Never-give-up Cards finish ultimate comeback
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
ST. LOUIS — This was a team for the crafty, the creative, the cunning. For those who drive with the needle well past “E.” For those who believe not just in second chances, but thirds and fourths and fifths. For those who know you’re in until you’re out, and you’re rarely as out as you appear.
The St. Louis Cardinals are World Series champs. That’s a sentence best read with wide-eyed wonder, because what is arguably the greatest comeback in the game’s long history is now complete.
“If you watch the history of baseball,” manager Tony La Russa said, “teams come back. And sometimes they could have come back but they give in or give up. And I knew the character on our team, the coaches knew the character. We just challenged them to not give up.”
Tony La Russa talks about his club persevering and the road to the World Series title
This was the Team of the Living Dead, and its story will live on for all of eternity in the heart of every St. Louisan draped in red and every witness bewitched by ball.
* Game 2 of the 1912 World Series ended in a 6-6 tie due to darkness, necessitating a Game 8.
So many — too many — teams talk about the adversity endured on the road to a title, but few lived it quite like these Cards. Theirs was a hurdle laid out not in some invented anecdote but in the cold, hard mathematics that lead to fairly basic conclusions. This team was 10 1/2 games back of the Wild Card on Aug. 25. The postseason, let alone the championship, was but a rumor.
Yet here they are.
“We have character,” Lance Berkman said. “We have tough, professional guys who don’t quit. It’s not like football where you get fired up and charge the field before every game, but it comes from inside where you’re going to fight for every last out.”
The Cardinals were counted out rather quickly. The season, as it pertains to champagne wishes and championship dreams, seemed over before it started. Staff ace Adam Wainwright blew out his elbow in a bullpen session on the back fields of the Jupiter, Fla., Spring Training complex early in camp, and all looked lost.
It didn’t end there. Matt Holliday needed an appendectomy after Opening Day, Ryan Franklin blew save after save early on, Albert Pujols started slow then snapped his wrist, David Freese tore a tendon in his right ankle in early August and general manager John Mozeliak called it “season-ending.”
If this is some sort of recipe for success, it’s a strange brew, indeed — one best kept away from those with acid-reflux issues (thankfully, the Tums factory is located right next to Busch Stadium).
But the sheer length of the Major League season allows the narrative to wind its way from A to Z and back again. And somewhere along the line, the Cards became the team they had long ago imagined themselves to be.
It just took time. And tenacity.
The Cardinals trailed the Braves in the NL Wild Card hunt by 10 1/2 games when they awoke on Aug. 25. And mark that down as the birthdate of a red-letter run. You’ll find no shortage of explanations, from the simple to the psychological, as to why or how the Cards came together from that day forward.
Some will point to an event called the Knights of the Cauliflower Ear dinner in downtown St. Louis, held Aug. 24, as the night Wainwright, of all people, stood in front of a crowd of area sports fans, declared, “We’re still in this,” and reminded everybody on board that the ship had not yet sunk.
Some will say a team meeting held before the Aug. 25 game against the Pirates helped the Cards clear the air and clear their heads.
“It was about continuing to play hard, to give something for our fans, no matter if we won or we didn’t win,” Chris Carpenter recalled. “It was about playing hard and playing like we are capable of, not embarrassing ourselves, and also not giving up.”
Some will observe that the pitching staff solidified itself after the Colby Rasmus trade in late July, while bolstering the bullpen and the starting staff simultaneously.
Some will credit La Russa’s leadership, Pujols’ prominence or Berkman’s beneficence.
All of the above and more apply, of course, and that’s what makes a winning team — a conglomeration of characters stronger together than apart. You don’t make this ridiculous a late-season rise in a team sport without belief in your abilities and in the abilities of those around you. It’s the kind of stuff neither man nor squirrel can easily synopsize, though many a man has tried.
“It takes 25 guys to win a world championship,” Berkman said. “It’s not one or two guys. And this is a great group.”
The Cardinals went 23-9 down the stretch to overcome Atlanta. Their September surge was incredible, and it will certainly be pointed to by every future playoff hopeful seemingly out of the running and looking for a light at the end of the tunnel. But all it earned the Cards was a date with the 102-win juggernaut Phils, whose loaded rotation had made them a World Series favorite long before pitchers and catchers even reported.
No worries there. The Cardinals pushed the Phillies to the limit of a Game 5 in the National League Division Series, then pitted their ace, Carpenter, against the game’s most highly touted arm, Roy Halladay, and came out victorious, by a 1-0 count. Next up was an NL Championship Series date with the Brewers, who had long ago outlasted the Cards in the division race but who couldn’t adequately combat an abundant lineup and La Russa’s aggressive relief ruses. And the next thing you knew, St. Louis was home-field hosts of a World Series that only the most biased or bugged out would have predicted pre-Labor Day.
