Wow. It happened. The St. Louis Cardinals completed one of the most memorable comebacks of all time when they won the 2011 World Series in seven games against the Texas Rangers. Down 10.5 games to the Wild Card leader Atlanta Braves on Aug. 25, the Cardinals came back the last month of the season to take the National League Wild Card on the last day of the season.
Cardinals’ ace Chris Carpenter pitched a complete-game shutout on Sept. 28 against the lowly Houston Astros to take the Wild Card. He gave up a season-low two hits and struck out a season-high 11 batters. The Braves helped the Cardinals out by losing five games in a row to end the season, the last one a 13-inning affair against the Philadelphia Phillies where the Braves were up by one and blew it in the ninth.
The Cardinals weren’t supposed to be in contention for the playoffs at the beginning of the season. Last season’s National League Central champion, the Cincinnati Reds, didn’t live up to their potential finishing third in the division, 11 games behind the Cardinals and 17 games back of the first-place Milwaukee Brewers.
The Brewers were my favorite to win the Central when they acquired starting pitchers Zach Greinke, through a trade with the Kansas City Royals, and free-agent pickup Shaun Marcum from the Toronto Blue Jays. The Brew Crew already had a promising youngster in Yovani Gallardo and solid left-handed starter Randy Wolf.
The Brewers’ new additions and the Reds winning the Central last year and not losing a whole lot from that team is beside the point that Cardinals’ ace Adam Wainwright, who won 20 games with a 2.42 ERA the year before, had Tommy John surgery before the season even started. He didn’t pitch at all this season which makes the Cardinals’ feat of making the playoffs even more impressive.
This is also a year in which future Hall-of-Famer Albert Pujols had his worst year as a professional. Albeit his worse year as a ballplayer still had him hitting 37 home runs, but Pujols hit a career-worse .299 to go with a career-worse 99 RBIs, just to name a couple career-worse categories for the free agent. Pujols batted about 30 points below his career average and his on-base percentage of .366 was 50 points below his career average.
Pujols made up for his still really good, just not good for Pujols, regular season with a postseason few people will forget. Pujols only hit .240 in the World Series, but his three-home run performance in game three against the Rangers tied Reggie Jackson and Babe Ruth for most home runs in the World Series game. He also went 5 for 6 with six RBIs and four runs scored.
Pujols batted .353 for the whole postseason, an NLDS win over the Phillies, NLCS win over the Brewers and the World Series, and was second in RBIs to teammate and MVP of the NLCS and World Series, David Freese. Pujols had 16 RBIs to Freese’s 21.
Freese had a .397 average for the postseason, including .348 for the Series and .545 for the NLCS. These playoffs were a sort of coming out party for the oft-injured Freese. If not for injuries, Freese would have been a full-time starter at third base last season. Something tells me he has a hold on the third-base job for next year.
The Cardinals’ postseason was also the stage for outfielder Allen Craig to excel on. A pinch hitter in WS games one and two, Craig hit the go-ahead RBIs in each game. The Cardinals took game one before blowing game two. Craig also hit a home run in his first start in Texas in game three on his way to a three-home run World Series. Craig hit .315 with 11 home runs and 40 RBIs in just 75 games during the regular season, so the Cardinals are going to have to find a place for him in an outfield crowded with Matt Holliday in left, Lance Berkman in right and Jon Jay in center. Craig, a right-handed hitter, did start five games in center field this season, so maybe he and Jay, a left-handed hitter, can platoon. Or maybe Jay can just be a good left-handed batter off the bench.
All of that may be a moot point depending on what the status of Pujols is. The Cardinals couldn’t sign Pujols to a long-term deal before the season, so it looks as if he will hit the open market to see what his worth is. The Cardinals reportedly offered him something in the neighborhood of eight years for about $22 million a year before the season, but I’m afraid that won’t keep him in St. Louis.
Don’t forget the fact the Pujols’ mentor and “daddy” is now gone. Tony LaRussa officially retired Monday after 33 years of coaching. LaRussa is third all-time in career wins to first-place Connie Mack (3731 wins) and second-place John McGraw (2763 wins). LaRussa is only 35 wins away from McGraw with his 2728 wins, but said he decided to retire in August, even telling general manager John Mozeliak. LaRussa said all the signs pointed to him retiring and if he was to come back, he would be doing it for all the wrong reasons.
So, with the future Hall-of-Famer LaRussa gone, what does Pujols do? I heard a rumor that Pujols would stay if the Cardinals put third-base coach Jose Oquendo as manager. If the Cardinals fail in signing Pujols, Berkman could move to first base and Craig take the right-field spot. I think Oquendo would be a good choice to take over for LaRussa, and if that helps in keeping Albert, I’m all for it.
Pujols may test the waters of free agency, but I think that he would give a home-town discount to stay in St. Louis. I think he wants to stay in St. Louis and I really think, in the end, he will stay a Cardinal for his whole career.