Thursday, October 23, 2014

October 23. 1985 - Tudor Blanks Royals, 3-0 - Cards Take 3 Games to 1 World Series Lead

Wednesday, October 23, 1985 - World Series - Game 4 vs Kansas City Royals at Busch Stadium II - Attendance:  53,634 - Starting Pitchers:  John Tudor vs  Bud Black

John Tudor blanked the Royals on five hits - while the Cardinal offense played a long-ball/Whitey Ball parlay - en route to a 3-0 Game Four World Series victory.  With a three games to one lead over Kansas City in the Fall Classic, the Cardinals were on the cusp of their second world championship in four years.

With methodical efficiency, Tudor had this game under control from start to finish - issuing just one base on balls while striking out eight.

Meanwhile, Kansas City starter Bud Black made few mistakes in his five innings of work, but when he did, the Cardinals were able to capitalize.  With one out in the second-inning, Tito Landrum's opposite-field solo home run down the right field line gave Tudor the only run he would need.

The unexpected power surge continued - when 1982 World Series hero Willie McGee launched another solo home run off Black - this one coming with two out in the third-inning.

In the fifth-inning, the Redbirds scored their final run of the night in a more conventional manner - at least for Whitey Herzog's '85 Cardinals.  With one out, Terry Pendleton lined a triple in the right center field gap - then scored when catcher Tom Nieto laid down a perfect squeeze-play bunt.  In fielding the ball, a distracted Black threw wildly past first base, allowing Nieto to reach second, but that was inconsequential.  Nieto didn't score, but three runs were plenty tonight.

Those three runs would've come in handy in Game Six - the devastating 2-1 loss when Cardinal fans are still blaming a blown call at first base for costing the team a world championship.  What really cost the Cardinals was their inability to hit - and score runs.  Credit the Royals' pitching staff for doing their job against a once-potent Cardinals' offense.

With this Game Four win, manager Whitey Herzog still had his trump card available for a possible seventh game showdown - John Tudor - who had been so flawless for the Cardinals in his first two World Series starts.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

October 22, 2011 - The Albert Pujols 3-HR Show

Saturday, October 22, 2011 - World Series - Game Three - at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington vs Texas Rangers - Attendance:  51,462 - Starting Pitchers:  Kyle Lohse vs Matt Harrison  

Albert Pujols had grown weary of the relentless media criticism regarding his poor performance in the first two games of the World Series - especially after Game Two's loss to the Rangers, which was greatly facilitated by Pujols' ninth-inning error - resulting in the game-winning (unearned) run crossing the plate.

And oh, by the way, "Why aren't you getting any hits, Albert?"

To the casual observer - which includes the vast majority of media covering this Fall Classic - Pujols was clearly in a slump.  Well, after going 0 for 4 in Game Two, Albert's postseason slash line had dropped all the way down to .367/.456/.633.  That's quite a slump.

Truth is, the Cardinals were well aware that letting Game Two get away from them could have dire consequences - especially, if they also happened to lose Game Three in Arlington, Texas.

Fortunately, Game Three got off to a nice start, with a one-out first-inning solo home run off the bat of Allen Craig - earning a spot in the starting lineup after delivering two run-scoring pinch hit singles in each of the two previous games.  He now had three hits and three RBI in his first three World Series AB's.  Meanwhile, after Albert Pujols came up empty again in his first plate appearance, he was now 0 for 7.  But that would change after his next trip to the plate.

The Cardinals were still clinging to that precarious 1-0 lead when Pujols got his first World Series hit - leading-off the fourth-inning with a line drive single to left field.  The Cardinals then got a huge break when Matt Holliday's double-play grounder to shortstop Elvis Andrus was lackadaisically turned by second baseman Ian Kinsler.  His throw to first baseman Mike Napoli pulled him off the bag, forcing him to tag Holliday on the shoulder to complete the double play.  Napoli did just that, but first base umpire Ron Kulpa blew the call.

Instant replay hadn't been implemented back in those days, so there was nothing anyone could do except maybe argue, kick some dirt, shout profanities, carry the first base bag back to the dugout, shout some more profanities, kick some more dirt, and get two or three players tossed out of the game.  But that didn't happen, either.

Now, instead of two out and nobody on, the Cardinals had a sheepish Holliday (who obviously knew he was out) on first with just one out.  That's the kind of situation good teams capitalize on.

