Monday, April 28, 2014

April 21, 1971 - Comeback Win in San Francisco - April 22, 1977 - Cards Crush Phillies at the Vet - April 23, 1979 - Extra Inning Win in Atlanta

April 21, 1971 - A mere 6,178 fans gathered at Candlestick Park in San Francisco to watch a pitching matchup between two future Hall of Famers - Bob Gibson and Gaylord Perry.  The Giants hurler held the early advantage after another future Hall of Famer, first baseman Willie McCovey blasted a fourth-inning two-run homer off Gibson; and that would be the only scoring in the game until the Redbirds came to bat in the sixth-inning. 

That's when the fun began.  Perry was still on the mound for the Giants as Lou Brock led off with a single, and moved up a base when Matty Alou reached on third baseman Jim Ray Hart's throwing error.  Ted Simmons then singled, loading the bases.  Joe Torre, who would go on to win the NL MVP Award in '71, cleared the bases with a triple to right field; Torre then scored when Jose Cardenal doubled to right field, chasing Perry from the game.  The next batter, Joe Hague, knocked Cardenal in with a single to centerfield, scoring the fifth and final run of the inning.  That was enough, although Gibson surrendered another home run in the eighth-inning - a solo shot by Ken Henderson to narrow the gap to 5-3, and that's how it ended.

Gibson got the complete game victory, allowing five hits and three runs, with one base on balls and nine strikeouts. 

The '71 season was a promising one for the Cardinals, winning 91 games while finishing second in the NL East, behind Pittsburgh - the eventual World Champions.  Whatever hope the Cardinals had for the foreseeable future was dashed when ownership decided two young pitchers - Steve Carlton and Jerry Reuss - didn't fit in with their plans (they wanted to be paid a little bit more that Gussie Busch was willing to spend) - so they were traded away, and St Louis didn't get enough in return.  With Bob Gibson beginning to show signs of age, this was a team in decline; and things would get worse until they got better - which wouldn't happen until 1981.

April 22, 1977 - On this particular late April Friday evening in Philadelphia, the Cardinals looked like a team on the rise, while the Phillies appeared overmatched and listless.  Proof positive that anything can happen in one game.

In this particular game, St Louis had the reigning NL ERA leader from the previous season - John Denny (2.52) trying to win his fourth straight decision of the young season.  This one was a walk in the park, as the Redbirds scored early and often to rout the Phillies, 10-1.  Denny breezed through eight innings of work, allowing one run on six hits and a walk; he struck out five, then gave the ball to the Mad Hungarian to provide a little entertainment for the few partisan fans in the paid crowd of 26,430 who were still around to watch their team take its last hacks.  Hrabosky yielded a harmless single before storming off the mound after the final out was recorded; not a save situation, thanks to all the damage done by the St Louis lineup in this blowout.

The hitting star was Keith Hernandez, who went 3 for 5 with a triple and a three-run home run, good for five RBI and two runs scored.  Meanwhile, John Denny's fast start would fade into a disappointing, injury-plagued ending.  From that 4-0 start, he would only win another four games over the next five months, while losing eight with a high 4.51 ERA.  His days in St Louis were numbered (traded to Cleveland after the '79 season) but luckily for him, he still had magic left in that right arm; by 1983, he would help another new team - the Phillies - reach the World Series, winning the NL Cy Young Award (19-6 - 2.37 ERA) in the process.

April 23, 1979 - The Cardinals sent Pete Vuckovich to the mound in Atlanta to square off against the Braves' knuckleball ace, Phil Niekro - a future Hall of Famer.  Vuckovich pitched admirably (7 IP - 8 H - 2 R - 2 BB - 7 SO - 2 HR), but thanks to solo home runs by Atlanta's Matthews and Burroughs, St Louis was on the wrong end of a 2-0 score, heading into the ninth.  Niekro, naturally, was still on the mound, going for the complete game shutout.  No such luck.

After Dane Iorg grounded out leading off the inning, Tony Scott delivered a single to centerfield; then promptly moved up to second on a passed ball, with free-swinging Ken Reitz at bat.  Somehow, Reitz managed to draw a base on balls, then was wisely removed for a pinch runner - the speedy Jerry Mumphrey.  After Ken Oberkfell struck out, pinch hitter Bernie Carbo calmly stroked an opposite field single to left field, scoring Scott, as Mumphrey stopped at second.  Removing Niekro from the game wasn't even a consideration in those days; given the durability, talent, and desire to finish this game off by the crusty veteran.  Gary Templeton wasted no time in smacking a line drive single to centerfield, while Mumphrey raced home with the game-tying run.  It should be noted that if the base runner had been the slew-footed Reitz, he more than likely would've been thrown out at third on that base hit; let alone try to score.  Just kidding; he may have made it to third safely, if he really hustled.

