Nov 10, 2011

Reliving Post-Season 2011 Gives Glimpse of 2012

By Jason Kettinger | Posted at 9:16 PM

I admit it, I gave up. Tons of times. This Cardinals team earned my respect, my scorn, and my hope all in a vicious cycle for the last six or so months. They blew a 6-2 9th inning lead against the Mets with about a week to go before the post-season. They blew the most games they'd led in the final inning of any team in baseball. They are maddening to watch. I have almost nothing left as a fan. I just need to be honest here.

And so, in game six of the World Series, after three errors that all led to runs and a 7-4 lead for the Texas Rangers, trying to win the first title of their existence as a team that made their maiden voyage in 1961, I thought, “It's over.”

My brother was swearing and asking Tony La Russa why Lance Lynn, only equipped for one inning of duty, returned to surrender the leading runs. As for me, I always lack faith. I pronounced our doom, as is my role as the realist yet again.

When Allen Craig smacked a homer in the eighth to make it 7-5, I said to him, “Why are you making it closer? It'll just hurt worse.” When the Cards loaded the bases later that inning, needing only one hit to tie the score, Rafael Furcal's groundout to end the inning surely sealed our fate.

In the final inning, the team did exactly what they needed to do to make a run at it: first and second, no outs. The pitcher Kyle Lohse, batting because the Cards were out of position players, executed a perfect sacrifice bunt to move the runners to second and third. Again, one hit ties the score.

Craig was up again, and when he was surprised by an off-speed pitch with two strikes looking at strike three, I thought it was over. David Freese got two strikes on him as the final hope. A deep fly ball to left. It might go out, we thought. It started to die at the track. Nelson Cruz drifted back on what looked to be a season-ending near-miss.

But Cruz doesn't like walls, and having failed to get back to the wall quickly, he was surprised when it carried. He jumped and stretched, but the ball hit the wall to the left of his glove! Tie score. Freese made it to third. 7-7. Another hit wins it for the Cardinals. But no such luck.

When Josh Hamilton, the drug-addict turned AL MVP, hit a two-run homer in the 10th, it seemed to this fan that the man with the pulled groin and Oscar-worthy life story would take his Texas Rangers to a title. But the Cardinals had other plans. Having scored another run to make it 9-8, Lance Berkman was himself down two strikes with two outs. “Texas is way too deep in the outfield,” we said. Any hit would surely score the runner from second. Berkman got a cut fastball inside. Cut fastballs are designed to jam hitters and break bats.

Mission accomplished.

Or not.

Berkman was ready and hit it hard. Single. Tie score, again! The Cardinals had trailed 5 times in this game. They still needed to survive the 11th inning after failing to win in their half of the 10th. Edwin Jackson had been announced as a pinch-hitter before Lohse in the 9th, and so was unavailable to pitch. There was only one pitcher left: Jake Westbrook. The same Jake Westbrook who'd surrendered 5 runs to Houston in the penultimate game of the regular season, who'd been left off the postseason roster for ineffectiveness. The team had, of course, won that game anyway.

In the post-season, teams can adjust their rosters before each round. The great Tony La Russa must have figured he'd need another starting pitcher in an ugly World Series, so he put Westbrook on the roster. And here he was, in the top of the 11th inning of an elimination game in the World Series.

When he surrendered no runs in that inning, I shouted, “We picked you up in Houston,” — in St. Louis, the fans are on the team — “now you're gonna pick us up!” For the first time, there was a structural advantage for the Cardinals: their final pitcher was a starting pitcher who'd not pitched. The Rangers brought out their final man, Mark Lowe, a short reliever. He'd have two innings, perhaps three.

If we didn't win in the next, we were OK, we reasoned. Westbrook would not hamper the overall readiness of the pitching staff in a presumptive 7th game, no matter how long this game went. The Rangers’ situation could be another story.

All you need to know is that David Freese — the man who dropped a pop-up in the fifth inning, leading to the 7-4 deficit, who made atonement with the tying triple in the 9th, only to see his team fall behind again, he who was traded as an afterthought to the Cardinals for the aging Jim Edmonds, who played at Lafayette High School mere minutes from my house — hit the game-winning home run in the bottom of the 11th.

And so, the greatest baseball game I had ever seen was concluded, 10-9.

The author of the game supplanted by this one as the best I'd ever seen, Chris Carpenter (who'd thrown a three-hit shutout in the fifth and deciding game of the opening playoff series against his best friend, Roy Halladay), got the ball in this very last game with everything at stake.

No matter what had happened, he and the rest of his team had already earned the respect of Cardinals fans. The Comeback Kids came home one last time, to try to win one last game—the 180th of this long season—for the 11th championship in the city called “Baseball Heaven.”

And they succeeded.

Behind the indomitable Carpenter, who pitched into the seventh inning having only surrendered two runs in a shaky first frame, the Cardinals prevailed, 6-2. It was as though the life drained out of the Rangers when these Cardinals answered with 2 of their own in the first. The pride of Exeter, New Hampshire would not allow them to lose. And the bullpen that earned both plaudits and scorn in turn in 2011 knew it had better not fail the angry ace again. One of the more unlikely championship teams in recent baseball memory rides off into the sunset on top of the world.

What should terrify opponents of this team is that they stand to be better next season. Adam Wainwright, who posted 21 wins in 2010 before requiring Tommy John surgery, returns ready to go. Even if the glut of good pitchers is not solidified with the permanent addition of Edwin Jackson, the Cardinals boast a top 4 of Wainwright, Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, and Kyle Lohse, who actually led the staff in wins and earned-run average. If Jackson stays, the Cardinals can have Lohse and Jake Westbrook fighting for the fifth and final spot in the starting rotation.

The big question hanging over the offense is the contract status of Albert Pujols. If they lose him in free agency, the offense is weaker, but still formidable. With Pujols, the offense that led the National League is downright terrifying, especially with the emergence of David Freese (but will he stay healthy?) and Allen Craig. In any case, a reasonably healthy team will surpass the 105 wins tallied by the 2004 team. Yes, you read that right. Questions remain: Will Berkman decline? Will Carpenter have an entire season to match his second half?

And of course, who will manage this team?

The legendary Tony La Russa announced his retirement the Monday following the victory. If any doubt remained concerning his legacy after 2 World Series losses in the ‘80s as bookends to the earthquake-marred title in 1989, and a fluky win with an 83-win outfit in 2006, this 2011 team puts them to rest. It’s as if his leaving just 30-odd wins shy of John McGraw was his way of demonstrating his greatness: Only ghosts from eons ago won more than me.

And so, baseball’s ark came to rest again in the City of Stan. Not in Philadelphia, where it was plain that they were built to win now, with four aces better than any poker hand. Nor did the title land in Milwaukee, whose young, power-hitting club snuck the National League Central division crown out from under the noses of these Cardinals. Not in the Motor City did glory land, though the team is helmed by the great Leyland, the friend of La Russa. Joe Maddon’s upstart Rays fell short, as did the stealthy club in Arizona. The Rangers made their second trip to the World Series and went home empty handed for a second time too, felled seemingly by sheer passion.

Expect them to be along for the ride again, along with the lurking Yankees and Red Sox. But I think St. Louis will take another National League pennant over San Francisco in 2012. As for the rest, who knows? But it’ll be fun.

Jason Kettinger is associate editor and senior sports writer for Open for Business.

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