Next up - Lance Berkman lined a single to right, advancing Holliday to second.  Next up - the hottest hitter on the planet at this time - David Freese - poked an outside fastball down the right field line for a double - scoring Holliday with a gift run, as Berkman stopped at third.

With first base open, Harrison walked Yadier Molina intentionally, to set up the double play.  Jon Jay appeared to oblige with a routine grounder to Napoli at first, but his throw to home sailed past catcher Yorvit Torrealba - allowing both Berkman and Freese to score two (official) unearned runs.  On the play, Molina raced to third and Jay found himself standing on second base.

Another unearned run scored on Ryan Theriot's base hit to left - but that would conclude the scoring for now.  Harrison would be removed from the game after getting another out, as Scott Feldman took over for a while.  When the fourth-inning was in the books, the Cardinals had a comfortable 5-0 lead.

However, Kyle Lohse suddenly ran afoul in the Rangers' half of the fourth-inning.  Michael Young got Texas on the board with a lead-off home run.  Adrian Beltre followed with a single to left, which was followed by a Nelson Cruz home run, which was followed by a Mike Napoli single to center.

Following all that, Lohse was relieved of his duties by Fernando Salas who retired David Murphy on a tap just in front of home which Molina grabbed and fired to Pujols for out number one.

However, Torrealba singled to right field, advancing Napoli to third.  At this point in the game, it seemed the Cardinals were in danger of blowing the lead - which was now just a two-run advantage.

However, when Ian Kinsler lifted a fly ball to Matt Holliday in medium left, near the line, Napoli gambled, tagged up from third, but was nailed at the plate on a strong throw by Holliday.  Just like that, the inning was over, as St Louis was still clinging to a 5-3 lead.

With Feldman still on the mound for Texas to begin the fifth-inning, Pujols greeted him with a lead-off single to center.  After both Holliday and Berkman walked to load the bases, Freese moved all runners up a notch with an RBI ground out to third.  Molina then raked a two-run double to left to regain that original five-run lead they had just an inning before.  It was now 8-3 - but not for long.

In the bottom of the fifth, the Rangers knocked Salas out of the game with consecutive singles by Andrus and Hamilton, and an RBI double by Young.

Lance Lynn was the next reliever out of the Cards bullpen, and he was greeted with a run-scoring single by Beltre, cutting the deficit to 8-5 - still nobody out, with runners on first and third.  Lynn then struck out the menacing Cruz - representing the tying run - on some high heat, for the first out of the inning.  Napoli's sacrifice fly to right scored Young - then back-to-back walks to Murphy and Torrealba loaded the bases for Ian Kinsler in what was now a tight 8-6 game.

With the partisan Texas crowd raising all kinds of commotion, Lynn got Kinsler out on a pop fly to shortstop Furcal to end the nerve-wracking inning.

With the flame-throwing Alexi Ogando now pitching for the Rangers to start the sixth-inning, Theriot drew a lead-off walk, then advanced to second on Rafael Furcal's single to right.  Next up - Allen Craig - who had burned Ogando with run-scoring pinch hits on successive nights, to give the Cardinals the lead each time - didn't fare so well this time around - striking out on a high fastball.

Pujols was now batting - and he was ready for the fastball - crushing it deep to left field for a three-run home run.  FOX broadcaster Joe Buck commented, "That ball was absolutely murdered!"

After St Louis added another unearned run (error, single, walk to load the bases) on Molina's sacrifice fly, they were finally in control of this wild game - leading, 12-6.

Pujols was just getting warmed up.  With Mike Gonzalez now mopping up for Texas in the seventh-inning, he managed to walk Craig with two out and nobody on.  By this time, the crowd was fascinated with the show Pujols was staging.  As if on cue, he launched one out to left center field - a two-run home run:  14-6.

After Texas pushed across their final run in the bottom of the seventh, St Louis added one more in the eighth - on a run-scoring double by Molina - his fourth RBI on the night:  15-7.

The stage was set for Act III.  With two out in the top of the ninth, veteran lefty Darren Oliver served one up to Pujols - which was deposited in the left center field bleachers, for his third straight home run - his fifth straight hit.  Joe Buck acknowledged that Pujols had tied Reggie Jackson with that third home run, but he failed to mention the first guy to do it:  Babe Ruth (1926 vs the Cardinals).

Meanwhile, Buck's loquacious broadcast partner, Tim McCarver gushed, "Wow!  That's a wow!"

