A little over two weeks ago, Barry Zito - an unlikely hero - pitched the San Francisco Giants back into the National League Championship Series, winning Game Five over the Cardinals at Busch Stadium, and sending the two teams back to San Francisco for the final two blowouts. Zito's surprising win over the Redbirds was the first of seven consecutive postseason victories San Francisco would compile en route to their second World Championship in the last three seasons.
For the Cardinals, it was a bitter disappointment; ending their postseason dream of successfully defending a World Championship which nobody outside of the St Louis organization thought possible to begin with. Just when so many of the naysayers finally jumped on the Redbirds' bandwagon, those magical bats - which carried them past Atlanta, then Washington DC, and through the early contests with San Francisco - were abruptly neutralized by the Giants' three hottest pitchers: the aforementioned Zito, then Vogelsong and Cain. All pitched brilliantly in the NLCS, and carried that momentum into a World Series four-game sweep of a Detroit Tigers team most baseball analysts predicted would do the "sweeping". They were wrong again (See: 2006 World Series).
Meanwhile, back in Cardinal Nation, the frustration of getting within one win from an eighteenth World Series appearance - and four wins away from their 12th World Championship - had players and fans alike shaking their heads in disbelief. Perhaps many of those disheartened souls don't remember what happened in 1968; or 1985; maybe not even 1996? Perhaps they just remember the last time the Cardinals held a three games to one postseason advantage - over the Detroit Tigers, in the 2006 World Series. Of course, that story had a happy ending, with St Louis taking care of business at home, winning three straight to clinch their 10th World Championship in just five games. Believe it or not, I never felt comfortable about that favorable outcome until that last out was recorded in Game Five. Here's why:
The Cardinals have actually blown more 3 games to 1 postseason leads than not; and more than any other MLB team. After their most recent meltdown against the newly crowned World Champions - the Redbirds, in their long and glorious history - have now blown four, while only winning three, after holding that seemingly insurmountable three games to one postseason advantage. To get a better understanding of what went wrong, let's examine the crime scenes:
1968 WORLD SERIES VS DETROIT TIGERS - Strangely enough, it was the Detroit Tigers who trailed Bob Gibson and the St Louis Cardinals in the 1968 World Series, three games to one, but proceeded to win the final three games of that Fall Classic; including the Game Seven shocker, when Mickey Lolich out-dueled the Great Gibson in front of 54,692 stunned Cardinals' fans at Busch Stadium. As I skipped a day of drudgery from Kirkwood High School to watch what was surely going to be another Gibson triumph on national television; in a little more than two hours, had evolved into a numbing defeat; the first of its kind for Cardinal fans:
*This was the first time in franchise history the team had ever coughed up a three games to one advantage in the World Series to lose.
*This was the first time in Bob Gibson's history that he had ever lost a World Series - Game Seven. He prevailed in 1964 over the mighty New York Yankees; and three years later, pitched brilliantly and even hit a home run to beat the Boston Red Sox by a score of 7-2 at Fenway Park, in front of 35,188 stunned fans. With Game Seven in '68 being played at Busch Stadium, the thought of losing never even crossed my mind; nor the minds of most other Redbird fans, for that matter.
1985 WORLD SERIES VS KANSAS CITY ROYALS - If anything, blowing a three games to one World Series advantage in the cross-state I-70 showdown with the Royals seemed even more improbable than what had occurred seventeen years earlier; especially after St Louis won the first two games on the road. Until that time, no team in World Series history had ever lost the first two games at home, and then gone on to win it all; of course, that's exactly what happened. When the Royals won two out of three at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals were forced into a return trip to KC to capture title number ten; but we all know what happened in Games Six and Seven. Kansas City won their first World Championship instead, while St Louis would have to wait another 21 years to get that tenth title.
1996 NLCS VS ATLANTA BRAVES - In Tony LaRussa's first year as manager, the NL Central champion Cardinals somehow grabbed a quick three games to one NLCS advantage over the defending World Champion Braves. Coming off an exciting comeback win in Game Four didn't give the Cardinals enough momentum to overcome a clearly superior Atlanta pitching staff, which allowed just one run over those last three games. Nor could they stop an offense that put crooked numbers on the scoreboard at an alarming rate; the Braves scored 32 runs in that span, featuring a 15-0 annihilation in that final debacle. Although this setback was a disappointment, it came as no big surprise. After all, the Cards fell to three future Hall of Fame hurlers - Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine - and a ferocious lineup that seemed to be able to score at will. The over-matched Redbirds were fortunate to have extended the series for the full seven games.
2012 NLCS VS SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS - Well, at least the Cardinals made a bit of progress, as rookie manager Mike Matheny led his Wild Card team into the postseason, all the way to the NLCS; this time losing those final three games of the series by a composite 20-1 margin; a twelve-run improvement! Still, the last three "Game Sevens" produced no runs for the Redbirds; lots of runs for their opponents; thirty-nine, to be exact. All told, St Louis was outscored 93-9 in Games 5-6-7 by the postseason quartet of Detroit/Kansas City/Atlanta/San Francisco. If someone is going to draw up a blueprint for blowing a three-games-to-one postseason lead, getting outscored 93-9 by four teams works quite well.
So much for rehashing epic collapses. How about some remarkable postseason comebacks? No, the Cardinals have never been down three games to one and successfully overcome that deficit to win a best-of-seven postseason series; but they've perfected the art of coming back when trailing three games to TWO. And that ain't bad. Here's a quick summary of how things played out (and where Series ended) when the Redbirds faced a three games to two postseason series deficit (They've had a lot of experience in these situations - 9 different times):
1926 vs New York Yankees - STL Wins Series (Home)
1930 vs Philadelphia Athletics - STL Loses Series in 6 Games (Away)
1934 vs Detroit Tigers - STL Wins Series (Away)
1946 vs Boston Red Sox - STL Wins Series (Home)
1982 vs Milwaukee Brewers - STL Wins Series (Home)
1987 vs San Francisco Giants - STL Wins Series (Home)
2004 vs Houston Astros - STL Wins Series (Home)
2005 vs Houston Astros - STL Loses Series in 6 Games (Home)
2011 vs Texas Rangers - STL Wins Series (Home)
From their very first World Championship in 1926 to their most recent title in 2011 - and five other times in between - the Cardinals have managed to overcome seven out of nine 3-games-to-2 deficits; six out of seven comebacks were finished off at home for Games Six and Seven. That's a pretty impressive postseason resume for St Louis, after all.
If this kind of stuff fascinates you as much as me, check out my two books on Cards' trivia (below).