Tuesday, April 30, 2013

April 30, 2011: This Date in St Louis Cardinals Championship History - Comeback Win in Atlanta

April 30, 2011:  In addition to a strong finish by the Cardinals in the 2011 season, an epic collapse on the part of the Atlanta Braves was required if the Redbirds were to have any chance of catching them in the NL Wild Card race.  Of course, the Braves did their part - capped off by a three-game sweep at the hands of the Phillies at home to close out the season.  Earlier in the evening of MLB Game 162, Chris Carpenter had no trouble dispatching the Houston Astros, giving his team a chance to relax in the visitor's clubhouse to watch Freddy Freeman's double-play grounder abruptly end Atlanta's frustrating season. 

However, what enabled that Happy Flight can be directly linked to a late April three-game series at Turner Field when the Cardinals won two out of three from Atlanta, including the unlikely comeback they were able to pull off on this particular Saturday afternoon against one of the best bullpens in baseball.  In the end, the Braves' closer, Greg Kimbrell, would be knocked out of the game after recording only one out in the ninth-inning. 

This unlikely comeback happened in a game when Albert Pujols went hitless, and Lance Berkman failed to deliver a crucial hit coming off the bench late in the game.  It also happened on a day Yadier Molina was rested, but his replacement delivered the game winning hit.  Go figure.

In the end, both teams would only muster six hits apiece, but it was St Louis getting the maximum reward for those hits by scoring one more run than Atlanta, in comeback fashion; with only a 10% "win probability" as late as the eighth-inning of this game (according to BaseballReference.com).  Defying the odds would become a trend for the Redbirds.  They were just getting warmed up.

The starting pitchers - Jake Westbrook for St Louis and Brandon Beachy for Atlanta - both pitched well, but neither one figured in the decision.  Westbrook went six innings, allowing two runs on five hits and three walks.  A two-run fifth-inning double by Atlanta's Martin Prado broke a scoreless tie. 

Meanwhile, Beachy pitched seven complete innings, allowing the Cardinals just one hit and no runs until he took the mound in the eighth-inning, when the only two batters he faced - Daniel Descalso, who doubled, and Tyler Greene, who drew a base on balls - both scored.

Beachy was replaced by Johnny Venters, who appeared to be on his way to getting out of the jam after Nick Punto bunted both runners over (one out), he struck out Lance Berkman, who was pinch-hitting for Jon Jay (two out).  However, David Freese came through with the big two-out hit to tie the game - a single to right field.  It was the type of hitting that would earn Freese both the NLCS and World Series MVP honors a few months down the road.

LaRussa's bullpen took care of business after Westbrook was lifted; Mitchell Boggs pitched a scoreless seventh-inning, followed by the veteran Miguel Batista's scoreless eighth.  The stage was set for Fernando Salas to record his second save of the season which would give Miguel Batista his second win of the season.  All the Redbirds needed to do was score a ninth-inning run off the nearly invincible Craig Kimbrell.

Matt Holliday promptly greeted Kimbrell with a single to right field.  Colby Rasmus then struck out.  The next hitter was Gerald Laird, who seemed like a good candidate to either srike out or hit into a double play.  Perhaps Kimbrell was trying to get the double play ball; instead, his catcher couldn't handle a hard slider- ruled a passed ball - which allowed Holliday to take second base.

First base was now open, but Kimbrell challenged Laird with a fastball which was ripped into the left-center field gap, easily scoring Holliday.  By the time the ball could be retrieved, Laird was standing on third base.  It would be the only triple he'd hit all season.  The Cardinals would eventually load the bases with two out, but Lance Berkman struck out for the second time in two innings to end the threat - stranding a total of five baserunners in two plate appearances for the game.

But the damage had been done.  The comeback the Cardinals were able to pull off against the Braves pales in comparison to what they would do in Game Six vs the Rangers.  However, without this game in the "win column", Chris Carpenter's 8-0 shutout of the Astros on the last day of the season would have been meaningless. 


Monday, April 29, 2013

April 29, 1964: This Date in St Louis Cardinals Championship History

April 29, 1964:  When a team wins a pennant by just a single game - as the Cardinals did in 1964 - it's fascinating to check the box scores of some early-season, long-forgotten games that the Redbirds pulled out of the fire in remarkable fashion.

