“We’re going to win.”
Absolutely. Amazing. That was from Albert Pujols after the opening pitch of the 2011 regular season. But first, let’s recap the final day of the season.
The Red Sox hold a nine-game lead over the Rays in early September, but a 7-19 September allowed Tampa to begin the final day of the regular season tied for the AL Wild Card. RHP Jonathan Papelbon blew his third save of the season, allowed three hits and two runs of 2/3 of an inning in a 4-3 loss to the Orioles. Up 3-2, Papelbon recorded the first two outs easily before giving up a Chris Davis double, followed by a Nolan Reimold double and game-winning Robert Andino single. Boston finished September with a sour 7-20 record, ultimately missing the postseason. Papelbon, an impending free agent, appears to have pitched his last game in Boston. The BoSox, however, can still make the Wild Card if the Yankees can hold off the Rays…
New York took a 7-0 lead, but the Rays stormed back. 3B Evan Longoria took RHP Luis Ayala deep to centre in the eighth inning on a three-run shot, eventually cutting a 7-2 Yankees lead to a 7-6 ball game. In the ninth, pinch hitter Dan Johnson–with one homerun all season long–took RHP Cory Wade over the wall in right–with two strikes, two outs and zero options on bench–to tie the game at seven. Then in the 12th, Longoria homered AGAIN to win it in an 8-7 walkoff, sending the Rays to the ALDS–just four minutes after the BoSox lost in Baltimore in an epic collapse for the ages, Longoria sent RHP Scott Proctor’s pitch just over the low wall around the left field foul pole. Absolutely amazing.
Now, let’s rewind to before the final day of the season.
The Cardinals are forced to play the 2011 season without their ace, RHP Adam Wainwright. The huge loss was viewed as insurmountable for the Cards, who are about to embark upon a lost season. Adding to the problem is the impending free agency of the best player in baseball, 1B Albert Pujols, who struggled out of the gate as the media flooded him with questions regarding his future.
While the Cardinals faced perhaps the biggest question mark in the history of the franchise, those around them in the NL Central were building for the postseason. The Reds acquiring minor pieces in order to fix flaws in last season’s team and get them over the hump and into the postseason. The Brewers opened their wallets and acquired RHP Zack Greinke and RHP Shaun Marcum to shore up the rotation.
St. Louis went out and signed OF Lance Berkman, a 35-year-old who may have nothing left in the tank after posting 14 homeruns, 58 RBIs and a .248 average between the Astros and Yankees. They acquired INF Nick Punto to add some infield depth, but little else. SS Rafael Furcal, an aging shortstop who’s bread-and-butter speed was diminished and hampered by frequent injuries, was brought in, as was LHP Arthur Rhodes, a 40-year-old lefty specialist who was cut by the Rangers.
Down the stretch of the season, the Reds began to fade from the playoff picture, while the Cards remained relevant behind the Brewers. GM John Mozeliak made what appeared to be one of the worst trades in recent memory, sending disgruntled, high-potential OF Colby Rasmus (with three others) to the Blue Jays for RHP Edwin Jackson, LHP Mark Rzepczynski and RHP Octavio Dotel. The Cardinals were in win-now mode, despite the team looking like it wasn’t ready.
August 25, 2011–the Cardinals are 10.5 games back of the National League Wild Card. They’re given a 0.2% (1 in 500) chance of making the postseason.
September 6, 2011–Atlanta holds an 8.5 game lead over the National League Wild Card
September 28,2011, the final day of the season–Needing a win, the Cards call upon RHP Chris Carpenter, the team’s ace. And he doesn’t disappoint. In a must-win game, Carp tosses a complete game shutout, giving up just two hits, one walk and striking out 11 in an 8-0 win over the Astros. St. Louis, however, still needed help–from the team they’re likely to face in the postseason.
The Phillies and Braves went 13 innings, with the Phillies sneaking out a win. RHP Craig Kimbrel, who has been an absolute rock all season, surrendered the tying run in the ninth, and trade deadline acquisition OF Hunter Pence came through with a two-out, run-scoring single in the 13th to give the Philly the win.
Instead of a second-consecutive postseason appearance, they became the first team in major league history to blow a lead of at least eight games for a playoff spot in September. Many will say that quickto point out that Atlanta went the entire month without a single inning pitched from No. 2 and No. 3 starters RHP Tommy Hanson (shoulder) and RHP Jair Jurrjens (right knee), while top offensive leader C Brian McCann (oblique) couldn’t get it going again. As such, Atlanta scored only seven runs in its last five games. It’s fair to wonder how things would’ve changed had Atlanta been healthy. Then again, the same can be said for the Cardinals and the absence of their ace, Wainwright.
