How the impossible happened in St. Louis: Chronicling the 2011 Cardinals

Nick PoustCorrespondent IIDecember 1, 2011

How did David Freese's St. Louis Cardinals' David Freese win a championship? It was a wild ride. (Photo: Reuters Charlie Riedel

The St. Louis Cardinals are World Series Champions. David Freese got a key to the city. Impending free-agent Albert Pujols had a statue unveiled outside Busch Stadium. And manager Tony La Russa hung up his spikes on cloud-nine. What was once unthinkable had taken place. How did they reach this remarkable conclusion? It was a wild ride.

The Nightmarish Winter

On February 13th, Pujols broke off talks with the Cardinals, turning down a contract extension reported to be over nine years and worth upwards of $200 million. Ten days later, the team lost a 20-game winner in Adam Wainwright to Tommy John Surgery, which requires 12 to 15 months recovery time.

With the news concerning the game’s best hitter and one of the game’s best pitchers, the immediate and distant future of the Cardinals wasn’t altogether bright. If the team struggled without Wainwright, would Pujols be more apt to leave St. Louis in free-agency? Was his refusing the team’s offer a sign that the 2011 season would be his last in Cardinal red?

As Spring Training approached, the team tried to put Pujols’ situation in the background, but it was nonetheless a distraction. And they didn’t make a respectable attempt to replace Wainwright. They didn’t even bring anyone in. Their rotation would feature ace Chris Carpenter, inexperienced Jaime Garcia, inconsistent Kyle Lohse, adequate Kyle McClellan, and very hittable Jake Westbrook. That would be the extent of their depth. The outlook was not altogether bright.

Surprise, Surprise

So many questions surrounded the team. Would Pujols ultimately be distracted by the lack of a contract? Would offseason signee Lance Berkman rediscover his stroke and revitalize his career? Would they get enough starting pitching? Would they get adequate relief? Certainly these question marks as well as their playing in one of baseball’s deepest divisions would greatly diminish their chances of competing, right?

They played poor defense early on and their bullpen blew far too many saves, but behind a balanced offense and good enough starting pitching the Cardinals found themselves two-and-a-half games ahead in the NL Central on June 1st. They were still in the lead on July 1st, with a 45-38 record.

Berkman had surprisingly reverted back to the old days, when he was one of the Killer B’s in Houston. Carpenter was beginning to pitch well after a dismal 1-7 start, and the rest of the rotation was consistently adequate. Lohse was pitching well. So was McClellan and Garcia, with Westbrook delivering a solid outing here and there. Fernando Salas was closing the door consistently after Ryan Franklin lost the position, and their bearded middle-relief was improving by the day. There was plenty to be happy about.

Yet, Pujols wasn’t his usual self, even before he was forced to miss two weeks with a fractured wrist, while Matt Holliday struggled in his return from injury. Center-fielder Colby Rasmus was a tradeable annoyance, the relief core was still shaky, and the Milwaukee Brewers were right on their heels.

From the middle of July on, the season was a roller-coaster ride for St. Louis–one, it seemed, they would get off in late September.

The Trade and The Swoon

On July 27th, with the Cardinals up by only a half-game over the Brewers (55-48 to 55-49), they pulled off a deal that sent Rasmus to Toronto and netted them starting pitcher Edwin Jackson as well as relievers Octavio Dotel and Marc “Scrabble” Rzepczynski.

“We address our needs of getting a starter and a left-handed reliever and bullpen help,” GM John Mozeliak said at the time. “We’re very excited about this.”

“I felt like this was a pure move to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a chance to win now,” added Berkman.

Jackson, Dotel, and Rzepzynski played well for the remainder of the season. Jackson went 5-2 with a 3.58 ERA in 12 starts, Dotel had five holds and a 3.28 ERA in 29 appearances, and Rzepczynski had eight holds and a 3.97 ERA in 28 appearances as a lefty-specialist.

Despite their success in August, in particular, the team struggled. A month after the move was made, there was a 10-game change in the standings; the Cardinals had gone from a half-game back to 10 1/2 games back of Milwaukee. St. Louis was gasping for air.

Their situation became so bad so quickly that on August 22nd, the St. Louis Dispatch wrote an article titled “What exactly sank the Cardinals’ ship this year?”. Within the piece, the sportswriters on staff chimed in with their reasons for the team’s troubles. The outlook was bleak. There was little hope. And then, suddenly, the Atlanta Braves began to stumble.

The Comeback

While the Braves bullpen consistently imploded, the Cardinals won, won, and won some more. On September 5th, though, St. Louis was still 8 1/2 games behind. The season would end 23 games, and 23 days, later.

On August 25th, Atlanta was 79-53. On September 28th, they were 89-73. They had gone 10-20 over the season’s most important stretch. Meanwhile, St. Louis, which was 68-63 on August 25th, went 22-9 the rest of the way. They had amazingly reached the 90-win plateau.

On the regular season’s final day, the Cardinals offense scored five first-inning runs against Houston, and backed by a masterful start by Carpenter they defeated the Astros easily. Meanwhile, in Atlanta, the Braves coughed up the 2-0 lead they had in the seventh inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at home. Philadelphia scored a run in the ninth off Craig Kimbrel, who blew his fifth save in 10 September chances, and then in the 13th to cap the Braves collapse.

“It was exciting, there’s no doubt about it,” Carpenter said at the time. “The way these guys have played the past month and a half has been amazing, every single night grinding, playing their butts off, not giving up.”We continued to give ourselves an opportunity and now we are here.”

The Playoffs

What happened next, in the heart of Fall, is fresh enough–and won’t soon be forgotten. They thanked the Phillies for knocking out the Braves, promptly knocked them out, and sang “Happy Flight!” all the way to Milwaukee. They then engaged in a grueling battle with those Brewers, and ultimately forced outfielder Nyjer “T Plush” Morgan to eat his words, as his team was erased from the postseason picture thanks to the effort of, among others, Freese. Then Freese, who was the NLCS’ MVP, tied Game 6 of the World Series in the ninth, ended it in the 11th, and then had a hand in Game 7′s victory to get an even more illustrious MVP honor.

And here we are. Freese is a hometown hero, Pujols has a statue, La Russa is riding off into the ring-filled sunset, and the Cardinals are World Series champions. Unbelievable.