That was all the scoring for the Redbirds in the ninth, as the 4,725 in attendance sat in stunned silence; dumbfounded by what they had just witnessed.  Actually, they were probably expecting something to go wrong, based on past experience with this hapless bunch.  As Niekro went back out to the mound to start the tenth-inning, he quickly retired the first two Cardinals hitters before the ubiquitous Tony Scott would come through again, lining a single to right field; then stealing second and advancing to third on the errant throw by the catcher.  Next up was Jerry Mumphrey, who had scored the tying run as a pinch runner, so he was taking his first AB of the night.  He delivered the two-out single to left field, bringing Scott home with the go-ahead run.

Mark Littell, who was in his second inning of work, made things interesting by walking two after retiring the first two.  Could this be deja vu all over again?  No, he got the win after coaxing the pesky Roland Office into popping one up to the shortstop - one of the heroes, Mr Templeton; whose biggest contribution to the success of the franchise was getting traded to San Diego for another shortstop known as the Wizard. 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

April 17 - 20 in St Louis Cardinals History - '65 Gibson Shutout - '67 11-Inning Pitcher's Duel - '96 6-Pitcher 1-0 Shutout - '00 13-Run Blowout

April 17, 1965 - The season started poorly for the defending World Series champion St Louis Cardinals, dropping the first three games in '65, prior to hosting the Cincinnati Reds in Game Four.  A modest crowd of 15,828 assembled at the antiquated ballpark formerly known as Sportsman's Park, hoping that World Series hero Bob Gibson could restore order for the Redbirds; at least, temporarily.

Hard-throwing 28-year old lefty Jim O'Toole (17-7 - 2.66 ERA in '64) took the mound for Cincinnati; at least, temporarily.  Unbeknownst to just about any knowledgeable baseball fan prior to this game, O'Toole was washed up at this relatively tender age; when most players are reaching their peak before the inexorable decline which usually occurs on the wrong side of 30.  O'Toole would struggle through a two-run first inning before getting knocked out in the second-inning, failing to retire any of the three batters he faced.  His pitching summary:  1 IP - 4 H - 5 R - 2 BB - 0 SO.  The rest of the season didn't get much better (3-10 - 5.92 ERA); although he rebounded a bit in '66 and '67 in limited action, he was out of baseball at the age of 30.

Gibson, on the other hand, pitched well enough to keep the Reds scoreless for nine innings, scattering  eight hits and four walks, while striking out eleven.  Ken Boyer (3 for 4) drove in four of the eight runs the Redbirds would tally in this easy win, but age was beginning to take its toll as well on the NL MVP in '64; one month shy of his 34th birthday, Boyer's production would decline sharply in '65, with career lows in home runs (13), batting average (.260) and slugging percentage (.374).

At the conclusion of what would be a disappointing sub-.500 season for St Louis, Boyer would be traded to the New York Mets for their 28-year old third baseman - Charley Smith, who in '66 would prove to be only a slight upgrade over Boyer's worst season.  Smith's largest contribution to the Cardinals' success was getting the New York Yankees to take him prior to the '67 season in exchange for their disgruntled former single season home run king, Roger Maris.  While Charley was a total bust for the Yankees, Roger helped the Cardinals win two straight NL pennants and one World Series championship, before happily riding off into the sunset himself, at the age of 34.

April 18, 1967 - In a classic pitcher's duel at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, the Cardinals' Ray Washburn squared off against the durable, crafty and spit balling Gaylord Perry - a future Hall of Famer, who certainly competed like one in this game.  Both hurlers allowed just one run through the first nine innings of play; a fourth-inning home run by Julian Javier accounted for the lone St Louis tally.  After Washburn retired the side in the ninth, his day was through, allowing just four hits, four walks with five strikeouts; and the lone run.

Perry, on the other hand, apparently had enough Vaseline hidden somewhere to continue the battle into extra innings.  The 11th-inning was an unlucky one for Gaylord.  It started with a Lou Brock leadoff single, but when Curt Flood grounded into a double play, the Redbird scoring threat seemed to vanish.  However, Roger Maris' fly ball to centerfield was dropped by Ken Henderson (Willie Mays had been given the day off), enabling the hustling Maris to reach second base.  Orlando Cepeda promptly burned his former team with a base hit that scored what proved to be the winning (unearned) run.  Reliever Hal Woodeshick pitched the final 1.1 innings to notch the win.  The last batter he faced was the venerable Willie Mays, who grounded out as a pinch hitter to end the game.