So many things had to happen for this to work, and everything fell into place, as if it was meant to be. The Cardinals win and Braves loss means St. Louis clinches the Wild Card spot, while Atlanta goes home. The Braves had to win just one of their final games to eliminate the Cards, but a five-game losing streak and an 8-19 September record saw their once guaranteed Wild Card berth fade away on the final day of the regular season in what’s considered one of the greatest chokes in MLB history.
They call upon Chris Carpenter, the worst and best option to start Game 7. The first pitcher in a decade to start three World Series games. At 36, he’s pitching on three days rest for the second time in his career and second this postseason. After a rough first inning where he surrendered a single, walk and a pair of RBI doubles, St. Louis was quickly in a 2-0 hole. Carp, however, would bounce back as he usually does, and was razor sharp the rest of the way. Double C was given the hook after six innings, striking out five and giving up just the two runs.
“I felt better and stronger as the game went on, no question about it. I got in a little rhythm, in control of my body, and was able to really work the game the way I wanted to work it.”
They beat the World Series favoured Phillies, then the under-the-radar Brewers to make it to the Fall Classic.
After falling behind three games to two in the World Series by losing Games 4 and 5 in Arlington, Texas, the Cardinals were on the brink of elimination. After killing a Cardinals rally in the sixth, Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz led off the seventh with back to back homeruns, essentially ending the game. But they wouldn’t die. Allen Craig hit a solo homerun to cut the deficit to two.
Bottom nine, two strikes on David Freese, but he hits an opposite field double to tie the game. But Texas would pull ahead again, as Josh Hamilton smacked a two-run homerun to give them the 9-7 lead–again, essentially ending the game.
With one out remaining in the game, manager Ron Washington walks Pujols to pitch to Lance Berkman. But the Big Puma hits the game-tying RBI single to force extras.
Cue David Freese, and watch the transformation between hero and legend. Bottom 11, Freese smashes a homerun to straightaway centre, forcing Game 7 the following day.
Three comebacks. The Cardinals, down to their final strike–twice–yet continued to fight.
24 hours later, a FO7, from David Murphy to Allen Craig sealed the Fall Classic on October 28, 2011 at 10:22 pm ET. 6-2 Cardinals, final score. Game 7 of World Series No. 107. 47,399 people at Busch Stadium screaming at the top of their lungs. Their 11th championship in franchise history, trailing just the Yankees and their 27.
In World Series Game 7–the last call where winner takes all, the game that every player, fan and child imagines themselves playing in–it will always be Game 6 that’s remembered. Go figure.
Would you expect anything else given the way the 2011 regular season ended?
12:01 am ET, while celebrating his second World Series championship, Pujols officially becomes a free agent.
This year’s undiscovered hero was Freese, an oft-injured third baseman with excellent opposite-field power. With one strike left, Freese hit a game-tying triple to right field and finished the night with a walk-off home run to center field, his first at-bat ended with a two-run double into left-center field. The hometown kid, who was traded for his hero in San Diego, Jim Edmonds, followed his incredible Game 6 with a crucial hit in Game 7. Freese batted .348 with five extra-base hits in the Series and set an MLB record with 21 RBIs in the postseason.
The Cardinals, simply put, just completed the greatest playoff games in postseason history. It was, without question, the greatest World Series of all-time.
Now, it’s decision-making time.
Having won a crucial game single-handedly, smashing three homeruns in a single game, Pujols is now at a crossroads in his life and his career.
Manager Tony La Russa, one of the best the game has ever produced, announced his retirement. La Russa reportedly made the decision down the stretch this season, and then confirmed to Mozeliak and DeWitt on the night of the World Series that it was his final game, win, lose or draw. Going out on top, La Russa becomes the only manager in MLB history to retire after winning a championship. He won two of them with this Cardinals team, the first being just a few seasons ago in 2006. La Russa held the job for 16 seasons. During the press conference, La Russa immediately shot down the notion of ever managing again, and added that he has no plans to be a general manager, but said he is open to some sort of baseball job in the future.
He won 2,728 games, the third highest total in history behind Connie Mack and John McGraw, over 33 seasons with the Cards, Athletics and White Sox. In addition to this season, he won championships in Oakland in 1989 and St. Louis in 2006 (it’s also worth noting that three of the 67-year-old’s oldest friends–Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Lou Piniella–all retired after last season).
Six pennants and three World Series titles later, he will soon be forever engraved in greatness when unanimously voted into Cooperstown.
