Greatest Cardinal Teams: 2011
Future discussions about the greatest teams in Cardinal history will begin and end with the Miracle Cardinals of 2011. This odd collection of superstars, pug-faced bit players, and talented newcomers shocked the baseball world in what must be considered one of the most incredible comebacks in sports history.
The 2011 team faced adversity from the start. Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright required Tommy John surgery before Spring Training finished. The team hit into a bewildering number of double plays as the offense often sputtered. After a fast start, iffy shortstop Ryan Theriot dropped grounders faster than his falling average. And the team hit crisis mode as a first-half meltdown in the bullpen saw the early release of popular closer Ryan Franklin. Things looked bad.
But John Mozeliak pulled off possibly the greatest trade since the Lou Brock/Ernie Broglio deal, a massive three-team swap that sent beleaguered outfielder Colby Rasmus to the Blue Jays (along with some failed bullpen arms) in order to receive starter Edwin Jackson and relievers Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski. Mozeliak also patched the shortstop mess by plucking fiery Rafael Furcal off of the scrapheap in Los Angeles, and signed released Texas reliever Arthur Rhodes.
At first, the early-August moves made little difference. The Cardinals continued to flounder behind first-place Milwaukee, eventually falling to ten games behind the Brewers and 10.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves for the NL Wild Card after a disastrous sweep completed by the Dodgers on August 24th. The Cardinals appeared to be finished.
However, behind the scenes, manager Tony La Russa was planning his retirement at the end of the season. He informed Mozeliak and owner Bill DeWitt, and a couple of players. This led to Chris Carpenter‘s dramatic exhortation to the team following their humiliating loss to the Dodgers.
The team responded to Carpenter’s inspirational words with an incredible, season-ending run of 21-9. The baseball gods smiled on their efforts, as the Atlanta Braves folded just enough to allow the Cardinals to slip past them and win the Wild Card on that final, dramatic evening of baseball.
Everyone expected the Cardinals to be easily defeated by the awesome starting rotation of the Philadelphia Phillies in the first round. That didn’t happen, however, as the teams battled down to a decisive fifth game between Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter. The pitching titans battled, but Carpenter prevailed in a dramatic 1-0 complete game victory that will always be remembered among the greatest pitching performances in postseason history.
After defeating the Phillies, the Cardinals took on their arch-rival Brewers. During the season, bad blood had spilled several times in heated confrontations; the two teams hated each other. The inspired Cardinals, however, overcame the Brewers in six games to move to the World Series.
The Cardinals faced a talented Texas Rangers team in that Series, a team that had lost the 2010 Series and was still hungry for the win. The evenly-matched teams battled, with highlights including a three-home run game 3 from Albert Pujols that stands alone among the top three hitting performances in World Series history.
Still, the defiant Cardinals found themselves down to their last strike down two runs in the ninth of the sixth game against the Rangers. They had runners on first and second, and third baseman David Freese at the plate. With one swift stroke, Freese sent an opposite-field liner into the night, a deep fly that eluded the glove of right-fielder Nelson Cruz to score the tying runs.
But a two-run homer from Josh Hamilton imperiled the Cardinals in the top of the tenth inning. Down two runs again, teh Cardinals mounted another comeback with two seeing-eye hits from rookie Daniel Descalso and Jon Jay. With runners in scoring position, Ryan Theriot’s groundout scored Descalso, and Lance Berkman sliced a single to center to score Jay as the tying run.
The game ended an inning later with David Freese smashing a game-winning home run to dead center. With that incredible comeback in the books, the Cardinals had little problem defeating the crushed Rangers the following night behind Carpenter, who could pitch the final game only because a freak rainstorm pushed the sixth game back one day. The baseball gods at work once more …
In the annals of Cardinal history, no team will ever experience the devastating lows and bewildering heights of the 2011 Cardinals, an unlikely champion armored with resilience and flecked with magic.