Editor’s Note: Austin Laymance covered the St. Louis Cardinals for three months during his summer internship with MLB.com.
The Cardinals are no strangers to the World Series. But this might be their most improbable run yet.
St. Louis is the only team in Major League history to be 10.5 games out of a playoff birth in August and make it to the Fall Classic. The Cardinals are the hottest team in baseball and are playing their best ball at the right time.
Their bullpen is among the best in the league and their lineup, from top to bottom, has found its swing. The Redbirds have scored in the first inning in each of their last eight playoff games, a postseason record.
The heart of the batting order — Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman — is a nightmare for pitchers. If Texas manager Ron Washington wants to walk Pujols, he better have an answer for the RBI machine that is Holliday and the switch-hitting Berkman.
And don’t forget about David Freese, the hometown hero and National League Championship Series MVP. The oft-injured third baseman is the key to the St. Louis offense. When he’s hitting, the Cards score in bunches.
Freese is just one of a host of Cardinals who spent time on the disabled list this season. St. Louis, though, is a better team because of it.
The Cards also lost Holliday, Pujols, Nick Punto, Gerald Laird, Skip Schumaker, Allen Craig, Kyle McClellan and Lance Lynn to the injuries in 2011. Still, the Redbirds persevered and became the never-say-die team that manager Tony La Russa covets.
The adversity began in spring training, when staff ace Adam Wainwright underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. When the club announced he would miss the entire season, few gave St. Louis any chance of making it this far.
But they did. And they aren’t going to leave quietly.
Veteran right-hander Chris Carpenter gets the ball in Game one. He’s 2-0 this postseason with a 3.71 ERA in three starts. Carpenter shutout the high-powered Phillies in the Divisional round, so he’s capable of silencing the Rangers.
La Russa, though, hasn’t announced his starters for the rest of the series. And that isn’t a surprise. The crafty manager will exploit any advantage he thinks he may have. But Rangers fans should hope they see Jaime Garcia in Arlington. The southpaw is dominant at Busch Stadium but struggles mightily on the road.
The Cardinals rotation has been a model for inconsistency all season. But La Russa is a master at utilizing his bullpen. He’s often credited for the construction of the modern bullpen and has a pair of left-handed specialists — Marc Rzepczynski and Arthur Rhodes — lined up for Josh Hamilton.
Rhodes was with Texas earlier in the season before being waived and signing with St. Louis. He’ll get a ring no matter who wins.
It’s hard to think of two franchises with such a stark contrast in pageantry.
The Cardinals have won a record 18 NL pennants and 10 World Series championships — second only to the Yankees.
The Rangers are going to the World Series for the second time in as many years after decades of futility.
While the Cards have several champions on their roster, they acquired a number of players at the trade deadline searching for a title late in their careers. Shortstop Rafael Furcal and relievers Octavio Dotel and Rhodes all came to St. Louis in hopes of a ring. The same rings true for Berkman, who signed with the club in the offseason and recently agreed to an extension.
The Rangers showed interest in Berkman at the trade deadline — funny how baseball works. He’s also a Texas kid who grew up in New Braunfels, went to Rice and started his career in Houston. But this October, the “Big Puma” could upset his fellow Texans.
Pujols will be a free agent at the end of the season, and this could be his last hurray in a St. Louis uniform.
The Cardinals are searching for their 11th World Series title in ‘11. And if you think they can’t beat Texas, consider this: St. Louis has not boarded a plane coming off a loss since August 3. The Cards have dubbed the streak “Happyflight” and chant it after each win before heading home.
Yes, these Redbirds are ready to soar.