After Mitchell Boggs' anti-climactic 1-2-3 ninth-inning of work, the Cardinals had won the pivotal Game Three to take a two games to one lead in this amazing World Series.  Final score:  16-7.

Only the 1936 New York Yankees - Game Two vs New York Giants - scored more than the Cardinals did tonight - with 18 runs.

The combined two-team total of 23 runs scored is the third highest in World Series history.  '93 World Series - Game 4:  Toronto 15 - Philadelphia 14 (29 runs), followed by '97 World Series - Game 3:  Florida 14 - Cleveland 11 (25 runs).

Lance Lynn (2.1 IP - 3 H - 1 R - 2 BB - 2 SO) recorded his second postseason win in '11.

Pujols was out of his slump:  6 AB - 5 H (3 HR) - 4 R - 6 RBI.

The Cardinals would return home to Busch Stadium after dropping the next two games in Texas - trailing three games to two in the series.  Game Six would be played on October 27...

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

October 21, 2006 - Cards Pound Verlander in Game One World Series Shocker

Saturday, October 21, 2006 - World Series - Game One vs Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park - Attendance:  42,479 - Starting Pitchers:  Anthony Reyes vs Justin Verlander

The Cardinals - just two days after shocking the Mets at Shea Stadium in Game Seven of the NLCS - stun the baseball world again in Game One of the World Series, with a decisive 7-2 drubbing of Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers.

This wasn't supposed to happen.  Detroit had already won seven of eight postseason games against the best competition in the American League (Not to mention, they had already swept a three-game series over the visiting Cards back in June).

By contrast, St Louis stumbled and bumbled their way into the postseason with a stretch run so wretched, they seemed destined for doom - at least eventually.  Fortunately, that destiny at least waited until 2007 - after becoming World Champions.

Game One began as planned.  Initially.  After Verlander easily dispatched the Cardinals in their first at bat, the Tigers immediately pounced on rookie Anthony Reyes.  A one-out double by Craig Monroe and a two-out walk to Magglio Ordonez preceded a Carlos Guillen run-scoring single to right field.  When Juan Encarnacion booted the ball, the runners - Guillen and Ordonez - moved up to second and third for hot-hitting Ivan Rodriguez - who hit the ball hard - but right at third baseman Scott Rolen to end the threat.

Instead of being in at least a 3-0 hole, the Cardinals trailed by a mere run when Scott Rolen - who speared that Rodriguez liner - hit a one-out home run deep to left field.  Just like that, this game was tied.  It was all downhill for the Tigers after that.

The Cardinals continued their assault in the third inning.  Game Seven NLCS hero Yadier Molina stroked a lead-off single to right - then, after advancing to second on an infield out - Verlander caught David Eckstein looking at a called third strike.

However, DH Chris Duncan got the two-out RBI - a double to right field - to give the Cardinals a 2-1 lead.

Next up - Albert Pujols, who struck out his first time up - got some revenge this time off Verlander - with an opposite field two-run blast over the right field wall - to suddenly give the Cards a 4-1 lead.

Meanwhile, after that shaky first-inning, Reyes was nearly perfect over his next seven-innings of work, protecting that lead - which grew to 7-1 by the time the Cardinals were done in the sixth.

In that fateful sixth-inning, after Pujols drew a lead-off walk, Verlander had him picked off, but threw the ball away - the first of five throwing errors Tiger pitchers would accumulate in the five game series.  They had some help from their third baseman, Brandon Inge - especially a bit later in this inning.

At the moment, with Pujols standing on third base, the next hitter - Jim Edmonds - drove him in with a single to right field.  After Scott Rolen's opposite field ground rule double into the right field seats put runners on second and third, manager Jim Leyland brought in a relative unknown reliever - Jason Grilli - who induced Encarnacion into hitting a routine ground ball to third baseman Inge.

However, Inge - apparently auditioning for a spot on the pitching staff - threw it away trying to nail Edmonds at home - allowing both Edmonds and Rolen to score - then, on the same play Inge threw it away again, but Encarnacion could only make it as far as third - just missing a rare Little League home run in a World Series game.

After Reyes gave up a lead-off home run to Craig Monroe in the bottom of the ninth, manager Tony LaRussa took no chances - bringing in a new arm to finish the job.  Braden Looper retired the side to preserve this surprisingly easy 7-2 Game One winner for St Louis.

Meanwhile, distraught FOX Network television executives are ruefully anticipating the downward spike in ratings this supremely boring World Series will create.  Another Subway Series vanished when the Yankees disappeared in the ALDS, followed by the big market Bay Area ousting of Oakland in the ALCS.  Then the Cardinals had the audacity to bounce the other New York team out of the picture, while Detroit was on a five day vacation.

