The St. Louis Cardinals were a story for nearly the entire calendar year of 2011.
Before Spring Training even started, superstar Albert Pujols' impending free agency was making news. The negotiations weren't going anywhere, and there was plenty of concern that the slugger would remain unsigned throughout the season.
Less than a week after spring training started, one of the team's best starting pitchers, Adam Wainwright, left to get his troublesome right elbow looked at. The news was not good. Wainwright would require Tommy John elbow surgery and would miss the entire 2011 season.
The loss of Wainwright caused plenty of concern for the team. The Cardinals still got off to a solid start, and as it turned out, it was Albert Pujols who was the one major slumping Cardinal through nearly the first two months of the season.
Pujols would snap out of his slump, only to suffer a broken wrist in late June. The injury was expected to sideline Pujols for as much as six weeks, but it only took Pujols two weeks to return from the injury. When he did it didn't take long for him to resume mashing the baseball.
Despite the Wainwright injury and the Pujols injury, the Cardinals still found themselves tied for first place in mid-July. The problem was that their record was only a shade over .500 at 49-44. They shared first place with the upstart Pittsburgh Pirates and were having plenty of problems closing out games with a bullpen that had become a major weakness.
On June 29, the Cardinals released Ryan Franklin who had at one time been the team's closer coming out of spring training and in his place inserted Fernando Salas. Jason Motte also took on a larger role in the bullpen, but St. Louis was far from done.
On July 27 just before the trade deadline, the Cardinals and Blue Jays made a trade that brought Octavio Dotel, Edwin Jackson, Corey Patterson and Mark Rzepczynski to Toronto. The two relievers and Jackson the starter would all play prominent roles in lifting St. Louis to their eventual wild card birth.
Once St. Louis made the postseason, the Cards drew the team that had baseball's best record in 2011, the Philadelphia Phillies. With one of the best starting rotations in recent memory, as well as 102-60 record, the Cardinals were heavy underdogs, but they took Philadelphia to a decisive fifth game.
In that game, they sent veteran ace Chris Carpenter to the mound. Carpenter was up to the task, and the Cardinal lineup, which was stocked with solid hitters almost all the way through, was too tough for Philadelphia's ace Roy Halladay to completely shut down.
St. Louis moved on to defeat their divisional rival Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Championship Series in six games, and it was on to the World Series for the third time since manager Tony LaRussa took over the team in 1996.
The Cardinals were matched up with the Texas Rangers, who were back in the World Series for the second year in a row. The Rangers featured a lethal lineup and some questionable pitching. With the series knotted at 1-1, the third game was one that St. Louis fans won't soon forget as legendary slugger Albert Pujols bashed three home runs en route to a six RBI night and a 16-7 Cardinal victory.
Texas battled back though, and the series returned to St. Louis with the Cardinals down 3-2. Game 6 would go down as one of the greatest games ever played.
Twice St. Louis found themselves within one strike of losing the game and the entire World Series. Twice they found a way to comeback from the precipice of disaster.
In the bottom of the ninth facing Texas closer Neftali Feliz, third baseman David Freese hit a two-run, two-out triple to turn a 7-5 deficit into a 7-7 tie. Common sense might suggest that the Cardinals would have all the momentum heading into the 10th inning, but instead Texas slugger Josh Hamilton crushed a two-run home run off Jason Motte to give Texas a 9-7 lead.
The bottom of the 10th once again found St. Louis staring the end of its season dead in the eye. St. Louis got two runners on, but a sacrifice and a groundout combined to cut the lead to 9-8 and also gave them two outs. Lance Berkman stroked a two-out two-strike single to center, and the game was again tied up at 9-9.
David Freese then cemented himself into St. Louis baseball lore when he led off the bottom of the 11th inning by hitting a towering home run to deep center field off of Texas reliever Mark Lowe, giving the Cardinals a 10-9 win and bringing an end to one of the most memorable world series games ever played.
The Cardinals would wrap up the series in a less suspenseful Game 7 win which saw ace Chris Carpenter once again guide the Cardinals in a key game. It also featured Game 6 hero Freese hitting a key two-run double in the bottom of the first inning to tie up the game after Carpenter came out shaky in the first inning. Freese would go on to win Series MVP, and the Cardinals would of course win the World Series.
Normally that would be a pretty full season, but St. Louis has continued to be at the forefront of baseball news even after the World Series.
First manager Tony LaRussa announced his retirement, bringing a spectacular managerial career to a conclusion.
Then just a day after the conclusion of baseball's winter meetings, free agent slugger Albert Pujols signed a massive $254 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels. His departure altered the power structure all over baseball and brought to conclusion his tenure in St. Louis, in which he was the most dominant offensive player in all of baseball for the entire duration of his 11 years there.
St. Louis would be hard pressed to replace Pujols, but the Cards still went out and signed arguably the most talented outfielder on the free agent market by inking Carlos Beltran to a two-year $26 million contract.
St. Louis will enter 2012 with a new manager and a different personality having lost both Pujols and LaRussa, but the team is also are going to be the defending World Series Champs. Carpenter will be back, Wainwright will be healthy, and Freese, Holliday and Berkman are all still there as well.
It's not likely that 2012 will be quite as memorable as 2011, but 2011 was truly a year no one in St. Louis will ever forget.