Sure enough, the Series itself was a nightly test of wills. Game 2 slipped away on an Ian Kinsler swipe and a couple of sacrifice flies. Game 5 was a mess of miscommunication that had everybody wondering if La Russa needed a new landline or a long vacation.
And then Game 6. What more can be said about Game 6?
“Legendary,” Berkman said.
Down to their last strike twice, the Cardinals showed the kind of resilience and never-say-die demeanor we try to instill in our kids the first time they take up athletic competition. Some called the comeback a microcosm of their season, when, in fact, it was just part of the bigger picture. The talent was on this team all along, but the championship grit was built, bit by bit, until it revealed itself, fully constructed, on the game’s greatest stage and in one of its greatest games.
Game 7 was the coronation, a first-inning deficit erased and a shockingly breezy victory unfolding. When it ended, the Cards were kings, their wild ride wrapped up in grand fashion.
Pujols was asked what he’ll remember most.
“Just the way that we did it,” he said. “The way that we got in and the way that we finished. We’re the world champions. It’s pretty special.”
Pretty unbelievable, too.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
Proud Selig pleased by thrilling postseason
By Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com
ST. LOUIS — This season came down to the wire to decide the two Wild Card playoff spots, had a postseason during which a record-tying 38 out of a possible 41 games were played and a Game 6 of the World Series that saw the Cardinals twice rally from being one strike away from elimination against the Rangers.
And even beyond that, the 2011 season witnessed the Cards’ improbable run from 10 1/2 games down in the National League Wild Card race end with their 11th World Series title after a dramatic win in Game 6 and a 6-2 victory in Game 7 on Friday night at Busch Stadium.
Following the final game of the season, baseball’s ninth Commissioner couldn’t have been more proud.
“This is terrific,” Selig told MLB.com after presenting the World Series trophy to the Cardinals’ hierarchy in a light postgame drizzle. “It’s been an incredible postseason, incredible in every way. This World Series has just been spellbinding. It was one great game after another.”
Prior to the game, the excitement that was the past two months led Selig to eloquently delineate the state of the game he adores. He began a 23-minute news conference with a rare 8 1/2-minute soliloquy that touched on everything that has recently happened.
“I would not be ashamed to tell you that [Thursday] night in the 11th inning after everything that went on, I told a couple of people, ‘I’m really proud tonight to be the Commissioner of a sport that can produce what just happened,'” Selig said about a game St. Louis tied in both the ninth and 10th innings before winning it, 10-9, on a David Freese walk-off home run in the 11th.
“But it wasn’t only [Thursday] night. Since September, we’ve really had an incredible [couple of] months, topped off by Sept. 28, which everyone said we couldn’t replicate. But you play Spring Training, a 162-game season, a month of postseason games, and it all came down to Game 7. I said to my wife on the way over, ‘This is the one time all year you can say there’s no tomorrow.'”
The Cardinals were a huge part of it. Left dead and buried in the NL Wild Card race, the Cards played the Brewers in Selig’s hometown of Milwaukee beginning on Aug. 30. Selig recalled meeting with old friend and St. Louis manager Tony La Russa in the Commissioner’s Office before the three-game set began.
La Russa is also one of three active managers on Selig’s select 14-person committee overseeing on-field changes in the sport, so his visit was a little bit more than cursory.
“Tony came up to see me, and I congratulated him on his great year,” Selig recalled. “‘We’re not done,’ Tony told me. And he wasn’t kidding.”
The Cardinals came all the way back and clobbered the Astros in Houston on the season’s final day. When the Phillies eliminated the Braves in extra innings in Atlanta, the NL Wild Card berth was all theirs. At the same time, the Rays came from behind to defeat the Yankees at Tropicana Field and won the American League’s Wild Card berth when the Red Sox lost a heartbreaker to the Orioles in the bottom of the ninth inning at Camden Yards.
Because of the two extra-inning games and a lengthy rain delay in Baltimore, all of it was decided in a span of 15 minutes.
“You couldn’t have written that script,” Selig said. “If you gave it to somebody, they’d throw it back at you.”
Selig said he worried how the postseason would top that incredible regular-season ending. But it did. The 38 postseason games tied a record and included 13 one-run games, five of them decided in the last at-bat and three of those on walk-offs. Three of the four best-of-five Division Series went the distance, and the other one went four games. Both best-of-seven League Championship Series were decided in six, including the Cards besting the Brewers, who were once owned by Selig. And the World Series was decided in seven games for the first time since 2002 and only the fifth time in the past 21 years.
“Somebody said on television, baseball has had a coming-out party since Labor Day,” Selig said. “I don’t think so. I think it’s always been there. I’ve said over and over and over, and I believe it of course, that it’s the greatest game in the world. I’ve believed it since I was 5 years old. It’s produced for this country, really, a remarkable chain of events.
“[Baseball] binds generations together. It does it like nothing else, but it takes moments like this to understand it. The game has never been more popular. There’s no doubt about that by any criteria you want to use. But its impact is greater than it’s ever been. This has been a proud moment for the great game of baseball.”
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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