Holiday Thank You "Cards": 2011 St. Louis Cardinals Edition
The St. Louis Cardinals completed one of the most improbable seasons in MLB history in 2011 and whether you loved or hated the team, you had to appreciate the pure joy the players and coaches displayed as they staved off elimination night after night from the beginning of September through the end of World Series Game 7.
Like a run of falling dominoes, every piece had to land just right for the miracle ride to continue. In many cases, individual Cardinals rose to the occasion to knock the next piece down as Chris Carpenter did against Philadelphia in Game 5 of the League Divisional Series against his friend Roy Halladay or hometown hero David Freese did in Game 6 of the World Series.
But they also got a lot of help along the way and to that, we'll do the Cardinals' front office a favor and send out some holiday thank you cards on their behalf to those teams and individuals that made the franchise's 11th title a reality.
Thank You, Philadelphia Phillies
The best team in the National League really had just one Achilles heel in 2011 (no offense, Ryan Howard - no pun intended, Phillies offense). That would be the St. Louis Cardinals, against whom they went 3-6 during the regular season, their worst record against any foe.
To avoid playing the Kryptonite-laced Cardinals, the Phillies literally needed to lose just one game - the final game of the season - to ensure the Atlanta Braves would have a one-game playoff with St. Louis, possibly ending the insanely-hot Cardinals' run.
But Charlie Manuel and the Phils fell under Tony La Russa and the Cardinals' spell when they lost 3 of 4 to the Redbirds in Philadelphia in their final meeting of the regular season. This staggered the Phillies, sending them into an 8-game losing skid and mini-panic ensued in the City of Brotherly Love. The Phils were determined to finish their season on a high note beating whoever their final opponent was. Ah, it just happened to be the Braves, who were swept.
Had Atlanta won the Wild Card berth, the Phillies would have played a flawed and inexperienced Arizona team. Instead the Phillies forged their own sword and then fell on it, succumbing to the Cards in five games. The NL's monster team devoured everyone but in the end choked on red feathers. Charlie Manuel put the bullet in the chamber, then proceeded to hand the gun to Don Tony. You make Tony very proud, Charlie.
Thank You, Prince Fielder
Many dislike the fact the All Star game decides which league gains home field advantage in the World Series. What is easy to forget is that prior to that, home field advantage simply flip-flopped every year, which is equally dumb, if not "fairer".
Except that up until just a couple years ago, the AL would have jumped at every opportunity to play the NL's best for the right to have home field in the World Series. For twelve long years between 1997 and 2009 the NL played Tina to the AL's Ike.
But this year, Prince Fielder had other plans as his All Star blast off C.J. Wilson of the Texas Rangers (ironically) gave the NL home cookin' in the World Series. And while Tony "Nyjer Morgan" Plush was probably sure that Fielder was giving the Brewers that advantage, it actually helped ensure the Cardinals would win it all. This World Series was so evenly matched that it could be argued home field was the critical difference in this year's Fall Classic.
You're a prince, Prince, and St. Louis thanks you.
Thank You, Colby Rasmus (and Entourage)
Phenomenon. Wunderkind. Prodigy.
These are all words that could describe Colby Rasmus, but don't ask him what any of them mean. In other words, there's a reason why I placed him on my MLB All-Caveman Team last year and why Rasmus ended up being shipped to Toronto in a deal that brought the Cardinals Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, Marc Rzepczynski, and Arthur Rhodes.
The Cardinals apparently tried for over two years to tutor the young slugger with negligible results. Colby's father, Tony, looked into his crystal ball and saw the end coming:
"I believe its fairly obvious that Colby needs to be somewhere else... I don’t think Colby will ever be good enough to play in St. Louis. But I knew this way back."
The elder Rasmus was clearly blaming the Cardinals organization for Colby's struggles but may have simply set his son up to fail. Whatever the source of the conflict, the trade brought a boatload of veteran bullpen talent and a front line, but mercurial starter.
Was it a fair trade? Not at all, considering Rasmus' upside, youth, and low cost. The Cardinals, as an organization, were berated from coast to coast for "allowing" a manager to run off the best position player the Cards had developed since Albert Pujols.
Yet, the Cardinals would never have won it all without the veteran bullpen help that was perfectly blended with an already excellent young group of stoppers in Jason Motte, Eduardo Sanchez, Fernando Salas and Lance Lynn.
The Cards made a trade that any team would make in a heartbeat: a player for a championship. Thank you, Rasmus Family, for making it all possible.
Thank You, Atlanta Braves
The Atlanta Braves were 10½ games ahead of St. Louis before play on August 26 and were still 8½ games ahead on the morning of September 6. It's almost as if the well-respected Braves morphed into the Cubs for one nightmarish month.
Their troubles ran the gamut from injuries to the starting rotation to a stubbornly anemic offense. From hurricane-induced delays to pop flies lost in the lights. And in the end, as baseball goes, manager Fredi Gonzalez took the brunt of the criticism, primarily for possibly overusing a youthful bullpen that included later-crowned Rookie of the Year Greg Kimbrel.
As stellar as he was all year, Kimbrel faltered down the stretch when it mattered most and had control issues that led to six runs and three blown saves in September after not allowing even a single run during the months of July and August.
Another goat was second baseman Dan Uggla. Even with a 33-game hitting streak, the slugger finished with a paltry .233 batting average on the season, which is a good indicator of how helpful he was in the other 128 games he appeared in. And despite hitting 36 home runs, he had a pitiful Wins Above Replacement rating of only 1.6.
Franchise cornerstone Jason Heyward suffered through a clear case of the "Sophomore Slump" batting just .227 on the year. Martin Prado, an All Star just the past year, saw his OPS drop from a hefty .809 to a sobering .687.
Baseball is team game and the Braves certainly failed as a team in September. If they had only played mediocre baseball (instead of going 9-18) it would not have mattered what magic the Cardiac Cards conjured at the end of the regular season. And for that the Cardinals must thank you, Atlanta.
Thank You, Lance Berkman
I remember my own reaction when I heard the Cardinals signed Lance Berkman to a one-year, $8 million deal: "Lance Berkman, Hmm. Nice gamble. Borderline Hall of Fame talent. Great clubhouse guy. Switch-hitter. If we're lucky, he might hit 20 homers if he's healthy. He's going to play...right field? He's such a great guy - I just hope he doesn't kill himself."
Thankfully, Berkman did not kill himself, but in fact did kill NL pitching - all year - and was arguably the team's MVP in a year that included the worst statistical season of Albert Pujols' sublime career. Pujols, in fact, would not even reach the .300 mark until September 16th with a four-hit day.
Berkman carried the Cardinals offense in the first half clubbing 24 homers before the All-Star break while Pujols racked up double-play ground outs at a record-setting pace and Matt Holliday suffered injury after injury.
While his power numbers and average fluctuated during the year, he was always a consistent producer sporting a healthy OPS of at least .850 every month. He was a leader in the clubhouse and in front of the media with whom Pujols has always had a frosty relationship.
To top off his dream season, Berkman had a clutch single to tie World Series Game 6 at 9-9 when he and his Cardinals were one strike away from oblivion. While David Freese rightly was named playoff MVP, it's notable that Berkman led all Cardinals in postseason runs scored with 17, a tally eerily close to Freese's 21 playoff RBIs. The Big Puma's on-base skill was a solid foundation for a Cardinal offense that led the National League in on-base percentage for the year.
The Cardinals thank you, Lance, for being a winner and leader for the 2011 World Champions.