Such was the case in this late April contest with the New York Mets at Busch Stadium (formerly known as Sportsman's Park).  The Mets were still quite amazin' in those days - the worst team in baseball, by far.  Only 3,844 fans decided to attend this contest, even with Cards ace Bob Gibson on the mound.

Unfortunately for Gibby, he had difficulty finding the strike zone in the early going; walking the first two batters, then grooving one to Mets first baseman Tim Harkness, who promptly deposited the pitch onto the pavilion roof in right field for a three-run dinger.  Harkness only appeared in 39 games for the Mets in '64, and only hit two home runs in 117 AB; but this was one of them.  A seething Gibson settled down to retire the side, but the damage had been done.

The Redbirds responded in their half of the first-inning with a clutch two-out single by Ken Boyer which scored Dick Groat from second base.  While Gibson continued holding the Mets in check, Bill White hammered a sixth-inning solo home run to cut the deficit to a single run.

The Cardinals tied the score in the seventh-inning, as Curt Flood's one-out single to left field scored Julian Javier from second base; with Flood taking second base on the throw to the plate.  With Dick Groat batting, Flood tried to steal third base but was nailed.  Naturally, Groat doubled down the left field line on the next pitch, but was stranded on second to end the threat.  However, the score was now tied at three runs apiece.

Gibson, who had been nearly perfect (a couple of hits and a walk allowed) after yielding the three-run first-inning bomb to Harkness, walked the pesky Ron Hunt, leading off the eighth-inning for New York.  Cards manager Johnny Keane brought young lefty Ray Sadecki in to relieve Gibson and quickly recorded two outs compliments of a well-turned double play.  Veteran right-hander Ron Taylor was then brought in to get the last out of the inning, and returned to the mound to pitch an uneventful ninth-inning.

After the Redbirds failed to score in their half of the ninth-inning, Keane called on the ancient southpaw, Bobby Shantz to keep the Mets at bay for as long as he could.  Twelve years earlier, Shantz led the American League with 24 wins as a member of the Philadelphia Athletics, but his career had been relegated to spot starts and long relief after that big season - when he not only won all those games, he completed 27 out of the 33 games he started.  Shantz was approaching his 39th birthday and would later be dealt to the Chicago Cubs in the package that included Ernie Broglio-for Lou Brock, but on this late April day, he was able to hold the Mets hitless for two innings, waiting for the St Louis offense to finally restore order.

The eleventh-inning game winning rally began with Ken Boyer's lead-off single to left field.  Tim McCarver then drew a base on balls, and Mike Shannon executed a successful sacrifice bunt, moving the runners up a base.  After an intentional walk to Julian Javier loaded the bases, Keane then called on a rarely-used power-hitting 22-year old kid from Covington, Kentucky - Jeoff Long - to pinch hit.  Mets reliever Larry Bearnarth was kind enough to miss the strike zone on four pitches which enabled Jeoff to tell his grandkids that he drove in the winning run in a game that ultimately helped his team win a World Championship.

Well, his former team, that is; after just twenty-eight games with the Cardinals, as a part-time first baseman, right fielder, and pinch hitter, Long's contract was sold to the Chicago White Sox in early July.  He was going to get a shot at becoming a regular outfielder with the Sox but suffered a severe knee injury when he slipped on a wet field at Fenway Park just eight days after joining his new team.  Limited to pinch hitting duty, Jeoff was only able to muster a .143 BA over the balance of the '64 season.  Attempts to rehabiliate the knee were unsuccessful, and after 46 games in the minors in 1965, he was forced to retire before his career even had a chance to take off.

For Cardinals fans who never heard of Jeoff Long, he actually played a vital role in helping the Redbirds win a game few people will remember; but without that April win against the hapless Mets, chances are the Cardinals would've come up a little short in their quest for another pennant and World Championship.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

April 28, 1982: This Date in St Louis Cardinals Championship History

April 28, 1982:  In a game that epitomized "Whitey Ball", the Cardinals (14-6) were somehow able to scratch out a win over the Houston Astros (8-13) at Busch Stadium, by a score of 5-4.  Bob Forsch (4-0) pitched seven innings, allowed eight hits and six walks - but only four of those baserunners came around to score.