In the end, Gaylord Perry got the tough-luck loss after working 11 innings, scattering nine hits with one walk and seven strikeouts.  This game was a preview of the unprecedented feats that would happen with both Perry and Washburn at Candlestick the following season.  Perry got some measure of revenge when he threw a no-hitter against the Cardinals.  The following day, it was Washburn returning the favor against the Giants, with a no-hitter of his own.  Back-to-back no-no's by pitchers from opposing teams?  It's only happened once in MLB history, by a couple of pitchers who seemed to enjoy the Candlestick Park experience.

April 19, 1996 - The new manager for the St Louis Cardinals - Tony LaRussa - had a reputation for using his bullpen more frequently than most major league managers.  As the visiting Redbirds faced the Philadelphia Phillies at Veteran's Stadium in this early season encounter, neither team was able to get anything going, offensively; that is, until St Louis batted in the top of the ninth-inning with the score tied, 0-0.  Left-handed swinging John Mabry, who knows a thing or two about the science of hitting (without batting gloves), stroked an opposite field single to left field, and advanced to second base on a successful sacrifice bunt.  After a strikeout and a walk left the Cardinals with runners on first and second (two outs), shortstop Royce Clayton's ground-rule double finally brought in the lone run of the game.

Meanwhile, Cards' starting pitcher, Mark Petkowsek, pitched well enough, but LaRussa decided he'd had enough after just four innings of work (3 H - 0 R - 2 BB - 3 SO).  Relievers Fossas, Mathews, Honeycutt, Bailey (the winning pitcher), and finally Eckersley (who got the save) each worked precisely one inning, keeping Philadelphia frustrated at the plate.  The six Cardinals pitchers combined for the shutout, scattering six hits and five walks, to go along with eight strikeouts.

There was a bit of excitement in the bottom of the ninth, as Kevin Stocker's one-out single rolled just out of the reach of second baseman Luis Alicea into short centerfield.  Stocker gambled on stretching it into a double, but Ray Lankford alertly charged the ball aggressively and fired a strike to shortstop Clayton to nail the runner.  At the plate, Lankford had a bad day, going 0 for 5; but this crucial outfield assist more than made up that.

This season would lead to a NL Central title for the Cardinals - their first trip to the postseason since '87.  That was "it" for the '90s, but the new millennium would be filled with more sustained periods of success for the franchise than any other era.

April 20, 2000 - The Cardinals annihilated the visiting San Diego Padres by the lopsided score of 14-1, as rookie pitcher Rick Ankiel got the win for St Louis, despite serious control issues that would ultimately escalate to epic proportions by the time the postseason rolled around.  The game itself quickly got out of hand for San Diego by the time the Redbirds scored six unearned runs in the very first inning.  Prior to that, Ankiel managed to escape a first-inning jam of his own when the erratic southpaw walked the bases loaded before wriggling out of trouble with no damage; except perhaps, to his psyche.  The patient Tony LaRussa coaxed five innings out of his prized rookie, who allowed no runs on two hits, while striking out four.  However, thanks to seven walks and a high pitch count, Ankiel found himself dangerously close to an early exit.

Ankiel the hitter looked like a clone of Stan Musial; another reason he stayed in the game long enough to go 3 for 3 with 2 runs scored and 1 run batted in - thanks to his very first big league home run which came immediately after Eli Marrero hit his second round-tripper of the day, during a four-run fifth inning.  The Redbirds also scored four runs in the fourth inning, thanks to Marrero's first home run of the game - a grand slam.  Interestingly enough, St Louis only scored in three different innings in this game, but those were some crooked numbers they put up, thanks to some sloppy San Diego defense, timely hitting; not to mention ten walks (the free-swinging Cards' batters also struck out ten times).

Add it all up and it translates into a 3 hour and 30 minute affair, which probably felt more like three and half days for those in the visitor's dugout.  One Cardinal player who had a rather quiet evening was slugging first baseman Mark McGwire, who LaRussa removed early from this blowout to give his ailing knees a bit of a break.  Taking over the defensive chores at first base was the team's regular catcher, Mike Matheny, who was originally given the night off by TLR so Eli Marrero could have a little fun tonight.

