Not many would consider a defending champion with 11 titles overall as an underdog, but the St. Louis Cardinals have proved to be an unlikely source of postseason success for the second straight season.
What is fascinating is that this edition of the Cardinals is more of a surprise than last year’s team which came back from deficits in all three postseason rounds, including a game six World Series performance that may go down in history as one of the best baseball games ever played.
After watching 16-year manager Tony LaRussa retire and losing Albert Pujols the greatest hitter of the past 20 years, St. Louis is right where it was a last season.
The Cardinals are tied 1-1 in the National League Championship Series against the San Francisco Giants as the series shifts to St. Louis. How the Redbirds got to this juncture is a testament to a franchise that has every player ready to go, no matter the situation.
St. Louis reached the playoffs last season after an improbable late season run in which the team went 23-9 in its last 32 games. The team was assisted by an Atlanta collapse that saw the Braves go 9-18 in September. The Cardinals clinched the Wild Card on the regular season’s last day.
Because of the excitement of the last day of the 2011 regular season, Major League Baseball decided to add a one-game Wild Card playoff between the two teams with the best record that did not win its division in each league.
It came down to the Braves and Cardinals again this year. The Cardinals won 6-3 at in Atlanta’s Turner Field thanks to three costly Braves’ errors.
A controversial eighth inning infield fly rule call cost Atlanta an out, which prompted fans to litter the field with beer bottles and debris. Though the event is likely to be remembered for years, it had little bearings on the game’s actual outcome.
The Cardinals advanced to the National League Division Series to take on the upstart Washington Nationals who, at 98 wins, won 10 more games than the Cardinals during the regular season. The Cardinals dropped game one at home, but they came back in game two to win 12-4.
St. Louis took game three 8-0 in Washington. The Nationals responded with a Jayson Werth walkoff home run in game four, which brought the series to a winner-take-all game five.
The Nationals were up 6-0 by the end of the third inning and seemingly held strong to what would have been its first playoff-series win in franchise history, dating back to the team’s Montreal days.
Any team would have had its bags packed to go back home at that point, but not these Cardinals.
St. Louis rallied and found itself down 7-5 to start the ninth inning. With two strikes and two outs, the Cardinals were one strike away from elimination, as they were in game six of the 2011 series.
With the bases loaded, second baseman Daniel Descalso, who played regularly for the first time in his career this year, hit a sharp drive to Washington shortstop Ian Desmond. The ball deflected off Desmond’s glove and went into centerfield, which scored two runs.
Cardinal shortstop Pete Kozma, who had been playing in place of injured Rafael Furcal since late August, came up next and drove in two additional runs, which gave St. Louis a 9-7 lead as well as the series.
Now, after splitting two games in San Francisco, it seems everything is right where the Cardinals want. They are going home to one of the most passionate and knowledgeable fan bases in all of baseball. They live and die with their Redbirds.
If the Cards advance to the World Series, they would likely square off against the Detroit Tigers, who would surely be the favorites. Ask Chris Carpenter, a revitalized Carlos Beltran or Jason Motte. They would likely tell you the same thing.
They relish being unheralded underdogs. Everyone can write great stories, but it takes a true team such as the Cardinals to bring them to life.
They don’t spend money like bigger market teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox or Phillies, but they find themselves vying for their 12th title, which might be the most surprising of all.
Whether you are a Cubs, Brewers, White Sox or Cardinals fan, you have to enjoy what St. Louis has done. Baseball may never see a team like this again.