Sure enough, this would become the lowest rated World Series in television history.  Much to the delight of the greater St Louis area and other remote points throughout Cardinal Nation.

Monday, October 20, 2014

October 20, 1982 - "That's a World Series Winner!"

Wednesday, October 20, 1982 - World Series - Game 7 at Busch Stadium II vs Milwaukee Brewers -  Starting Pitchers:  Joaquin Andujar vs Pete Vuckovich - Attendance:  53,723

For the first time since 1968, the Cardinals were playing host to a seventh and deciding game of the World Series - but this time, the home team won - coming from behind for a 6-3 World Series winner - the ninth in franchise history.

It was a rematch of Game Three starters - Joaquin Andujar and Pete Vuckovich - and once again, Andujar came away with a victory - allowing three runs (two earned runs) in seven innings of work.  Bruce Sutter pitched two perfect innings of relief for his third postseason save - striking out Gorman Thomas on a full-count ten-pitch at bat to finally end it.

After a scoreless first three innings of play, Game Three hero Willie McGee started a fourth-inning rally with a base hit to center off Brewers ace Pete Vuckovich, who was probably relieved Willie didn't hit another home run this time around.  Tommy Herr followed with a single to right, as McGee easily advanced to third.

Vuckovich then retired Ozzie Smith on a pop fly to second baseman Ganter, as the runners remained on the corners.  However, Lonnie Smith drove in McGee with an infield single to shortstop Yount, as Herr took second.

Vuckovich managed to avoid further damage by retiring Ken Oberkfell on an infield grounder and getting a frustrated Keith Hernandez to chase strike three - stranding Herr at third base.

It didn't take the Brewers long to answer back, as Ben Oglivie hit a fifth-inning lead-off home run to tie the game at one run apiece.  Andujar was able to regroup after that blast to retire the next three batters in  order.

However, he ran into serious trouble in the sixth, which was only exasperated by his own fielding miscue which led to an unearned run crossing the plate.  Jim Gantner started the inning with a lead-off double in the right center field gap.  Next up - Paul Molitor - may have caught Andujar off guard with a bunt down the third base line, designed to move the runner up to third.  However, after fielding it, Andujar threw wildly past first base, allowing Gantner to score as Molitor took second.

Robin Yount followed that up with an infield hit which second baseman Herr had no play on.  Runners were now on first and third - still nobody out.  This appeared on the verge of getting out of hand.  However, Andujar escaped total disaster, although Yount did score the second run of the inning on a sacrifice fly off the bat of Cecil Cooper.   Next up - Ted Simmons - who smacked a line drive off Andujar's knee in Game Three, grounded one to Hernandez, resulting in a force out at second this time around.  Likewise, Oglivie, who homered in his last at bat, grounded into a force out to end the threat - and keep it a 3-1 Milwaukee lead.

With one out in the bottom of the sixth, Ozzie Smith singled - then Lonnie Smith doubled him over to third base.  With that, Brewers manager Harvey Kuenn went to the bullpen - bringing in lefty reliever Bob McClure to pitch to Oberkfell with two runners in scoring position.  Whitey Herzog then countered with pinch hitter Gene Tenace - a World Series hero a decade earlier with Oakland.  With first base open, McClure didn't give Tenace anything good to hit - and Tenace patiently drew a base on balls - bringing Keith Hernandez to the plate, with redemption on his mind.

With pinch runner Mike Ramsey replacing Tenace at first base, the stage was set for a classic Fall Classic bit of drama.  Two San Francisco Bay Area high school rivals - McClure and Hernandez - were meeting once again in the Main Event - with the world championship on the line - and for the first time in World Series history, two "Smiths" scored on the same base hit - a single to center, as this game was now tied, 3-3.

With pinch runner Mike Ramsey perched on third, George Hendrick brought him in with a base hit in the hole between first and second - to give the Cardinals a 4-3 lead.

An inspired Andujar protected that lead with a scoreless seventh-inning, with Bruce Sutter waiting in the wings to finish this one up.  After Milwaukee failed to score in the eighth, St Louis tacked on a couple of insurance runs in the bottom half, to put this one on ice.

