Three years ago, the Cardinals began today with a record of 67-63 after being swept by the National League West’s fourth place Dodgers. The Cards were second in the National League Central to the Brewers, 10 games back, and third in the wild card standings, 10.5 games behind the Braves and one game behind the Giants.
We’ll never tire of recalling how the Cardinals went 23-9 from Aug. 25 through the final day of the regular season on Sept. 28, when Chris Carpenter and Company beat the Astros 8-0 for a historic comeback to win the wild card. As those games — and wins — went by, we marveled at the contributions from The Shredder and The Riot and Freeser and even Carlos Marmol and his walk-off wild pitch in addition to the season-long contributions from Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday, Yadi and That Guy Who Used To Play First Base.
Yet one thing seems to be forgotten in all our giddiness and our magical memories of Happy Flights and reaching October and the incredible ride that culminated in glorious World Championship No. 11 in ’11.
It’s so easy to forget the absolutely vital role the Braves played in making it all possible for the Cardinals.
The Braves were 78-53 as play began on Aug. 25, with a 9.5 lead in the wild card race over the Giants and of course 10.5 over the Cards. From that day on, they went 11-20. Every single one of those losses was needed for the Cardinals to reach October, just as every single one of the Cards’ 23 victories was necessary too. One more win by Atlanta at any point during 2011, or one more loss by St. Louis, and there’d be no NLDS Game Five memories. The words “Game Six” would have not have the power to make us smile upon hearing them.
That’s the beauty of sports, isn’t it? Triumph on one side comes at the cost of despair on another. Always has, always will, since every outcome has both a winner and a loser.
And the winning and magic of September and October 2011 seem all the more powerful the further away those days get. We’ve been spoiled by the success of 2012 and 2013 into thinking it doesn’t matter what the odds are or what the standings say — October is October and the Cardinals will be there, period.
Except it doesn’t just happen, and doesn’t always happen. (We could learn that lesson very well in 2014.) And the line between in and out can sometimes be so small.
I was reminded again of the true wonder of 2011 the other day in reading Jayson Stark’s book “Wild Pitches.” It’s a collection of some of his best work for ESPN, and his columns on the Cardinals 2011 World Series championship are back-to-back in the book. I’d read both pieces once the 2011 Series was over, when I devoured absolutely everything I could on the Cardinals triumph. Yet reading them again, nearly three years later, brings a new appreciation — and even goosebumps anew.
It ended with a baseball soaring through the October sky.
Soaring toward a patch of resplendent green grass, located just beyond the center-field fence.
Soaring toward its place in the story books and the history books.
See what I mean? As Cardinals fans, we don’t even need more details — we know exactly what he’s describing (and you can continue reading his whole piece here).
Here’s what Stark wrote after the next game:
Even after it was over, they still couldn’t grasp it.
Even as the fireworks shot through the sky, even as the World Series trophy sat on a podium at second base, they still weren’t sure exactly what they’d done or how they’d done it.
Mere humans can only comprehend so much, you know. So how were the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals supposed to comprehend this?
The title to his piece is “Cardinals Complete Impossible Dream,” and it really does seem all the more impossible as time moves on.
The baseball gods gave the Cardinals, and all of us as fans, a true gift that resulted in the 2011 championship, one that began to take shape with an 8-4 win three years ago tonight against the Pirates. We didn’t know it at the time, obviously — I was at the game for a social media night and was just happy they finally won another one after the ugliness that the Dodgers series had been.
The Cardinals September and October 2011 success, plus the failures of first the Braves and then the Phillies and Brewers and of course the Rangers, really were rare. Historically rare, at least for the Braves and Rangers.
And the success will continue to grow more sweet, and should be all the more appreciated, the farther in the distance it gets.