Friday, April 25, 2014

6 Thrilling April (13th - 18th) Victories in St Louis Cardinals History

April 13, 1968 - A Saturday afternoon game for the Cardinals at Wrigley Field had an ominous beginning, but a familiar ending for the defending World Champions - another come-from-behind victory at the expense of their long-suffering rivals - the Chicago Cubs.

Steve Carlton started the game for St Louis, who failed to score in their half of the first-inning; and before most of the paid crowd of 33,875 even had a chance to get settled into their seats, the Cubbies had chased four runs home - capped off by Ron Santo's three-run home run into the left field bleachers.  Carlton would make it through seven innings, and managed to keep Santo & Company at bay the rest of the way.  Meanwhile, the Cardinals pecked away, scoring one in the second on a Dick Simpson home run, two in the third on RBI base hits by Orlando Cepeda and Tim McCarver, and another run in the fifth on an RBI single by Curt Flood.  The game was all tied, and the Redbirds had the momentum.  In the eighth, pinch hitter Phil Gagliano's two-run single broke the deadlock, as the inspired Cardinals went on to score four times, putting the game out of reach.  Chicago scored an unearned run in their half of the eighth, but it was too little, too late.  Final score:  8-5.

The hitting star of the game was Curt Flood, who had five singles in five at bats, scored one run and drove in two.  All told, the Cardinals had sixteen hits - thirteen of which were singles - and they drew three walks, for good measure.  This type of offense would certainly prove to be the "exception" in '68 - The Year of the Pitcher - but it was still early in the season; the Cardinals didn't know any better.

April 14, 1970 - Just two years and one day removed from that Saturday game at Wrigley Field, the Cardinals had undergone major changes to its roster.  Gone:  Curt Flood, Tim McCarver, Orlando Cepeda and Roger Maris.  Added:  Dick Allen, Joe Torre, Joe Hague and Jose Cardenal.  On paper, this seemed like a contending team; in reality, by season's end, it was a sub .500 team.  However, on this particular day, the Redbirds were looking good, and came away with a 10-inning 6-5 win over the visiting Montreal Expos; good for a 4-2 record in the new season.

With a small crowd of just 9,891 on hand at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals staked pitcher Bob Gibson to a quick 3-0 lead after two innings.  For a while, that seemed to be enough for the ace right-hander, but after surrendering a run in the sixth-inning, Gibson simply ran out of gas in the seventh, facing four batters; retiring none.  He was charged with the three runs Montreal scored, and suddenly was on the wrong side of a 4-3 deficit.  As a hitter, Gibby fared much better, collecting 2 hits in 3 ABs, scoring one run and driving home another.  The Montreal lead was short-lived, as Jose Cardenal's solo home run in the bottom of the seventh tied the game at 4-4, and got Gibson off the hook.

The game remained deadlocked after regulation, but only one extra inning was required to settle this contest.  After the Expos pushed a run across off reliever Sal Campisi (the eventual winning pitcher) in the top half of the tenth, the Cardinals came roaring back in the bottom half to win it in "walk-off" fashion.  A Jim Campbell RBI single tied the game once again, and with the bases loaded and one out, pinch hitter Cookie Rojas' infield single to third base sent what was left of the small gathering, back to their nice, warm homes.

April 15, 1980 - Ten years and one day after St Louis won that 10-inning affair in front of that small partisan crowd, an even smaller crowd (8,166) ventured out to see the Cardinals clobber the eventual World Champion Philadelphia Phillies, by a score of 7-2.  Pete Vuckovich, who pitched a complete game 1-0 shutout of the Pittsburgh Pirates on Opening Day (April 10), went the distance for the second straight start, limiting the Phillies to five hits and a walk, while striking out three.  Both runs Philadelphia scored were of the "earned" variety, raising the colorful right hander's ERA to 1.00 on the young season.  He also handled the bat well on this particular day, doubling home a couple of runs to ensure a postgame interview on Jack Buck's Star of the Game program.  Honorable mention goes to 1979's NL co-MVP, Keith Hernandez (3 for 3 with a triple and 2 singles, BB, 1 R, 1 RBI).

Despite all that offense by the home team (12 hits & 3 walks), the hyperactive Vuckovich wrapped up this contest in just an hour and 57 minutes.  No muss, no fuss; no visits to the mound to discuss strategy, and no long walks in from the bullpen by a handful of relief specialists.  Alas, in the long run, this team would prove to be a high-scoring bunch of misfits with not enough pitching - especially in the back end of the bullpen.  That problem would be solved by the time the '81 season began (Bruce Sutter in a trade with the Cubs), and a whole new era of Cardinal baseball (spearheaded by Whitey Herzog) would make the '80s a very successful decade for this franchise; and give fans a reason to show up for the games.

