October 19, 2011
On the Beat
ST. LOUIS—St. Louisans have the reputation of being among the most knowledgeable baseball fans.
So we couldn't help but ask one of those born-and-bred St. Louisans to explain how the Cardinals have reached the World Series after having improbably winning their 18th National League pennant last Sunday night by finishing off a six-game NLCS victory over the Brewers. (We also get a kick of the name St. Louisans.)
The victory over the Brewers was the latest in many improbably triumphs by the Cardinals over the last two months. They trailed the Braves by 10 1/2 games in the National League wild card race on August 25, when and Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds gave the Cardinals less than a one percent chance of reaching the postseason.
As if overcoming a double-digit deficit in 34 days wasn't enough, the Cardinals took down the Phillies, a team that won the most games in the major leagues during the regular season, in five games in the National League Division Series. Then the Cardinals beat the Brewers to win the pennant even though they finished six games behind them in the NL Central standings.
This dyed-in-the-wool Cardinals fan had a front row seat for every bit of his favorite team's mad dash to the World Series, which opens tonight when St. Louis faces the Texas Rangers in Game 1 at Busch Stadium. He isn't just any Cardinals fan, either. He is Cardinals reliever Kyle McClellan.
Yet even though McClellan has lived it, he still isn't entirely sure how the Cardinals have made it to this point.
"I think a big part of the reason is because we didn't think about it, if that makes any sense," McClellan said. "The odds were so stacked against us in late August that we weren't talking about making the World Series. All we wanted to do was play good baseball. As the wins started piling up, we never lost our focus because we didn't want to start concentrating on anything but playing good baseball. We just stayed focused on that, and here we are."
The Cardinals have a chance to win their second World Series in a six-year span, having beaten the Tigers in the 2006 Fall Classic. No franchise has won two World Series in a shorter period of time since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998-2000.
Nobody could have fathomed on August 25 that the Cardinals would be opening the World Series at home tonight.
"I consider myself an optimistic person by nature," Cardinals right fielder Matt Holliday said. "I'm not that optimistic, though."
The Cardinals' pennant push was born more out of not wanting to be embarrassed than a confidence that they could go all the way. They had fallen to 67-63 on August 25 after being swept in a three-game home series by the Dodgers. Just four games over .500, the Cardinals were barely keeping their heads above water when some of the veteran players, including right-hander Chris Carpenter, called a team meeting.
"Everybody understood where we were at and what was going on, what the expectation level was of our ballclub, and we weren't meeting it," said Carpenter, who will start tonight against Rangers left-hander C.J. Wilson. "We felt even if we don't win or go to the playoffs or don't win another game the rest of the year, which obviously probably wouldn't happen, that we were going to go out and at least show people that we're going to make an effort and not embarrass ourselves because we worked really hard all year to put ourselves in that position, and I don't think anybody liked the way that we looked or the way we were playing the last week or so before we had that meeting. That was it. Did it help? I don't know."
Most of the Cardinals seem to think it did help, including veteran second baseman Nick Punto, who has spent 11 seasons in the major leagues and played in two postseasons with the Twins.
"It was a good meeting because we challenged ourselves to do better," Punto said. "We never talked about putting together a winning streak or getting to the playoffs or playing in the World Series. We just appealed to each other's pride that we couldn't finish the season as poorly as we had been playing."
From August 25 on, the Cardinals embarrassed only their opponents. They went 23-9 while hitting .288/.352/.443 and posting a 3.07 ERA. It also helped that the Braves went 11-20 while the Cardinals were surging.
However, Cardinals left-hander Jaime Garcia said his team's victories over the Phillies and Brewers in the postseason erase any doubts about its being a fluke.
"We beat the two best teams in the National League," Garcia said. "We deserve to be here, and nobody can disagree with that."
It is also hard to disagree with the moves general manager John Mozeliak made in late July that eventually helped the Cardinals make their September run that has carried over into October.
First, he acquired right-handed starter Edwin Jackson, left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski, and right-handed reliever Octavio Dotel in a trade from the Blue Jays for out-of-favor center fielder Colby Rasmus. Then he got shortstop Rafael Furcal from the Dodgers.
Furcal hit just .255/.316/.418 with a .263 TAv, but he also contributed seven home runs and provided a defensive upgrade over Ryan Theriot. Jackson had a 3.98 FIP in 78 innings, Rzepczynski had a 2.69 mark in 22 2/3 innings, and Dotel solidified the back end of the bullpen with a stellar 1.53 FIP in 24 2/3 frames as he settled in as the set-up man and Jason Motte took over as the closer in September. The acquisition of Jackson also enabled McClellan to move from the starting rotation back to the bullpen.
"I give our front office and ownership a lot of credit because they had to make the decision to pull the trigger and believe we had a shot," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "Without those trades, and especially the one with Toronto, we had a legitimate risk to finish under .500 because we were getting so thin in our bullpen. It would have been hard to finish the season."
Instead, the Cardinals finished with a flourish and are in the World Series.
"It's hard to believe," La Russa said, "but it must be true because I've pinched myself enough times to feel it."
Cardinals left-handed reliever Arthur Rhodes: "I think there are a lot of people happy to finally see him get to a World Series. He's not only been a quality pitcher for a long time, but he is a highly respected person in the game. You like to see someone like that get rewarded after busting his butt for 20 years in a job where you usually only get noticed when you fail."
Rangers first baseman Michael Young: "I don't think a team could have a better ambassador that Michael Young. He's a first-class person. He was really upset when they signed Adrian Beltre and traded for Mike Napoli in the offseason, and he made it clear he wanted out. Yet he never made his trade demand an issue and didn't let it become a distraction when it didn't happen. Now he's got a chance for a World Series ring. It wouldn't seem right if the Rangers won it all he wasn't part of it."