Saturday, October 29, 2011

Cardinals beat the odds to become champions

BY David Villavicencio 

Boy, was I wrong.

After Game 5, I wrote that the series was essentially over. The Rangers had a 3-2 lead heading into Game 6. The Cardinals would have to win two straight games to come away as champions and Texas had not lost consecutive games since August.

Texas seemed to have all the momentum and luck on their side but the Cardinals kept fighting. Their resilience paid off as the Cardinals’ improbable postseason run culminated in a 6-2 Game 7 win over the Rangers to give the club its 11th championship in franchise history.

Last night’s game was the clincher but getting there seemed almost impossible.

The Cardinals and Rangers were tied at 4 heading to the seventh inning of Game 6. St. Louis had mustered just three hits to that point but still managed to stay in the game.

Then Texas got hot.

The Rangers opened the top of the seventh with back-to-back homers from Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz. Ultimately, Texas would score three runs in the seventh and the feeling everywhere was that the Rangers would win their first championship.

But the Cardinals had other plans.

Down to their final strike on two separate occasions in Game 6, the Cardinals delivered a key hit to even the score and stay alive.

”Sometimes when opportunity is in your presence, you certainly can’t let it get away because sometimes it takes a while before it comes back,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said. “If there’s one thing that happened in this World Series that I’ll look back on is being so close, just having one pitch to be made and one out to be gotten, and it could have been a different story.”

For as much as I tore into Cardinals manager Tony La Russa after Game 5, I have to give him credit for instilling this resilient attitude in his team.

”It was overwhelming,” La Russa said. “We were on the edge game after game after game. You might lose one, but as it got closer, elimination games, the character on this club is off the charts. And we are more talented I think than some people realize, especially as we got healthy. But you play with that urgency, it’s a little scary at times and it takes a lot out of you, but it’s really fun to compete that way.”

Plenty of clubs would have given up after making three errors and putting themselves in a hole but the Cardinals persevered and it paid off. World Series MVP David Freese clubbed an 11th inning walk off homer to even the series at 3 and force a decisive Game 7.
Freese's bat was too much for Texas

The 28-year-old St. Louis native was the Cardinals postseason hero. Freese set a record with 21 RBI in a single postseason. His two-strike, two-run triple in the ninth inning of Game 6 gave the Cardinals life. His solo homer to lead off the 11th might have been the dagger that killed the Rangers.

”We all know we lost the Series yesterday,” Beltre said of Game 6. “We shouldn’t have let it slip away. We came back today to try to win it, but the momentum just took them and they won it. It’s not a nice feeling.”

Heading into last night’s game, the Cardinals seemed destined to win the series. Their Game 6 heroics made a Rangers victory in Game 7 almost unfathomable.

But Texas showed their ability to spoil the fairytale ending when their potent lineup scored two runs in the first inning before a stunned Busch Stadium crowd.
But that would be the last of the Rangers’ postseason magic as Freese’s hot bat came through again, tying the game with a two-run double in the first.

Carpenter has never lost a World Series start
Texas starter Matt Harrison would last just four innings, allowing three runs, while Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter settled in to pitch six strong innings and earn his ninth career postseason win.

La Russa, whose mismanagement of the bullpen in Game 5 made headlines, was masterful with his relievers on Friday. Arthur Rhodes, Octavio Dotel, Lance Lynn and Jason Motte were brilliant, holding the Rangers hitless over the final three innings to seal the win.

The Cardinals did what few thought they could.

The doubts started in Spring Training when Adam Wainwright tore up his elbow. The 2010 NL Cy Young runner-up would need Tommy John surgery and miss the entire season. Immediately, the Cardinals went from pre-season contender to afterthought.

“[Losing Wainwright] was a bad hit in Spring Training, and Tony was great,” Cardinals owner Bill Dewitt, Jr. said. “He said it’s not fair, but we’re not going to give up. This is a good club and we’ve got a shot. We’ll just do everything we can to win with what we’ve got.”

It got worse once the season started as All-Star closer Ryan Franklin imploded. The typically effective veteran reliever was blowing save after save. Franklin lost his closer role in April and eventually his job.

Then there was Albert Pujols’ uncharacteristic start to the season. The best player in the game hit just .245 in the first month of the season and dealt with injuries throughout the year. In June, he broke his left wrist on a tag play at first and appeared to be looking at a long stay on the Disabled List. But The Machine missed just two weeks when most players would have missed six.

Finally, the Cardinals faced an uphill battle to even make the postseason. On August 24, the team was 10½ games behind the NL Wild Card leading Braves. They had just been swept by the Dodgers and the season seemed lost but the Cardinals continued to fight and pulled off a minor miracle.

St. Louis went 23-9 the rest of the way and snuck into the postseason when the Braves completed their catastrophic collapse with a 4-3 loss to the Phillies on the final day of the regular season.

”We had a 5 percent chance (to reach the playoffs) with 35 games left in the season,” Pujols said. “We knew we had to play great. The first five months of the season were pretty bad. But it doesn’t matter. We’re world champions.”

The Cardinals would face a loaded Phillies team in the first round and were considered major underdogs. Philadelphia sported a starting rotation filled with aces while the Cardinals were running on fumes. But St. Louis silenced the doubters and advanced to the NLCS thanks to a complete game shutout from Carpenter in a decisive Game 5.

Next came the division rival Brewers. The two teams went 9-9 against one another in the regular season but a lot of experts had the Brew Crew ticketed for their first trip to the World Series since 1982. But Freese and his teammates mashed their way past the Brewers and into the World Series after six games.

The final obstacle was the Rangers. They matched up well with the Cardinals. Both teams had potent offenses and suspect pitching staffs. Many expected a series that tilted towards the offense but the teams combined to score just eight runs over the first two games.
Pujols hit just .240 for the series but came up big in Game 3

The slugfest finally came in Game 3 as Albert Pujols joined Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson as the only players to homer three times in a World Series game. The Cardinals’s 16-7 victory gave them a 2-1 series lead and a chance to clinch their championship in Game 5.

But Rangers’ lefty Derek Holland made sure the Cards wouldn’t be able to celebrate their championship on his team’s field. The 25-year-old was nearly flawless as he silenced the Cardinals bats in Game 4. Holland allowed just two hits over 8 1/3 shutout innings to help Texas even the series at 2.

Then came the disaster that was Game 5. The Cardinals seemed to fall apart in what many had pegged as a crucial game. Mike Napoli, who was the Rangers’ version of Freese this postseason, delivered a game-winning two-run double in the eighth that put his team one victory away from their goal.

Rain forced Game 6 to be pushed back a day and the postponement benefitted the Cardinals a bit. Not only did it force the Rangers to keep their champagne on ice a little bit longer, but it slowed some of the momentum Texas had heading into Game 6 and made Carpenter available on three days rest should the Redbirds force a Game 7.

We all know what happened after that as Freese, Lance Berkman, Allen Craig, Pujols, Carpenter and the rest of the Cardinals did the improbable. They overcame their biggest obstacle, beating Texas on consecutive nights to become world champions. 

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