In the Year of the Pitcher, both the Texas Rangers and St. Louis Cardinals bashed their way to the World Series. The Rangers have a 4.11 ERA this postseason, but have won seven of 10 playoff games. The Cardinals, who won the National League wild card despite ranking ninth in the NL in runs allowed (they led the league in runs scored), beat the two winningest NL teams in back-to-back playoff series despite a 4.18 ERA.
They won with offense; both Texas and St. Louis have averaged at least 5.5 runs during the postseason. The Rangers’ starting pitchers have averaged just 5.17 innings per game in the playoffs, and the Cardinals’ rotation just 4.97 innings per start. And on the eve of next year’s playoffs, I guarantee some pundit will remind you that pitching wins championships. Ignore him.
The Cardinals shouldn’t be here. On the morning of September 6, they were 8.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the wild-card race, with barely three weeks left in the season. They were still three games behind Atlanta with five games left, but the Braves lost their last five games, and the Cardinals won the wild card without even needing a tiebreaker. They owe their place in the postseason as much to good fortune and Atlanta’s collapse as to anything they did to earn it.
But having been gifted a spot in the playoffs, the Cardinals have made the most of the opportunity. The Tampa Bay Rays, after all, got the same gift when the Red Sox had no choice but to forfeit all their games in September because their starting pitchers refused to warm up until they finished Call of Duty, and because their manager was so strung out on heroin that he turned in a lineup card with Elmo leading off and David Ortiz batting 13th. (I’m a little hazy on the details, but Larry Lucch— er “well-placed sources” assure me this is all true.)
While the Rays were dispatched by the Rangers in the first round, the Cardinals took advantage of their second life by squeaking past the Phillies and dismantling the Brewers, and now take their place alongside the most unlikely World Series teams ever. These include the 2007 Colorado Rockies, who were in fourth place in the NL West with two weeks to go, then won 21 of 22 games from mid-September through the end of the NLCS; and the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals, who were 6.5 games back with 13 to play, but had the NL pennant handed to them when the Phillies suffered the most famous collapse in baseball history.
The 1964 Cardinals went on to beat the Yankees in the World Series in seven games, inspiring a David Halberstam book decades later. Like their decades-old forebears, this year’s Cardinals are poised to ride their good fortune all the way to a world championship. Here’s why.
1. They can hit.
This might not be groundbreaking analysis, but to win a baseball game you need to outscore your opponents. The Cardinals have done that all season long. They scored 762 runs during the regular season, 27 more than any other NL team. While the Rangers scored 855 runs, they did so with the help of a DH and with the help of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, an excellent hitters’ park. (The newest iteration of Busch Stadium favors pitchers.)
The Cardinals have continued to score runs in bunches in the playoffs — they’ve averaged 5.64 runs per game so far. That’s not a surprise, because the Cardinals’ offense is built around arguably the game’s best heart of the order. Lance Berkman (.301/.412/.547) won NL Comeback Player of the Year honors sandwiched between Albert Pujols (.299/.366/.541) and Matt Holliday (.296/.388/.525). All three players finished with an OPS above .900. Only two other teams in all of baseball had even two players with an OPS that high — the Red Sox, who weren’t invited to the dance, and the Brewers with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, who the Cardinals beat to get here. The Rangers, with Mike Napoli, have only one.
The Rangers’ rotation is a collection of competent but not overpowering starting pitchers — the kind of pitchers who can shut down good hitters. The problem for Texas is that the Cardinals have three great hitters batting 3-4-5. Against the Brewers, Holliday hit .435/.500/.652, and Pujols hit .478/.556/.913. And neither player won NLCS MVP honors — those went to third baseman David Freese, who is a career .298/.354/.429 hitter since reaching the majors two years ago, and who hit .545 in the NLCS, with 3 homers and 9 RBIs. (The only player in major league history who matched those numbers in a playoff series was Lou Gehrig, in the 1928 World Series.)
The Rangers are going to have their hands full with the heart of the Cardinals’ lineup, and even if they find a way to shut all three down, there are other hitters at Tony La Russa’s disposal.