April 16, 1981 - The aforementioned Bruce Sutter would earn his second save as a Redbird (2.2 IP - 1 H - 0 R - 0 BB - 2 SO) in this game between the visiting Cardinals and the still-hapless New York Mets at Shea Stadium.  The final score:  5-1, as all five of the St Louis runs came as a result of the long ball - a game-tying solo shot by Darrell Porter, and a pair of two-run blasts by silent George Hendrick and future Met Keith Hernandez.  Rookie Andy Rincon (6.1 IP - 6 H - 1 R (unearned) - 1 BB - 2 SO) earned his first career major league win, but arm trouble would end his promising career just a few weeks later; proving that success at this level can be fleeting, especially if the injury bug decides to bite.

On the other side of the equation was the Mets' starting (and losing) pitcher - Mike Scott, who remained injury-free yet toiled in futility with New York; but after a trade to the Houston Astros, became one of the most dominant pitchers in the game over a five year stretch (1985 - 1989), winning the NL Cy Young Award in 1986, and almost preventing his old team's trip to the World Series in a classic NLCS.  Former Cardinal-future teammate-future adversary Keith Hernandez later accused the crafty Scott of scuffing the baseballs to make his pitches break in suspicious and nearly unhittable trajectories.  Nothing was ever proven, but whatever he was or wasn't doing with the Mets wasn't working; however, whatever tricks he learned with the Astros worked quite well, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, the strike-shortened 1981 season would be a frustrating one for St Louis, who had the best overall record in the NL East, but failed to qualify for postseason play because they finished second in each newly-created "half".  Justice was served the following season, as a very good but not "great" team managed to win when it counted, all the way through a Seven Game World Series showdown with a colorful team from Milwaukee.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

4 Pitching Gems in St Louis Cardinals History (April 9 - 12)

April 9, 1983 - The defending World Series champion St Louis Cardinals opened the new season with a 5-0 win over the New York Mets at Shea Stadium, before a wary gathering of 11,511 New Yorkers.  Joaquin Andujar, who started and won Game 7 of the '82 World Series over the heavy hitting Milwaukee Brewers, had no trouble dispatching an anemic Mets lineup today, going the distance in holding New York to just four hits, walking none, while striking out nine.  The Cardinals broke a scoreless tie in the 7th-inning when the first six batters reached base, and four of them scored on a pair of bases loaded singles - by George Hendrick, then David Green, who was quickly picked off first base for the first out of the inning.  Mike Ramsey closed out the scoring with a sacrifice fly, which was more than enough run support for the ace right hander on this day.

This was not a good day for attempting anything daring on the bases.  In addition to Green's mishap, the Redbirds lost two other runners attempting to steal - Hendrick and Lonnie Smith.  The Mets' Mookie Wilson attempted to steal second base on two separate occasions and was nailed both times.

As hapless as the Mets were on this particular day, their fortunes would be greatly improved just prior to the June trading deadline after Cardinals first baseman Keith Hernandez was shipped to New York for pitchers Neil Allen and Rick Ownby - neither of whom did much to help St Louis win.  Strangely enough, as the Mets' resurgence manifested itself in the mid to late '80s, so too did the Cardinals, almost in spite of this trade; and a fierce rivalry was born.

April 10, 1968 - The defending World Series champion St Louis Cardinals hosted the Atlanta Braves on Opening Night before a crowd of 34,740, fully anticipating Cards' ace Bob Gibson to pitch the home team to victory.  Instead, Gibson was removed from the game after working seven innings, trailing 1-0.  Naturally, the run the Braves scored came in the second-inning, and was unearned - the result of a Lou Brock dropped fly ball.  In a way, this game typified the season Gibson compiled, posting an amazing 1.12 ERA, but only winning 22 games.  Here was just another no decision for Gibby, who was taken out of the game when it was his turn at bat in the bottom of the seventh, with runners on first and second and two out.  Pinch hitter Bobby Tolan lined out to end the threat, while Gibson seethed in the Cardinals dugout (he had one hit in two ABs, previously).