Facing reliever Moose Haas, Lonnie Smith led-off the eighth-inning with a ground rule double down the right field line - but Mike Ramsey's sacrifice bunt attempt failed - fouling off strike three.  After Hernandez was intentionally walked, Hendrick was retired on a fly ball to center.

Lefty Mike Caldwell - who dominated the Cardinals in Game One's 10-0 blowout - was then brought in to face Darrell Porter - but the strategy backfired - as Porter got the RBI single to right field, which in all likelihood was the deciding factor in the World Series MVP voting.  Steve Braun followed that up with a base hit to center - scoring Hernandez with the sixth and final run of the game.

With Sutter looking to close this one out quickly, Ted Simmons obliged with a ground ball right back to the mound - for out number one.  Next up - Oglivie - grounded out to second for out number two.

Out number three wouldn't be so easy.  Gorman Thomas worked the count full - fouling off pitch after pitch after pitch after pitch - but finally, on the tenth pitch of the at bat, Thomas took a home run cut on non-split-fingered fastball - and came up empty.

That was a World Series winner - ironically, the only one the Cardinals managed to come away with during Herzog's tenure as manager.

The next time St Louis made it to the World Series - in 1985 - a couple of former teammates - Lonnie Smith and Dane Iorg - would be playing for the eventual world champion Kansas City Royals.  Twenty-nine years later, KC has returned - but a second I-70 Fall Classic will have to wait awhile.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

October 19, 2006 - Against All Odds: Molina's 9th-Inning Blast Sends Cards to World Series

Thursday, October 19, 2006 - Game 7 - NLCS vs New York Mets at Shea Stadium - Attendance:  56,357 - Starting Pitchers:  Jeff Suppan vs Oliver Perez

The fact that the Cardinals were still playing this deep into the postseason baffled the vast majority of baseball experts who thought the San Diego Padres would send 'em home after three or four games of the NLDS.  Instead, it would be the Pads losing a third straight postseason showdown with the Cards - three games to one.  In '96 and again in '05, St Louis took care of San Diego in three straight games to advance to a NLCS which they would ultimately lose - first to Atlanta and then Houston.

This time around, San Diego managed to win one game, improving their lifetime postseason record to 1-9 vs the Cardinals.

Meanwhile, the heavily favored New York Mets had eliminated the Redbirds in just five NLCS games back in 2000 - as a wild card team, no less.  This time around, the experts generally anticipated a four game sweep.

But here they were, playing a seventh and deciding game in this season's NLCS - both teams unwittingly conspiring to ice down a red-hot Detroit Tigers team that had eliminated the Oakland Athletics far too quickly in their championship series.  The team that plays the waiting game usually has a tough time in the Fall Classic - as the Tigers would eventually find out.

If the Cardinals were going to advance to the World Series, they would have to win this game on the road - against a team that had already swept a three-game series from St Louis - right here at Shea Stadium, back in August.

Actually, winning road games anywhere was a challenge for the Cardinals in '06,  as their 34-47 record away from home would attest.  When  the Mets scored a first-inning run on a two-out double by Carlos Beltran and a bloop RBI single by David Wright, the challenge got a bit more intense.  However, Cards starter Jeff Suppan dodged a bullet when Shawn Green hit a bullet right at Scott Rolen at third base to minimize the damage.

The Cardinals tied the game in the second-inning off Mets starter Oliver Perez.  A lead-off single by Jim Edmonds and a one-out bloop hit by Yadier Molina put runners on the corners for Ronnie Belliard.  Manager Tony LaRussa - anticipating difficulty scoring runs - called for the squeeze play - and it worked.  Belliard's bunt towards second base scored Edmonds to make it a 1-1 game.

In the third-inning, a lead-off double by David Eckstein went to waste, as Preston Wilson (nephew of Mets icon Mookie Wilson) struck out - then after an intentional walk to Albert Pujols, Juan Encarnacion grounded one to third baseman Wright who started an inning-ending 5-4-3 double play.

What happened in the sixth-inning is almost beyond belief.

Still tied at one run apiece, Jim Edmonds drew a one-out walk off a tiring Oliver Perez.  Next up - Scott Rolen hit one deep to left field which seemed to be gone.  But left fielder Endy Chavez somehow caught the ball at the absolute apex of his well-timed leap - not only bringing the ball back, but firing a strike to second baseman Jose Valentin who quickly relayed the ball to first baseman Carlos Delgado - to double up a very shocked Edmonds - while sending the fans into an absolute frenzy.