2. Albert Pujols is a very, very, bad, bad man.
As hard as this might be to believe today, four months ago it appeared that Pujols’ decision to turn down the Cardinals’ long-term contract offer last winter might wind up costing him millions of dollars. On June 1, Pujols had a shockingly pedestrian stat line of .262/.333/.412, and there were whispers that his best days were behind him.
Nope. From that point on, Pujols hit .321/.386/.620, which is to say, he hit roughly like himself. A collision at first base broke a bone in his arm, which was supposed to keep him out for four to six weeks; he was back in 17 days. Since the playoffs started, Pujols has improved, hitting .350/.409/.500 against Philadelphia before turning into a one-man wrecking crew against Milwaukee.
Here’s the thing about Pujols: He always seems to elevate his game in October. In 2001, as a rookie, Pujols was just 2-for-18 in the Cardinals’ first-round loss to Arizona. He hasn’t had a bad playoff series since. In his past 13 playoff series, Pujols has hit over .400 more times (3) than he’s hit under .300 (2). His career line in the postseason is .339/.441/.603, with 15 home runs in 67 games, and a box set of memorable moments, from the game-winning home run off Brad Lidge in 2005 that burned up on reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere to his four-extra-base-hit barrage against the Brewers nine days ago.
Pujols’ career playoff numbers are actually a tick better than his regular-season line of .328/.420/.617 — despite batting against playoff-caliber pitching, and despite playing in October, when cold weather generally tilts the game in the pitcher’s favor. Pujols has become the Mariano Rivera of hitters — a truly transcendent player who, impossibly, performs better on the biggest stage against the best competition.
One great playoff performance isn’t predictive of anything. Nelson Cruz, who won ALCS MVP honors with a record-setting six homers and 13 RBIs, was coming off an ALDS in which he managed one measly single in 15 at-bats. Pujols, on the other hand, has hit the crap out of the ball series after series.
And with Berkman on deck and Holliday in the hole, walking Pujols isn’t a particularly palatable option. Good luck, Texas. You’ll need it.
3. They have the Hallmark of bullpens: a reliever for every occasion.
During the regular season, the Cardinals ranked just 11th in the NL with a 3.73 ERA from their relievers. But the Colby Rasmus trade in July brought in a pair of specialists in Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski, remaking the bullpen into a weapon that Tony La Russa has used early and often. The Cardinals’ bullpen, featuring no fewer than eight relievers, has a 2.55 ERA in October.
Rzepczynski and Arthur Rhodes, the two left-handers in the pen, were effective in neutralizing the Phillies’ Ryan Howard and the Brewers’ Prince Fielder in the first two rounds. Expect both of them to be on call whenever Josh Hamilton, the one left-handed power threat in the Rangers lineup, gets his turn at bat.
Dotel, however, might be the key reliever in this series. His hard-breaking slider has always made him more effective against right-handed batters, and in 2011 he has been downright pestilential against them: right-handers batted .154/.198/.211 against Dotel this season. In the NLCS, La Russa called on him to face Ryan Braun in Games 4, 5, and 6, and Dotel struck out Braun all three times.
As it happens, the Rangers usually start six or seven right-handed hitters in their lineup, and while the left-handed Hamilton bats third, the no. 4 through no. 7 hitters are typically Michael Young, Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli, and Nelson Cruz — right-handers all, and with the exception of Napoli, all free-swingers who are susceptible to chasing well-placed sliders down and away. Expect Dotel — who has thrown 6.2 innings in the playoffs, and has allowed just two hits and one walk — to play a major role in the series.
4. Tony La Russa >>> Ron Washington.
Ron Washington is a better manager than he was last October, when he refused to use his best reliever, Neftali Feliz, with the game on the line in the eighth inning, but repeatedly used Feliz to “close” games in the ninth inning with the Rangers leading by five runs or more. And the sheer number of bullpen weapons at his disposal this season makes it more difficult for Washington to screw things up.
But he’s no Tony La Russa. Most of the players in this series weren’t born when La Russa began his managerial career in 1979. This is La Russa’s sixth World Series appearance, tying Joe Torre for the most by any manager in the past half-century.