While the Astros were frustrated by their missed opportunities to break the game open, the Cardinals were able to turn a two run deficit into a two run lead in the sixth-inning, by scoring four runs on four walks, three hits and a wild pitch - a typical Redbird rally of the early '80s.  David Green delivered a key two-run single in the inning and for good measure, threw Tony Scott out at second base trying to stretch a single into a double earlier in the game.

Bruce Sutter relieved Forsch with a runner on second base and nobody out in the eighth-inning, with the Cardinals clinging to the same two-run lead they manufactured two innings prior.  Although the Astros were able to bring that run home, Sutter was able to prevent further damage, recording his seventh save of the young season en route to a NL leading 36 saves - the fourth consecutive year he topped the Senior Circuit in that category. 

Forsch would go on to win 15 games for the Redbirds in '82, helping them win their first division title and reach the postseason for the first time since 1968.  He also pitched brilliantly in Game One of the NLCS vs the Atlanta Braves, as the Cards swept that series to meet the Milwaukee Brewers in a classic 1982 Fall Classic.

This late April victory was pivitol for the Redbirds, who came into this game on a three-game losing streak.  As it turned out, they would lose the next three games after this one, so their ability to steal a win from Houston essentially prevented a seven-game losing sreak.

A few days after David Green's game-winning hit, he went on the DL with a severe hamstring injury.  This paved the way for rookie Willie McGee to be called up from the minors.  It didn't take long for McGee to take over the regular duties in centerfield for the Redbirds, relegating Green - who never quite lived-up to the expectations the Cardinals had for him - to part-time status.  Eventually, he would be packaged with a few other marginal players in exchange for Giants slugger Jack Clark prior to the '85 season.  Clark would prove to be the perfect fit for St Louis during his three seasons as a Cardinal, helping the Redbirds win National League championships in '85 and '87.

Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Jack Clark became a free agent after the '87 season.  His departure to the New York Yankees signaled the end of the Whitey Herzog Era.  By 1990, the team was in a state of disaray; Herog resigned prior to the All-Star break and St Louis finished last in the standings for the first time since 1918. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

This Date in St Louis Cardinals Championship History: April 27, 1967

April 27, 1967:  The Cardinals got off to a fast start in 1967, winning their first six games, then splitting their next six games, before squaring off against the Houston Astros at the Astrodome.  By contrast, the Astros had only won three out of their first eleven games that year, and seemed destined for another loss as Cards pitcher Bob Gibson was sailing along with a 2-0 lead through the first six innings.

Back-to-back fourth-inning triples by Mike Shannon and Tim McCarver, followed by a Bobby Tolan single gave the Redbirds their two-runs.  Nowadays, a seventh-inning specialist would take over for a starter, followed by the eighth-inning guy, then if all goes well, the closer.  Gibson never wanted to come out of any game; he took his turn at bat in the top of the seventh-inning, hit a two-out single, but was stranded on the bases.  Needing nine more outs to record his fourth victory of the year, Gibson was unable to record even one more out.  Two hits and a walk loaded the bases for Houston, which prompted manager Red Schoedienst to remove Gibby in favor of lefty Hal Woodeshick. 

Things quickly went from bad to worse as future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan immediately cleared the bases with a triple, giving Houston a lead they would never relinquish.  Woodeshick faced only one other batter, walked him, and was removed in favor of Nelson Briles, who successfully recorded one out, and was removed in favor of Joe Hoerner, who also got one guy out, and was removed in favor of Ron Willis, who got the final out of the seventh inning.  When it was over, the Astros had scored five runs on four hits, two walks, and a sacrifice fly.

Schoendienst used two more pitchers to get through the eighth inning - journeyman Jim Cosman and 29-year-old rookie Dick Hughes, who at the time was a relatively unknown talent.  By the time Hughes made ten relief appearances, which included three saves, he had impressed his manager enough to warrant a spot in the rotation.  By season's end, Dick Hughes had started 27 games, completed twelve of them (three were shutouts), while working a total of 222.1 innings.  His record of 16-6 featured an impressive  2.67 ERA and National League leading 0.954 WHIP.  He was runner-up to the New York Mets' Tom Seaver for NL Rookie of the Year; but sadly, arm troubles would end his career early in the '68 season, at the age of 30. 