With all that momentum going for them, the Mets seemed almost certain to take the lead in the bottom half of the sixth.  After a one-out walk to Delgado, Wright hit a ground ball to a distraught Scott Rolen, who hastily threw one into right field - trying to start a double play.  Suddenly, New York had both runners in scoring position.  With first base open, Suppan intentionally walked Green, then got perhaps the biggest strikeout of his career when he fanned Valentin on a nasty slider.  Up next - the heroic Chavez - with a chance to add to his legend with a potential game-winning base hit - instead flew out to center to end the threat.

Mets reliever Chad Bradford (career postseason 0.39 ERA in 23.1 IP) worked a perfect seventh-inning - then Suppan finished up his terrific performance with another scoreless inning in the bottom half.

However, at this point in the game, the prospects for a Cardinal victory seemed remote - to say the least.  During the regular season, the Redbirds only managed to win one game on the road when they were tied after seven innings of play.  Strangely enough, that happened in the second game of the season - when they managed to score a ninth-inning run in Philadelphia, and held on for a 4-3 win.

On the other hand, the Cardinals lost nine times on the road when they were tied up after seven-innings.  Even when they had the lead after seven-innings on the road, the Cardinals still managed to lose five games.  To their credit, they did manage to win two games on the road when they were trailing after seven innings.  Go figure.

So here they were, playing the biggest game of the year - in a 1-1 tie at Shea Stadium after seven-innings of play.  Not exactly their blueprint for success in recent history.

A new Mets reliever - Aaron Heilman - pitched a scoreless eighth-inning - first retiring Eckstein on a ground ball to the first baseman - unassisted - then getting Scott Spiezio on a called third strike.  Heilman wanted no part of Pujols, however - walking him intentionally with two-out and nobody on.  He then struck out Encarnacion to retire the side.  Whether or not that strategy had any impact on what would transpire in the ninth-inning is pure conjecture.

After Suppan walked Beltran to open the bottom of the eighth for the Mets, LaRussa brought in Randy Flores to face the heart of the New York lineup - and he was equal to the task - striking out both Delgado and Wright before inducing Green to ground out to Pujols - unassisted.

On to the ninth-inning.  Heilman struck out Edmonds for out number one.  Rolen then grounded a single to left field, bringing Yadier Molina up to the plate.  Perhaps Heilman thought Yadi would take a pitch or two, to get ahead in the count - but that wasn't what Yadi had in mind.  On a first pitch fastball, Molina lined one deep - and high enough - to clear the wall in left.  Chavez would have needed a trampoline to have a shot at catching this one.

The Cards had a shocking 3-1 lead now - but this game was far from over.

Rookie Adam Wainwright came in for the save - but it wouldn't be easy.  Both Valentin and Chavez singled to start the last of the ninth.  With runners on first and second, pinch hitter Cliff Floyd couldn't pull the trigger on a called strike three.  Jose Reyes then lined out to Edmonds in center for out number two.  Next up - Paul LoDuca - walked to load the bases.

With the season on the line for both teams, the most dangerous postseason hitter the Cardinals have ever encountered - Carlos Beltran - stepped up to the plate.  Three pitches later, he was out on strikes.  The final pitch was a baffling curve ball on the outside corner which completely fooled Carlos - dropping about two feet to finish knee-high.

The Cardinals had survived this crazy game.  On the road.  With a National League championship on the line.  On a home run from what was - at the time - the least likely candidate to go yard.  They were on their way to their second World Series appearance in three years - quite naturally, as huge underdogs.

Of course, this team knew better - and they were about to shock the experts one more time.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

October 18, 2013 - NLCS MVP Wacha Leads Cards to World Series

Friday, October 18, 2013 - Game 6 - NLCS vs LA Dodgers at Busch Stadium III - Attendance:  46,899 - Starting Pitchers:  Michael Wacha vs Clayton Kershaw

It was one of the most highly anticipated pitching match-ups in postseason history.  The best left-handed pitcher in major league baseball vs the twenty-two year old rookie phenom.  In the end, the Dodgers' ace southpaw - Clayton Kershaw - would be knocked out of the game after four innings -  allowing seven runs on ten hits.

Meanwhile, Michael Wacha would continue his amazing postseason dominance - allowing just two hits, one walk and nary a run in seven innings pitched - striking out five - as the Cardinals advanced to the World Series in a 9-0 cake-walk over the Dodgers.

It wasn't supposed to be this easy.  But the combination of great pitching and a relentless offensive attack on an arm-weary opponent created the perfect storm:  the Cardinals' fourth trip to the Fall Classic in the last ten seasons.

