably would’ve thought you were messing with me if you said they’d have the same record as the Red Sox.) It’s how they were so good, and all the strange little intricacies of their year, which isn’t over yet, that makes me brand them YCPB Team of the Year.