MLB 2011: 5 Biggest Stories of the Year

Ben Shapiro@benshapironyc1 Analyst IIIDecember 30, 2011

MLB 2011: 5 Biggest Stories of the Year

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    Baseball is a sport that inspires its fans, at least its most passionate and ardent ones to follow it year round. 

    For those fans the 2011 season started on Jan. 1, 2011 and will end at midnight on Dec. 31, 2011. In that one-year span, there are numerous stories. Each franchise has a storyline for the whole year. Some teams had more memorable years than others, but the most passionate fans of every team will leave 2011 with memories. 

    For some fans 2011 won't be that memorable. Maybe if you're an Astros or Twins fan the 2011 season, or the whole year actually may be worth forgetting. 

    For other fans, 2011 will be unforgettable for the wrong reasons. Braves and Red Sox fans own this title. 

    For fans of the Tigers, Rangers, Rays, Diamondbacks and  of course the St. Louis Cardinals, 2011 was not just unforgettable but also memorable. 

    Lots of good stories were written in the year 2011, it's hard to narrow it down to the five biggest, but it's worth trying. 

No. 5: Justin Verlander's Cy Young and MVP Season

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    Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun, Clayton Kershaw, Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson, Jose Bautista. Plenty of players had fantastic seasons in 2011. 

    None were better than Justin Verlander's. 

    Verlander, who has been ticketed for greatness since bursting on to the scene as a hard throwing 23-year-old in 2006 when he won Rookie of the Year, finally put it all together from start to finish in 2011 and the results were spectacular. 

    Verlander had the American League Cy Young Award wrapped up by late summer. He won easily but then capped that off by also claiming the American League MVP Award beating out Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox and Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays. 

    Verlander became the first starting pitcher to win an MVP Award since 1986 when Roger Clemens captured both awards. 

    Statistically speaking the seasons were actually quite similar as were the results.

    Verlander really was great for the duration of the entire season. He captured the triple crown of pitching by leading the league in wins, earned run average and strikeouts. He also threw a no-hitter in May against the Toronto Blue Jays. He was the toughest starting pitcher in the league in April as well as September. Verlander also performed quite well in the postseason as well.

    There probably won't be another pitcher capturing the MVP Award any time soon, adding to the allure of the story. 

No. 4: Derek Jeter's 3000th Hit

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    "A man, a man stands at the plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement.

    There he stands alone, but in the field?

    Part of a team. Looks, throws, catches, hustles, part of  ONE BIG TEAM."  - Robert DeNiro as Al Capone in The Untouchables

    DeNiro makes an excellent point about the split personality that is being a baseball player. It's a team sport, but with so many statistics compiled obsessively through the years, the value of individual achievement can't be overlooked. There have been plenty of great players through the years, but to be truly great, you've got strike that balance of individual and team achievements.  

    Few individual achievements in baseball are held in higher regard than the 3,000-hit barrier. In all of major league history, only 28 players have reached 3,000 hits and of those 28 the only players who aren't enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame are Pete Rose, who has been banned from baseball as a result of his gambling.

    Also, Rafael Palmeiro who tested positive for steroids and then probably further hurt his cause by trying to pin the blame on a teammate, and two players; Craig Biggio who has yet to gain eligibility; and Derek Jeter who is still active. 

    On July 9, 2011 playing at home in Yankee Stadium against the Tampa Bay Rays and facing David Price, Jeter launched a home run to left center field in the third inning for his 3,000th hit. 

    He became only the second player to get his 3,000th hit via a home run (the first was Wade Boggs). Jeter also became only the second shortstop to become a  member of the 3,000-hit club. 

    The day was far from over for Jeter who would go on to collect five hits, including the game-winner. Jeter became on the second player to ever get five hits on the same day he crossed the 3,000-hit barrier. It was a day of spectacular individual achievement for Jeter who has been known as a key part of one big team for his entire career with the Yankees. 

No. 3: The Comebacks

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    By the time the calendar read Sept. 1, the baseball postseason appeared to be almost a foregone conclusion. 

    Detroit, Philadelphia, Arizona and Milwaukee all held leads greater than five games in their respective divisions. 

    In the wild card standings, the Yankees held an eight-and-a-half game lead over Tampa, and the Braves held and identical lead over St. Louis. 

    Looks like a ho-hum conclusion to the baseball regular season. Think again.  

    While those division leaders listed above all coasted to the playoffs the wild card spots, both became hotly contested.

    St. Louis went 19-8 in September, and Tampa went 17-10. Tampa also went 6-1 against the Red Sox, while St. Louis went 3-0 against the Atlanta Braves, who they were chasing for the wild card.

    Both St.Louis and Tampa provided baseball fans drama start-to-finish in the month of September. Both ended up winning their respective wild card slots in each league, and both advanced to the postseason.

    Tampa's final game of the season summed up the drama of the team's September. Staring down a 7-0 deficit in the bottom of the eighth inning to the New York Yankees, the Rays stormed back to cut the lead to 7-6 on an grand slam home run by Evan Longoria.

    Then in the bottom of the ninth with the score still 7-6 and two outs, pinch hitter Dan Johnson hit a home run to right field to tie the game. In extra innings the Rays failed to push the winning run across the plate in the 10th or 11th, but in the 12th inning Evan Longoria struck again by hitting a line drive home run over the left field fence as the Rays walked off into the postseason. 

    Baseball purists can and will continue to debate the merits of having one or, as will now be the case in two years, two wild card playoff slots available in each league, but what can't be debated is that the presence of the wild card in 2011 made for a memorable September.  

No. 2: The Collapses

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    As good as St. Louis and Tampa were in September, their comebacks could not have happened unless the teams they were chasing played uncharacteristically poor baseball. 

    Atlanta and Boston both proved up the task. 

    Boston went 7-20 in the month of September, and Atlanta went 9-18 including a five-game losing streak to end the season. 

    The collapses were completed, fittingly on the final night of the regular season. Sept. 28, 2011. Both the Red Sox and Atlanta could have won and forced one-game playoffs against Tampa and St. Louis the next day, but neither team could muster the needed victory. 

    The Braves dropped an extra-inning heart-breaker at home to their division rivals the Phillies. The game ended on double play by rookie Freddie Freeman. It was a painful end to a painful month that saw Atlanta attempt to limp into the playoffs, only to have the final five-game losing streak eliminate them. 

    Boston took "collapse" to another level. 

    While Atlanta dropped its final three games to the team with best regular season record in baseball, the Red Sox went on the road to Baltimore and lost two of their final three. 

    The last night of the season was the worst. The Red Sox had a 3-2 lead with two outs and no one on base in the bottom of the ninth, but now former Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon failed to get any more outs in the inning.

    Eventually Robert Andino hit a sinking line drive to left field that Carl Crawford failed to come up with scoring the winning run and setting off a maelstrom of controversy in Boston that the team has still not totally recovered from. 

No. 1: The St. Louis Cardinals

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    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.  

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