Not surprisingly, Michael Wacha, with his third straight postseason win and impeccable 0.43 ERA in league championship play was voted NLCS MVP for 2013.  Almost overnight, this unassuming but highly talented young feller from Texas - with a blazing fastball and baffling change-up - had become a national celebrity.  In an age where player's nicknames are often chopped-up-hip-hop versions of their first and last names - A-Rod, A-Gon or Mad-Bum - Michael Wacha is now whimsically referred to as "Wacha-Wacha-Wacha".   Much better than Mich-Wach or Wach-Three, don't you think?

With the Dodgers already trailing three games to one in this best-of-seven showdown, manager Don Mattingly really had no choice but to gamble on using his best pitcher on short rest.  For the first two innings, the strategy had at least kept his team in the game - a scoreless tie.

However, things unraveled for Kershaw and the Dodgers in the home half of the third.  The inning began harmlessly enough when Wacha grounded out.  However, a tenacious Matt Carpenter fouled off a half-dozen pitches before finally ripping a two-ball-two-strike pitch down the right field line for a fist-pumping double.

With that, the Cardinals were on their way to a five-hit-four-run inning which essentially sealed the deal.  Carlos Beltran followed Carpenter's double with an RBI single - advancing to second on the throw home.  After Matt Holliday looked at a called third strike, it appeared Kershaw might be able to keep the damage at a minimum.  Not tonight.  Yadier Molina scored Beltran with a base hit to right - then advanced to second on a David Freese single to center.

Next up - 2014's NLDS hero, Matt Adams - walked, to load the bases.  Shane Robinson drove in Molina and Freese with another base hit to right, to give St Louis a 4-0 lead.  The last batter in the inning - Michael Wacha - in his second plate appearance in the third - struck out.

After Wacha carved up the Dodgers' lineup in the fourth, a weary and ineffective Kershaw tried his luck again in the bottom half - to no avail.  Molina ripped a single to right, then advanced to second on right fielder Yasiel Puig's lackadaisical error.  Freese moved Molina to third with a single to left field - then Adams delivered the knock-out punch to Kershaw with an opposite-field double to left - scoring Molina, as Freese held up at third.

At that point, Kershaw was relieved of his duties, with the Dodgers in a 5-0 hole.  The two runners on base were his responsibility - and both would later come in to score as well.  The Redbirds pecked away for a couple more runs - stopping at nine.

After Wacha's brilliant seven-inning outing concluded, Carlos Martinez (two strikeouts) and Trevor Rosenthal (one strikeout) combined for two perfect innings to send the Cardinals to another World Series showdown with the Boston Red Sox.

Unfortunately, the postseason magic wore off for Wacha and the Cardinals in Game Six of the World Series.  Arm troubles added to Wacha's misery in 2014.  Although he had recovered in time to pitch some moderately effective innings at the end of the regular season, he was clearly far from where he was a year ago.

Still, manager Mike Matheny called on Wacha to pitch in a no-win ninth-inning situation against the Giants in Game Five of the NLCS.  He hadn't pitched in nearly three weeks.  Even then, he struggled with his command early in the game - allowing two first-inning runs to a weak Arizona Diamondbacks team.  Could anyone really expect Wacha to survive one inning against a team that knew how to win?  Aside from manager Mike Matheny?

Fortunately, Wacha is still quite young, and with good health, can be a dominant major league pitcher again.  Fundamentally, the Cardinals are still a very good team, and should be good enough to reach the postseason again next year.

Time will tell.  Obviously, one year - or 363 days - can bring about much change in the fate of any player - or team - in the game.

Friday, October 17, 2014

October 17, 2005 - The Albert Pujols Game

Monday, October 17, 2005 - NLCS Game 5 vs Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park - Attendance:  43,470 - Starting Pitchers:  Chris Carpenter vs Andy Pettitte

The Cardinals certainly have had their share of postseason success, with eleven World Series championships as proof.  Number twelve will have to wait at least one more year, however, after Thursday's disappointing elimination game loss to the Giants - in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series.

Obviously, the Cardinals were already in a three games to one hole to begin with, so harping on that loss serves no purpose.  For the record, the franchise has now lost all five postseason best-of-seven series when trailing three games to one.  Here they are:

1943 World Series vs New York Yankees
2000 NLCS vs (Wild Card) New York Mets
2002 NLCS vs (Wild Card) San Francisco Giants
2005 NLCS vs (Wild Card) Houston Astros
2014 NLCS vs (Wild Card) Giants again.