“Other than some of personal attachments, I feel good. I feel good that this is the right decision.”
“I think this just feels like it’s time to end it.”
With La Russa–his manager, his father figure, his mentor–now out of the picture, rumours are stronger than they’ve ever been that Pujols has played his last game as a Cardinal. After a season of distraction from perhaps the bigger picture, the next chapter in Pujols’ life and career is about to be written.
“It doesn’t matter the numbers, it doesn’t matter the records, it doesn’t matter the money you make. What matters is to raise that trophy and to be able to bring that smile to the city of St. Louis, and not just the city of St. Louis but all our fans around the world.”
The Cardinals want Pujols back. They ache for him to spend his career here and retire in their colors. He was here for the championship in 2006 and contributed plenty more to this one. Pujols hit three home runs and racked up a record 14 total bases in Game 3. He scored the Cardinals’ fifth run Friday in the wacky inning that saw them plate two without a hit – walk, hit by pitch, intentional walk, walk, hit by pitch. He would set every record possible with another decade here.
“He’s like Stan, he’s like Bob, he’s like Lou, he’s like Red. He’s a Cardinal. I’m glad I’m not in a position to have to make that decision. It would be very different and very weird to see him in another uniform. The guy’s unbelievable. He’s the greatest player right now. By the time he’s done playing, he’ll be the greatest of all time,” said McGwire.
When the Cardinals won Game 7, Berkman asked Pujols tonight to come back next year, and Pujols laughed. Who knows if he really wants to? He’s remained mum and tight-lipped about it since spring training, and likely won’t reveal his intentions to the public. There’s no doubt that winning it all would help sway Pujols into re-signing, although the contract he’s reportedly seeking–believed to be upwards of $200M–may be too much for St. Louis to spend, even if the interest between the two parties is mutual.
One must wonder, though, just how similar situations around the MLB unfolded. Take Yankees’ SS Derek Jeter, for example. A Yankee for life, no matter how much the team buried him, lowballed him, disrespected him or how far his game slips, there was zero chance that he was playing for any team other than the Bronx Bombers–there was no chance he wouldn’t retire in pinstripes.
Some players are destined to play out their careers with one team: Steve Yzerman, Troy Aikman, Mario Lemieux, Chipper Jones, Joe Sakic, John Elway, Ichiro. Others look weird and uncomfortable to the eye in different jerseys: Michael Jordan, Brett Favre, Joe Montana, Allen Iverson. The same can be said for Pujols.
The other option is one that could forever ruin the franchise–letting the best player in the game walk away from the team, free of charge, would make the Cardinals a mediocre NL team.
“Listen. I’m going to be prayerful about it. Whatever decision I make hopefully is the best decision I make for my family and the fans and everybody.”
The most logical, reasonable option is to re-sign him. Sure, it’ll break the bank and you’ll be tying up an inordinate amount of your budget in just one position player–often times, banking 25% of your payroll on one player leads to a disaster that takes years to recover from–regardless, it needs to be done. Pujols needs the Cardinals as much as they need him. He’s the identity of the city of St. Louis, and losing him would be devastating to the city and the franchise.
Keeping him could be, as well.
Who will give him the second-greatest contract in history (behind Alex Rodriguez) is the question. And the even bigger one is whether the Cardinals, the team with whom Pujols has starred for a decade, will match or exceed it.
Many believe the bottom line will be money. Will Pujols, a St. Louis icon, leave behind everything he has created for 20% more money? Pujols is expected to sign for somewhere between 7-10 years/$210-250M, with some narrowing it down to an 8-year/$225M contract, which averages $28.1M annually, surpassing Rodriguez’ 10-year/$275M contract. 20% of $225M is $45M, which remains a significant amount of cash. Be prepared, because this bidding war could go insane. If the Cards can’t match the new contract, Pujols must decide whether that extra money is worth wearing another uniform.
Of course, the extra money could be donated to the numerous charities that Pujols is involved with. The entire free agency thing could also merely be a ploy for him to see what he could generate on the market before re-signing. Maybe he wants to be auctioned off to the highest bidder and will sign with whoever offers him the most. Who knows. His motivation has and will be kept quiet all throughout the winter.
Regardless of what happens, Cardinals fans need to appreciate and savour their World Series win. It may or may not be the last time Pujols dons a St. Louis jersey. El Hombre has shown time and time again what he brings on both sides of the ball, and what he provides in the locker room. For all the naysayers who tried to knock him down after he no-showed the media following Game 2, Pujols single-handedly won Game 3 with three homeruns. He may not be perfect, but his assets far outweigh his deficiencies.