La Russa’s signature contribution to the game has been his emphasis on bringing in one reliever after another to get the matchup advantage, and the 2011 postseason might well be his magnum opus. In Game 2 of the NLCS, La Russa pulled starter Edwin Jackson in the fifth inning with the Brewers threatening, even though the Cardinals were winning 7-2. His bullpen allowed one run the rest of the way. In Game 5, Jaime Garcia was pulled in the fifth when Braun batted as the tying run; Dotel struck him out, and the Brewers were held scoreless the rest of the way.
And in Game 6, La Russa pulled Jackson after just two innings, despite leading 7-4. That wasn’t the surprise — the surprise was that La Russa then turned to Fernando Salas, who served as the team’s closer for most of the season — in the third inning. Salas and four other relievers combined to allow two runs in seven innings, and the Cardinals clinched.
In Games 2 and 5, La Russa refused to let his starting pitchers complete the fifth inning despite having the lead, depriving them of qualifying for the win statistic. But pitchers don’t win games; teams win games. Too many managers have made the former a higher priority than the latter, sticking with a struggling pitcher for too long. La Russa won’t make that mistake. The Cardinals won the NLCS with ease despite averaging barely four innings a game from their starting pitchers.
La Russa’s willingness to pull his starters comes with fringe benefits. Pulling Jackson early in Game 6 allowed La Russa to call on a pinch-hitter for Jackson with men on second and third, and Allen Craig responded with a two-run single that made the score 9-4.
With Jason Motte entrenched as the team’s closer, with Salas on call to pitch in tight situations no matter what the inning, with Rzepczynski, Rhodes, and Dotel to play matchup ball, and with Lance Lynn, Mitchell Boggs, and Kyle McClellan to fill in the gaps, La Russa has a reliever for every situation. Off days after Games 2 and 5 mean that he can call on each of his relievers in virtually every game.
The Rangers have a bullpen just as deep and effective as the Cardinals, if not more so. But Ron Washington, like most major league managers, hasn’t been willing to throw caution to the wind just yet. Expect one game in the series to turn when the Cardinals mount a rally against a pitcher while the Rangers had a better alternative in the bullpen, waiting for an opportunity that never arrived.
5. They can play NL-style or AL-style baseball equally well.
The Cardinals have home-field advantage in the World Series, not a trivial factor in a series this evenly matched. But the Cardinals have shown themselves to be comfortable playing on the road all season; their home and road records were identical at 45-36. In the NLCS, they faced the Brewers, who were a ridiculous 57-24 at home during the regular season, and who had won all three home games against the Diamondbacks in the first round. The Cardinals won two of three games at Miller Park.
Home-field advantage has an extra benefit in the World Series, though, as the games are played using the home team’s rule book — meaning no DH in the four games at Busch Stadium. This will force the Rangers to bench one of their hitters (probably Mitch Moreland) while La Russa reaps the advantage of having a bench designed for National League play, with lots of guys who can play multiple positions.
But when the series moves to Texas, the Cardinals will also be more prepared than most NL teams for the addition of the DH. The Cardinals have more good hitters than they can find a place for; Craig, who hit .315/.362/.555 in part-time play as a rookie this season, has struggled to get off the bench, not surprising given that his best positions are the ones manned by Pujols, Berkman, and Holliday. Under American League rules, Craig will slide into the lineup, either at DH or in the outfield with either Berkman or Holliday getting a breather in the field.
On paper, the Rangers are the better team. They won 96 games to the Cardinals’ 90. They scored more runs on the season and allowed fewer. But the Cardinals are peaking at the right time — their roster is as healthy as it’s been all season, their bullpen found its missing pieces in Dotel and Rzepczynski, and the off days in the schedule play to the strengths of their manager, who is still at the apex of his lever-pulling powers. For the first time in nine years, the World Series will go the full seven games, but as in 1964, a Cardinals team that was given up for dead barely a month earlier will win the final game of the season.
Rany Jazayerli runs the Rany on the Royals website and co-hosts The Baseball Show with Rany and Joe podcast. He is one of the original founders of Baseball Prospectus, and works as a dermatologist in suburban Chicago.
Previously from Rany Jazayerli:
To comment on this story through Facebook, click here.