Although Gibson allowed just three hits, plus one walk in the seven innings, he didn't strikeout a single batter; the deepest he's ever pitched in a game with no punch-outs.  His replacement, Ray Washburn kept Atlanta hitless for two innings, walking one, while striking out two.  St Louis finally broke through in the eighth-inning, as last season's NL MVP Orlando Cepeda delivered a clutch two-out double to score Curt Flood from first base to tie the game.  The Redbirds won it in the ninth when light-hitting Dal Maxvill doubled with one out, and pinch runner Dick Simpson sprinted home from second on pinch hitter Dave Ricketts' base hit to center, giving Washburn the win.

April 11, 1967 - Opening Night in St Louis, as the Cardinals hosted the San Francisco Giants in front of 38,117 Cards' fans expecting a pitchers' duel between the two of the best in the game - Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal.  On this night, it was no contest; Gibson threw a five-hit complete game shutout, walking none while striking out 13.  On the other hand, Marichal yielded six runs on fourteen hits in seven innings - the big blow coming in the second inning with Lou Brock at the plate with two runners on.  Harry Caray's call:  "He got the first hit; will he drive in the first run?  (crack of the bat)  There she goes!  It might be outta here, it could be, it is a home run!  Holy cow!"

Brock was one of five Cardinals players with two hits in the game - Curt Flood, newly acquired Roger Maris (playing with peace of mind now), Tim McCarver, and Julian Javier were the others.  Dal Maxvill, who would go on to hit a paltry .227 for the season, led the team with three hits on Opening Night; proving that on any given day (or night), anything can happen.

The final score of 6-0 was a fitting way to start what would prove to be a championship season for St Louis - as the Cardinals would go on to win their first six games in '67.

April 12, 2005 -  The Cardinals played host to the Cincinnati Reds in front of 33,617 fans, dressed mostly in Red, as one might suspect with these two red-clad NL Central rivals hooking up.  On this night, Cardinals starting pitcher Jason Marquis was sharp - 6 IP - 5 hits - 1 earned run - 2 BB - 6 SO - and helped his own cause with the bat, delivering a second-inning one-out bases loaded triple to erase an early 1-0 Cincinnati advantage, en route to a final 5-1 win.  Solo home runs in the sixth-inning by Jim Edmonds and Reggie Sanders accounted for the last pair of runs.  The bullpen shut down the Reds over the final three innings, as somebody named Carmen Cali pitched a perfect ninth for the Redbirds to end it.  All told, in parts of three seasons with St Louis and Minnesota, Cali appeared in 40 major league games, had won none and lost one, had no saves, and sported a 6.55 ERA.  Reminding us once again, how difficult it is to be a successful big league ballplayer for any length of time.

It's interesting to note, the losing pitcher for Cincinnati that night was the erstwhile Aaron Harang, who nine years later, pitching for the Atlanta Braves is the hottest hurler on the planet right now with an ERA at 0.85 as I type this.  Harang's career ERA is 4.22.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

7 Crazy April Games in St Louis Cardinals History

April 2, 2013 - After an Opening Night loss in Arizona the night before, the Cardinals earned their first win of the new season by overpowering the Diamondbacks, 6-1.  Jaime Garcia allowed just one earned run in 5.2 innings, but a high pitch count (thanks to four walks and four strikeouts) hastened his relatively early exit.  The bullpen pitched scoreless relief, while the offense bashed three home runs - a two-run bomb by Matt Holliday, another two-run shot by Jon Jay, and a solo blast by Pete Kozma to dead centerfield.  Although the Cardinals shortstop was now on an 81 home run pace with 160 games to be played, this would prove to be the only home run he'd actually hit all season; which of course, explains why the front office nabbed free agent Jhonny Peralta as a replacement.  Barely a month after this start, Garcia would be shut down for the rest of the season with shoulder problems; and those problems still linger, causing much concern for the young lefty's future.

April 3, 2011 - After dropping the first two games of the new season at home against the San Diego Padres, Jaime Garcia got St Louis in the win column with a brilliant complete game four-hit shutout of the Pads   The offense only mustered two runs for the Cardinals, but it was (one) more than enough on this particular night.  Albert Pujols, playing his final season in St Louis, was hitless in four ABs as Cardinal Nation watched in horror.  His early season woes would be the most talked about slump in franchise history; but it would all be forgotten by October - a postseason filled with rally squirrels, courageous pitching and superhuman offensive fireworks; including some from the soon-to-be-departed Pujols.

