Yet they were out of contention by the middle of September, in the clutches of a collapse from a first-place tie with their longtime rival, the Cincinnati Reds, and were far removed from being the hottest Redbirds team in three seasons.
Collapse is a more powerful word than the phrase “second-half swoon,” but collapse is more appropriate in this situation, without question.
Redbird Nation is baffled:
How a team expected to swim deep into the playoffs needed CPR, personal oxygen tanks, and a breathing apparatus by the beginning of September is beyond us.
Watching their barroom-brawling rivals run away with the division crown this particular season is a James Bond movie-like bitter and poison pill for die hard Cardinals fans to swallow.
They were 12-6 against the Reds, but their record was an ugly 26-33 against the rest of the division, and 46-50 against teams with a losing record.
Again this year, thanks to a second-half swoon that has become the norm over the last three Redbirds seasons, the Gateway City’s Gas House Gang’s gritty baseball team flavor lost its savor under their now-embattled tragic Cardinal of a manager: Tony LaRussa.
The Cardinals were playing like the best team in baseball from the first pitch after the 81st All-Star Game. Starting on July 15, their first eight games after the break were played in St. Louis against two of the top NL teams: the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Eight revenge games to start the second half: The Dodgers had swept the Cardinals out of the playoffs in 2009, and the Phillies were the defending NL Champions.
After the infield dust settled, Major League Baseball eyes watched in admiration at the Redbirds' sizzling performance.
First, the Birds swept the Dodgers by outscoring them 22-9 in the four-game series. In July, Joe Torre’s squad was still considered the front-runner to win the NL West.
Then, the Cardinals bopped the Phillies in three straight games, taking the series 3-1, and outscoring Philadelphia 23-8 in the four contests.
Then, in the very next series, in Chicago against their top rivals (the woefully struggling Cubs), the Cardinals were dismantled by yet another team that owned a losing overall record.
The Cardinals' August began in Houston against the cellar-dwelling Astros. Houston shoved an 18-4 loss down the Cardinals’ throat; an embarrassing effort that drew the ire of Cardinals fans who experienced the bitter commentary of MLB analysts as well as those from other team’s fans.
But the Redbirds made up for it a week later, by running Cincinnati red—in Cincinnati. This was the “Scrap Series,” where the Cardinals swept the clashes but ended up losing the conflict.
Cincinnati’s cocky infielder, Brandon Phillips, a breathing conflict on the diamond, fired the then-second-place Redbirds up with his comments that I will not repeat here. And when he stepped to the plate, the Cards’ rugged catcher, Yadier Molina, dared Phillips to shine across the line.
Phillips did so and the brawl was on to the Reds’ detriment, or so it seemed.
Being swept by his managerial Mad Hatter in Tony LaRussa, Cincinnati’s skipper Dusty “Batman” Baker’s blood boiled as he was seen bristling in postgame interviews.
The Reds went on a division-clinching run after the series' infamous summer brawl, while the Cardinals started to swoon.
To end August, the Cardinals got swept by the Pittsburgh Pirates and by the Astros, plus Albert Pujols and the St. Louisans were almost swept by the Washington Nationals. In the last 10 games of the month, the Cardinals record was 1-9.
The swoon was now lasting way past June. Even though the Redbirds destroyed the Reds by a score of 6-1 in a game played on national television on the Saturday before Labor Day, for all intents and purposes, the division race was over.
How could a relatively young team with a Cy Young candidate (Adam Wainwright), a first baseman vying for the Triple Crown (Pujols), a $25 million enforcer (Matt Holliday), a top NL closer (Ryan Franklin), and a former Cy Young winner (Chris Carpenter) miss the playoffs?
Before asking yourself “What just happened?” chew on this:
As you know, I believe that the blame has to fall squarely on the grudge-holding mind of manager Tony LaRussa.
Both LaRussa and McGwire are pond scum, and now we see them for what they truly are. Hopefully, in this long offseason, consequences and repercussions will be the result.