When manager Tony La Russa retired and slugger Albert Pujols went panning for gold in California, there was no reason to expect the St. Louis Cardinals’ 2012 season would stop just a game short of the World Series.
But against all reason that’s what happened.
Mike Matheny was solid, if certainly not perfect, as a first-year manager.
And as with recent Cardinal teams, including the 2011 edition that won the World Series, this team staved off elimination time and time again.
The Cardinals took advantage of MLB adding an additional playoff spot in each league and won the National League’s first wildcard game over the Atlanta Braves. Then, though twice down to their last strike, they rallied for four runs in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the Division Series to defeat the Washington Nationals and advance to the National League Championship Series.
That’s the stuff of memories. Truth is, had the San Francisco Giants turned back the upstart Cardinals in a quick five games, Cardinal loyalists would be saying what a nice year it was – grateful for the unexpected postseason run.
But gratitude is a tougher sentiment to embrace given that the Cardinals held a 3-1 lead in this series and had a chance to close it out at Busch Stadium. At that stage, everyone wants more. And from that point forward – or maybe we should say backward – the Cardinals did not hit, pitch or field like a major-league team.
Batters – let’s not call them hitters because there was precious little hitting – compiled a .190 average and struck out 27 times.
Starting pitchers – maybe we should say opening-game throwers – failed to last even four innings. In the case of Lance Lynn in Game 5, his own throwing error contributed greatly to his demise. Lynn, despite winning 18 games in the regular season and making the NL All-Star team, has proven emotionally fragile.
Ultimate gamer Chris Carpenter had nothing in Game 6 and Kyle Lohse – six hits and five earned runs in just two innings in Game 7 – had even less and, like Lynn, did not look ready for the moment.
The Cardinals made four errors in the last three games en route to becoming just the 12th team to squander a 3-1 series lead. Small consolation: In 1996 when they blew a 3-1 NLCS lead to Atlanta, they were outscored 32-1 over the last three games; this time it was 20-1.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Bernie Miklasz made an excellent point in a post-mortem column: “Slumps aren’t scheduled. Slumps aren’t written into a calendar in advance. Slumps just happen, whether it be the third week of June, or the third week of October.”
But flaws in the postseason also provide direction for the offseason. The Cardinals need to go younger and better at shortstop – say goodbye to vet Rafael Furcal and rookie Pete Kozma, who finally woke up.
They also need to add at least one more significant arm to the starting rotation – maybe that’s one of their hard-throwing relievers, maybe it’s top prospect Shelby Miller – and maybe it’s a free agent or someone acquired in a trade. Lohse is a free agent and unlikely to return. Carpenter may be in the twilight of his career and Jamie Garcia’s health is a question mark. That leaves Adam Wainwright and a lot of uncertainty.
A proven bat or two for the bench wouldn’t hurt, either.
In the end, the Cards played well the hand they were dealt this year. Despite injuries and the loss of two future Hall-of-Famers, they once again got to play for a long stretch in October.
If nothing else, it’s more than Albert Pujols can say.
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. He and Jon Albright host the Jon & Don Show on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays.