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.