April 4, 2008 - The Cardinals held on for a 5-4 victory over the visiting Washington Nationals, as starting pitcher Braden Looper (6 IP - 5 hits - 1 earned run) got the win, despite some fairly atrocious relief in the seventh-inning which allowed the Nats to score three times to make it a nerve-racking finish.  Manager Tony LaRussa first used relievers Springer (faced three batters, retired none), then Villone (faced one batter, retired none), before order was restored with McClellan, Franklin, and Isringhausen, who nailed down the save.  The hitting hero was former pitcher-turned outfielder, Rick Ankiel whose two-run home run proved to be the difference in the game.

April 5, 2006 - At Philadelphia, the visiting Redbirds started newly-acquired-soon-to-be- permanently-disabled Mark Mulder, who lasted seven innings (3 earned runs) for a no decision.  Home runs by Albert Pujols and Skip Schumaker accounted for two of the three runs the Redbirds tallied through eight innings of play.  With the score tied 3-3 in the top of the ninth-inning, Albert Pujols drew a one-out walk, stole second, advanced to third on a throwing error by the catcher, but was thrown out at home on Scott Rolen's ground ball to shortstop Jimmy Rollins.  With Rolen reaching first base on the fielder's choice, Skip Schumaker then coaxed a walk to put runners on first and second.  Yadier Molina then delivered the game-winning hit with a line drive to left field.  Reliever Brad Thompson was the beneficiary of this tie-breaking run, and got the win.

April 6, 1982 - Newly acquired shortstop Ozzie Smith made his Cardinal debut on Opening Night in Houston, as the Redbirds pounded out 18 hits to crush the Astros, 14-3.  Houston starter Nolan Ryan only made it through three innings, allowing six earned runs on eight hits.  Ozzie collected two hits and 2 RBI in five trips to the plate, while catcher Darrel Porter hit the lone home run for St Louis; but this was a team that seldom relied on the long ball as an offensive weapon that year.  Cards' starter Bob Forsch breezed through this one (8 IP - 3 earned runs) to get the win.

April 7, 1987 - This was Opening Day for the Cardinals as they squared off against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, with John Tudor getting the start for St Louis against Rick Sutcliffe.  Tudor was not sharp early on, as Chicago grabbed a quick 3-0 lead after two innings; however, the Cardinals knocked Sutcliffe out of the game in the third-inning, after plating five runs to take a lead they would not relinquish.  Sutcliffe's final pitching line:  2.2 IP - 4 hits - 5 runs - 7 BB - 0 SO.  Coming in to relieve Sutcliffe in that disastrous third-inning for the Cubs was future Hall of Famer, Greg Maddux, who worked 3.1 innings of solid relief, allowing no runs on just two hits.  Tudor settled down after that shaky start, but was removed from the game after working just enough to qualify for the win - 5 IP - 8 hits - 3 runs - 3 BB - 2 SO.  Reliever Bill Dawley pitched the final four innings for St Louis, allowing just one hit and no runs, walking nobody, while striking out three, to earn a somewhat dubious save.  He was the beneficiary of a four-run seventh-inning which put the game on ice for the Redbirds, who would be heading to their third World Series in six seasons; but this would essentially be the end of the magical era of St Louis Cardinals baseball known as Whitey Ball; just prior to the All Star break in 1990, Herzog abruptly announced his resignation, as the team was heading for an unprecedented last place finish in the NL East.

April 8, 2000 - In a game that somewhat typified the Steroids Era, the Cardinals outslugged the visiting Milwaukee Brewers, 10-8.  Starting pitcher Daryl Kile allowed four earned runs in 5.1 innings of work, but left with the lead. and the bullpen managed to keep the Brewers at bay, although it took five different relievers to hang on:  Slocumb, Mohler, Thompson, Orosco, and Veres - who got the save.  The hitting star was Redbirds' third baseman Fernando Tatis, who went 3 for 4 with 4 RBI; while slugger Mark McGwire, playing in his last injury-plagued season with St Louis, hit his first home run of the year - a solo shot.  The Cardinals would easily win the NL Central that season, but would fall to the New York Mets in the NLCS.  However, with the addition of Jim Edmonds to patrol centerfield for St Louis, this was clearly a team on the rise; the following year, the Albert Pujols Era would begin, and eleven years later, the franchise would have two more World Championships to its credit; with a future that appears brighter than ever, even after Albert became an Angel.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

April 1

April Fool's Day has not been kind to the St Louis Cardinals; rather, it has been a cruel joke three out of the four times the Redbirds have been scheduled to play on this practical joker's holiday.  Last year, for example, Adam Wainwright's opening day assignment in Arizona versus the Diamondbacks was a far cry from the gem he hurled last night in Cincinnati (no runs on three hits in seven innings, with nine strikeouts).  On April 1, 2013 Waino surrendered four runs (all earned) on eleven hits in just six innings of work.  Arizona tacked on a couple more runs en route to an easy 6-2 win.

