Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cardinals Win World Series!

World Series MVP David Freese
The Saint Louis Cardinals, Major League Baseball's most improbable post-season team, has won the 2011 World Series! This is the Cardinals' 11th Series win, second only to the New York Yankees' 22, and their second in the last 5 years, when they defeated Detroit in 4 games in 2006. As I previously wrote, the Cardinals listed through most of the regular season, until righting themselves in the final two months to come back from a 10 1/2 deficit and pass Atlanta's collapsing squad to slip into the playoffs with 90-72 record. The Cardinals then defeated the National League's most successful regular-season team, the 102-60 Philadelphia Phillies, winning 3 games to 2, before vanquishing their division rivals, the Milwaukee Brewers (96-66), in 6 games (4-2), to win the National League Championship and face the American League champions, the Texas Rangers.
While the Cardinals were still battling the Brewers, a good friend and far more knowledgeable sports commentator suggested that the Rangers were the team to beat, as they'd rolled over their first-round opponents, Cardinalian Tampa Bay Rays, also last-day-of-the season entry after the media favorite Boston Red Sox suffered their own disintegration, and then the very talented Detroit Tigers team, which had gone 95-67 and featured the likely American League Cy Young Award winner, Justin Verlander (24-5, 2.40 ERA). Texas walloped Tampa Bay 3-1, following this with a 4-2 victory over the Tigers. I suggested to my friend that no one should count either the Cardinals or the Brewers, had they made it to the Series, out; not only did the National League teams have home-field advantage because their all stars won the All Star Game (a great shift that gives that contest a new layer of seriousness), but each team had a true ace (for the Cardinals the aging but still sharp Chris Carpenter, whose shutout on the regular season's final day sealed their victory), but also several weapons, including the Cardinals' certain Hall of Famer, Albert Pujols, and for a the Brewers, a rising star, the keg-barrel of a slugger, Prince Fielder.
Future Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa
Still it did not look like a good matchup on paper. I don't know what the now dominant Sabremetric crowd had to say about it, either, but I felt from the beginning that whichever National League team made it would win it all. The Cardinals also had a solid lineup, which included talented veterans like Lance Berkman and Rafael Furcal, their excellent catcher, Yadier Molina, and a number of skilled younger players, including Saint Louisan David Freese, who ended up being the Series hero. They also had that very gifted relief corps to fill in for the shaky non-Carpenter starters, and, perhaps as importantly, their manager, Tony LaRussa, who, as any Cardinals fan knows, can swing between the most appallingly dismal strategizing and Gary Kasparovesque moves that would leave the opposing team in a daze.
Freese after his Game 6-winning home run
LaRussa did not disappoint. In a debacle that will surely be forgotten because of the Cardinals' final victory, LaRussa twice in Game 5 called the bullpen to order up the regular closer, Jason Motte, only to have his bullpen coach mishear him twice, instead sending Lance Lynn, the game 3 winner, into the game; Texas scored two runs at home in Arlington Stadium and won 4-2. Yet the next night, in what will certainly go down as one of the most thrilling and sloppily played World Series games in decades, the 6th game featured LaRussa at his best, and the Cardinals embodying what they had shown all throughout September. Two times, in the 9th and 10th innings the Rangers were one strike away from the World Series crown, and both times, the Cardinals came back to tie up the game, with LaRussa using starter Jason Lohse to bunt to advance runners and starter Kyle Westbrook to pitch a scoreless 1lth, until Freese came to the plate and hit a walk-off home run to give the Cardinals the 10-9 victory.  It was an astonishing comeback and win.

At Busch III Stadium
That was all the Cardinals needed. Ace Chris Carpenter returned to pitch his third game of the series, on 3 days rest (because of the initial rain-out of Game 6 in St. Louis), and after surrendering 2 runs in the first inning, he and the relief pitchers Arthur Rhodes, Octavio Dotel, Lynn, and Motte, pitched beautifully, allowing no more runs, and giving Saint Louis the victory. It was a fitting tribute to determination and using every shred of talent and luck the comes your way.  Sometimes the underdog, even in a sport heavily overdetermined by teams' wealth and skill at using statistics these days, does triumph. It also was a fitting valediction for Albert Pujols, who became only the third player ever to hit 3 home runs in a World Series game, and Chris Carpenter in case the Cardinals do not resign them, and for manager Tony LaRussa if he doesn't resign with them either. He has now moved into third place on the all-time win list with 2728 wins vs. 2365 losses, and in 33 years of managing, he won 6 pennants, 3 in the American League and 3 in the National League, and led his team to 3 World Series victories, 1 in the AL with Oakland A's in 1989, and 2 with the Cardinals in 2006 and 2011.

Future Hall of Famer (& ex-Cardinal?) Albert Pujols

Texas will return next year with almost the entire core of its team intact, including its masterful manager Ron Washington. Last year the Rangers went to Series and lost to the San Francisco Giants, and this year they went down against the Cardinals. Although the Yankees, the Tigers, Tampa Bay, the California Angels, and the Red Sox will all be in the hunt next year, Washington has the personnel to make three times a charm. I don't think he'll be facing the Cardinals next year, or the Brewers if they lose Fielder. Could it be Philadelphia? Pittsburgh? Arizona? The Mets? Come back next spring and we'll resume the conversation!

The Saint Louis Rally Squirrel!


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