Yes, those Wild Card teams are deadly in the NLCS.  Maybe don't play them anymore, unless it's in the NLDS, which means they'd have to have the best record in the National League.  However, having the best record in NL hasn't resulted in a World Series championship for a NL team since the Clinton administration (pre-Lewinsky):  1995 - when the Atlanta Braves did it.  Go figure.

Although the Cards have never come back from a three games to one deficit to win a series, they have won four out of the six times they trailed by a three games to two deficit (most recently, in the 2011 World Series).  Go figure again.

In all but one series when the Cardinals were trailing three games to one, they went on to lose Game 5.  There was only one instance when the Redbirds were able win Game 5 - and that happened exactly nine years ago - in the 2005 National League Championship Series vs the Houston Astros - aka The Albert Pujols-Brad Lidge Game.

With the Cardinals on the brink of elimination, their desperate mission to win this game and send the series back to St Louis, got off to a frustrating start.  The very first batter in the game - David Eckstein - was hit by a pitch from Houston starter Andy Pettitte - then promptly stole second while Jim Edmonds was in the process of drawing a base on balls.

Two on, nobody out - however, Pettitte escaped the jam by getting Pujols on a pop fly to third, Reggie Sanders on a fly ball to left and Larry Walker on a ball that barely made it into fair territory, which catcher Brad Ausmus grabbed and fired to first to retire the side.

Chris Carpenter ran into some trouble of his own in the bottom of the second.  Leading-off, Jason Lane singled - then Ausmus hit a bullet that deflected off Eckstein's glove at short, which went for a double.  With runners on second and third, Carpenter struck out Adam Everett, then induced Pettitte to hit a grounder to Pujols at first, who fired to Molina to nail Lane at home.

But Craig Biggio got the two-out RBI with a line drive single to left.  Houston was on the board first, with a 1-0 lead.

The Cardinals answered back in the third inning, when Eckstein singled to center - stole second - then advanced to third on Edmonds' single to right.  This time, a frustrated Pujols struck out, as did Sanders.  Pettitte then pitched carefully to the dangerous Larry Walker - eventually walking him to load the bases.  The next batter - Mark Grudzielanek - came through with a bases loaded single to right - scoring both Eckstein and Walker - to put the Redbirds on top, 2-1.

St Louis failed to capitalize on scoring opportunities in the sixth and seventh-innings, while Pujols' personal frustration continued - grounding out in the seventh - stranding yet another runner on the bases - his fifth of the game - and three of 'em were in scoring position.

Houston seemingly delivered the knockout blow to the Cardinals' postseason run with Lance Berkman's three-run seventh-inning home run - in Carpenter's final inning of work (7 IP - 9 H - 4 R - 3 ER - 1 BB - 6 SO - 1 HR).

With Astros closer Brad Lidge on the mound trying to protect a 4-2 ninth-inning lead, the chances for a Cardinal comeback seemed as remote as remote could be - especially when Lidge struck out both John Rodriguez and John Mabry to start the inning.

Down to their last out, lead-off hitter Eckstein once again reached base - with a single to left - and with Edmonds batting, Eckstein took advantage of Houston's defensive indifference by taking second.  In the meantime, Edmonds - determined not to make the final out of the season - drew another base on balls.

This brought you-know-who to the plate with two more runners on base.  Pujols was 0 for 4 when he stepped into the batter's box to face the hard-throwing Lidge.  After taking the first pitch for a strike - mentally gauging his opponent's fastball - Pujols was ready to do some damage on the second offering - a belt-high fastball, middle-in.

With one vicious, yet compact and efficient swing, Pujols had suddenly propelled the Cardinals to a 5-4 lead - on a blast so prodigious, an awe-struck Andy Pettitte, perched in the Astros dugout at the time of the launch, offered an on-camera "Wow!" for the millions of television viewers to enjoy.  Meanwhile, the ball finally landed on that silly little train track way, way out there in left field.

Ironically, Lidge struck out the next batter - Sanders - to retire the side - all on strikes.  But the damage had been done.

Jason Isringhausen picked up the win with his second perfect inning of relief work.

For optimistic Cardinal fans looking forward to Game 6 back home at Busch Stadium II on Wednesday - this thrilling victory kept the postseason dream alive - at least for one more game at the old ballpark.

But it was fun while it lasted.