Back in 2008, the Cardinals hosted the Colorado Rockies, as Kyle Lohse started for St Louis, worked five scoreless innings, and was in line to get the win when Yadier Molina broke a scoreless tie with a fifth-inning solo home run (sound familiar?).  Colorado was held in check until the eighth-inning, when our old friend Ryan Franklin retired nary a single batter, loading the bases on two singles and a base on balls.  By the time the mess was over, the Rockies had a 2-1 lead which they never relinquished, as Franklin chalked up another blown save and a loss in one fell swoop.

In Cincinnati last night, the bullpen held on to that precarious 1-0 lead, despite a rocky eighth-inning when poor defense had the Reds in a position to at least tie the game; perhaps even go ahead.

Going back to April 1, 2007, the defending World Champion Cardinals opened the season at home versus the New York Mets - the team they eliminated in a classic seven game NLCS just a few short months prior - and this time, the New Yorkers exacted some measure of revenge, as an ineffective and injured Chris Carpenter struggled through six innings, allowing six runs (five earned) on nine hits.  Future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine sailed through six innings to capture a 6-1 win.  Not only was 2007 a disaster for Carpenter, who was essentially shelved for the entire year with a bad shoulder - it was a disaster for the Redbirds as a whole.  Nothing seemed to go right all season, as the Redbirds finished below .500 for the only time since the beginning of the millennium.

We have to go all the way back to 2002 to experience the thrill of April Fool's Day victory for the Cardinals.  St Louis scored early and often en route to an easy 10-2 win over the visiting Colorado Rockies, as ace Matt Morris breezed through seven innings, allowing just a single run on five hits.  The 2001 Rookie of the Year - Albert Pujols - got off to a flying start to the new season with a pair of doubles in four trips to the plate, good for three runs batted in.  Cardinal fans would be treated to eleven Hall of Fame-caliber seasons to the player manager Tony LaRussa said was the best he ever managed.  No argument here.

The 2014 Cards seem to have a stacked deck; perhaps even the best team in baseball.  But with the way things have gone in the past on April Fool's Day, it's probably a good thing they had the night off this time around.

March 31

Prior to yesterday, the Cardinals have only played March baseball when it counted on three other occasions - in 1998, 2003, and the World Championship season of 2011.  Strangely enough, the Cardinals were winners in '98 and '03 - when they failed to make the playoffs - but came up short three years ago, losing an excruciating 11-inning home opener against the San Diego Padres - 5-3; clearly a game that should've been won.

Chris Carpenter started the game for St Louis, and pitched admirably, allowing just two runs in seven innings of work; good for a "no decision".  After Matt Holliday's one out solo home run in the bottom of the eighth-inning gave the Cardinals a 3-2 lead, closer Ryan Franklin promptly relinquished that lead with two outs in the top of the ninth-inning, serving up a home run ball of his own to Padres catcher Nick Hundley to dead centerfield.

The inspired Padres then pushed two more runs across the plate in the 11th-inning off somebody named Bryan Augenstein; then All-Star San Diego closer Heath Bell pitched a perfect bottom half to hand St Louis one of their most galling defeats in recent memory.

What made the day seem more like a Twilight Zone episode than ballgame was the 0 for 5 performance from future free agent Albert Pujols, who not only was hitless, he managed to ground into three double plays in front of the astonished Redbird faithful.  Despite the bad day at the plate by the distracted Cardinal first baseman, this defeat was a classic example of the team's Achilles Heal - an unreliable bullpen which frequently used gasoline to put out fires - a recipe for disaster.

What a difference three years makes.  In yesterday's exciting 1-0 win over the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ballpark, Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright pitched seven scoreless innings while battery mate Yadier Molina's seventh-inning home run off Reds starter Johnny Cueto was all the offense needed for Waino; then the bullpen - Neshek, Siegrist, Martinez, and Rosenthal - kept the Reds at bay, despite an adventurous eighth-inning, highlighted by sloppy defense.  In other years, this game may very easily have slipped away from the Redbirds.

Not this year; at least, not in Game One.  In 2011, the Cardinals would sneak into the postseason on the last day of the regular season, en route to an improbable World Championship.  This 2014
 edition may or may not make it all the way to the top of the baseball world, but one thing is clear:  This team is better; especially in the bullpen.