Saturday, September 30, 2006 - At Busch Stadium III (Jeff Suppan - Starting Pitcher) - Opponent: Milwaukee Brewers (Ben Sheets - Starting Pitcher) - Attendance: 44,294
The difference between the Cardinals winning the NL Central and advancing into the postseason and losing the division title - and going home early - really boiled down to the three-run eighth-inning rally the eventual World Series champions put together in this game - to turn a 2-0 deficit into a crucial 3-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers.
That was a close call, fans. Of course, any season that hinges on one or two games between postseason glory or postseason tee times - can be identified by reviewing the events in one key inning, or one key at bat. In this particular case, a couple of managerial decisions on the part of Tony LaRussa late in this game impacted the long term benefits Cardinal fans would ultimately enjoy - namely, a tenth world championship trophy for this storied franchise.
First things first. Prior to this game, the Cardinals had won just eleven times in September - losing sixteen times. On September 28, their once comfortable NL Central lead had dwindled to an alarming one-half game over the defending National League champion Houston Astros.
After a much-needed win on Friday night, coupled with a Houston loss in Atlanta, the lead was back to a game and a half as the Cardinals and Brewers prepared to do battle on this beautiful Saturday afternoon in St Louis.
Both starting pitchers - Jeff Suppan and Ben Sheets - were on top of their games today - neither allowing a single run to cross the plate through the first six innings.
But then in the top of the seventh-inning, the Brewers rallied. With one out, back-to-back singles by Geoff Jenkins and Corey Hart suddenly had runners on first and second. After David Bell lined out to Preston Wilson in left field, Mike Rivera walked to load the bases.
Brewers nanager Ned Yost, trying to capitalize on this scoring opportunity, inserted pinch hitter Jeff Cirillo in to bat for Ben Sheets. It was a good move, as Cirillo lined a single to center, scoring Jenkins and Hart, to give Milwaukee a 2-0 lead.
Although they were now behind by a couple of runs, the Cardinals were probably glad to get Sheets out of there. Although he'd given up seven hits in six innings of work, Sheets had also fanned seven - including striking out the side in the sixth.
Reliever Jose Capella pitched an uneventful bottom of the seventh for Milwaukee, but the eighth-inning would be quite a different story. Albert Pujols started the fun with a lead-off single to right. After Wilson struck out, Scott Rolen doubled down the left field line - advancing Pujols to third.
Yost went to his bullpen again - bringing in lefty reliever Brian Shouse to face Jim Edmonds - instead, LaRussa sent pinch hitter Juan Encarnacion to bat - who received an intentional walk to load the bases.
Yost went to the bullpen again, bringing in Francisco Cordero to face Ronnie Belliard - who lined out to left field for the second out. It was getting late - not only in this game - but the for the entire season - which seemed to be slipping away into non-postseason hell at this point - especially with Cordero now pitching for Milwaukee. Acquired on July 28 from the Texas Rangers for some young outfielder by the name of Nelson Cruz - Cordero had been nothing short of sensational - posting a 1.69 ERA in twenty-four innings - and on the verge of wrapping this one up.
Due up was Yadier Molina - who wasn't much of a hitter early in his career. LaRussa knew it was now or never for his fading team - sending in the future postseason cult hero - Scott Spiezio - up to bat for Yadi - and he delivered the biggest hit of his career - at least up to this point - a bases-clearing triple deep to right field. Suddenly, the Cardinals had climbed out of the abyss - taking a 3-2 lead heading into the ninth-inning.
Tyler Johnson - who had worked a scoreless eighth-inning for St Louis - would be in line for the win (2-4) if a young Adam Wainwright could pitch a scoreless ninth to earn his third major league save.
Waino walked one and struck out one to close this one out. The Cardinals had come-from-behind to win a game they absolutely needed to win - especially since Houston had also won today to remain just a game and a half behind St Louis.
As fate would have it, the Astros would lose again on Sunday, October 1 - and so would the Cardinals - to remain a game and a half in front of Houston - with just one game left on the schedule - a game that was previously rained-out. Thanks to the mathematical impossibility of St Louis blowing that lead, the Redbirds didn't have to worry about playing Game 162.
St Louis finished the regular season at 83-78 - five games above .500 - but it was good enough to win the NL Central - so it was good enough to sneak into the postseason. After eliminating the over-whelming favorites in the NLDS - the San Diego Padres - three games to one - the Cardinals advanced to the NLCS to face the over-whelming favorite New York Mets - who were beaten, four games to three.
On to the World Series, to play the extremely overwhelmingly favored Detroit Tigers - who even had home-field advantage going for them. The only thing they didn't have going for them were a whole lot of wins. St Louis crushed them - four games to one - much to the shock and dismay of practically everyone outside of Cardinal Nation.
The Cardinals' postseason record: 11-5 - six games above .500 - marking the first time in history a team had ever gone higher above .500 in the postseason than they had in the regular season. The cover of Sports Illustrated - capturing the essence of this upset - displayed a photo of a jubilant World Series MVP David Eckstein on the cover - arms extended high over his head - with the appropriate caption: "Get Over It" - but I don't think a lot of bitter fans from other championship-deprived franchises really have gotten over it.
Come to think of it, the outcome of the 2011 World Series seemed to have surprised and disappointed the disgruntled masses once again. Of course, heading into the 2014 postseason, the Cardinals are huge underdogs again. In fact, odds-makers have given the wild card Pittsburgh Pirates a better shot of winning the World Series. Go figure.
Of course, that's just the way the Cardinals seem to prefer it - playing the role of the underdog.