In this game, the Cardinals tried to come back, scoring twice in the eighth, but Houston answered with a run of their own in the bottom half.  That was enough, as Houston held on for a 6-4 win, handing Gibson (3-1) his first loss of the year, as starting pitcher Larry Dierker (2-1) earned the win.

The loss to the Astros started a four-game skid for the Redbirds, as they even fell out of first place for a while.  In July, Gibson would go down with a broken leg, thanks to a vicious line drive off the bat of Roberto Clemente.  Fortunately, he had mended by the time the regular season was winding down, and took care of business in the World Series triumph over the Boston Red Sox - winning three games and being named World Series MVP.

Of course, Gibson was just getting warmed up for '68, when he rewrote the record book en route to his first Cy Young Award to go along with his selection as NL MVP.  Not only did Gibson establish a modern MLB record with a miniscule 1.12 ERA, he was never knocked out of a game in the midst of any inning all year long.

Friday, April 26, 2013

This Date in St Louis Cardinals Championship History

April 26, 2006:  The St Louis Cardinals played host to the Pittsburgh Pirates in their beautiful new facility - Busch Stadium III.  Cardinals' starting pitcher Mark Mulder (remember him?) labored through 7.2 innings of work, allowing just two runs on five hits (one of those hits was a two-run home run).  He struck out just one batter, while walking five, yet managed to escape with a slim 3-2 lead.

That's how the score remained until two outs in the ninth-inning, with closer Jason Isringhausen just one out away from the save.  Unfortunately for Izzy (and Mulder), veteran first baseman Jose Hernandez, who would only hit three home runs in 85 games all year (his final big league season), managed to tie the game with one of those long-balls, sending the game to the bottom of the ninth, tied 3-3; and sending 38,728 fans into a state of nervous agitation.

Of course, the Cardinals were a resilient bunch in 2006 and the Pirates were...the Pirates.  They had to lose.  Almost as if on cue, with one out in the Redbirds' half of the ninth, consecutive singles by David Eckstein and Hector Luna (remember him?) brought Albert Pujols to the plate with a chance to win the game.  Naturally, he did just that, grounding a single to left field as Eckstein raced home from second base with the decisive run - RBI number 29 for Pujols at that point of the season.

2006 may have been Albert's finest season with St Louis, as he went on to hit .331 with 49 home runs and 137 RBI.  Fans still bitter with his decision to leave the Cardinals shouldn't forget how great he was - especially in this particular championship season.

Pittsburgh's (5-18) losing pitcher - Roberto Hernandez - would finish 2006 with a perfect 0-3 record - and would later be dealt to the New York Mets - the team St Louis eliminated from the NLCS in a classic seven game showdown.

This late April win didn't seem like that big of a deal at the time, as the Cards' record improved to 14-7.  However, at the time, they still trailed Houston (15-6) and Cincinnati (15-7) in the NL Central standings.  Somehow, the Cards managed to win the division title that year, despite a lackluster 69-71 record the rest of the way.  Their 83-79 record was just a game and a half better than the Astros - the team that knocked St Louis out of the playoffs the year prior - the team that was swept by the Chicago White Sox in the 2005 World Series.  So this seems fitting.

Despite the mediocre regular season record, the Cardinals became an unstoppable force in the postseason; without the services of hard-luck Mark Mulder who was shut down after making just seventeen largely ineffective starts.  He managed to win six games that year (losing seven) with a high ERA of 7.14; but his career was essentially over, falling victim to a bad arm.

Isringhausen, who managed to pitch an entire season without giving up a home run - in 2002 - was well on his way to serving up a career-worst ten dingers in 2006, although he still managed to save 32 games before being shut down by seaon's end with arm trouble of his own.

Pujols, who is now on the wrong side of age 30 with bad wheels and declining power stats, is trying his best to make the outrageous ten-year-quarter of a billion dollar contract he coaxed the Angels into giving him prior to the 2012...not look like a bad deal for the Halos.  Unfortunately, for Pujols and his new team, time is running out to make a serious run at a World Series championship.

The only Cardinals player left on the roster who played in that April game seven years ago is Yadier Molina - who at the time was a great defensive catcher but  a poor hitter - is now a very good hitter - in fact, one of the elite players in all of major league baseball; playing for a team with realistic hopes for yet another World Series championship in 2013.