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.