I wonder if Albert Pujols is watching on TV. And I wonder if he’s squirming. Championship Series play is beginning in the American League and neither he nor his team, the Los Angeles Angels, is involved. Championship Series play is beginning in the National League and his former team, the St. Louis Cardinals, is involved. They’re going to face the San Francisco Giants for the NL pennant.
Months ago during free agency, the signing of Pujols was supposed to make the Angels into a super team. They didn’t even make the playoffs and Pujols had the weakest season of his career in some ways. The departure of Pujols (who was vilified by his former worshipping fans) was supposed to wreck the Cardinals’ hopes for 2012. It didn’t play out that way, either.
Adjusting to the exit of Pujols, one of the greatest players in the history of the franchise, and the retirement of long-time manager Tony La Russa, was supposed to be more challenging than this. Mike Matheny, the surprise choice as new manager, has acted like anything but a rookie boss in pulling the Cardinals together for another late-season run.
Last year was pretty much a miraculous dash to the World Series title for the Cardinals. They qualified for the playoffs on the last day of the regular season. As each series progressed they came back from the brink of elimination until St. Louis was the last team standing. This year the only way the Cardinals got into the playoffs was because Major League Baseball added a second wild-card team in each league.
The Cardinals were the last team into the mix in the National League. With 88 wins they had the least number of victories among the five NL playoff clubs and the equal-least number of victories among the 10 playoff teams in both leagues. But as soon as the playoffs began, none of that mattered. St. Louis KO’d the Atlanta Braves in the single-game wild-card elimination confrontation. Now they have out-lasted the Washington Nationals in the five-game NL Division Series after the Nationals recorded the most wins in baseball this summer with 98.
Matheny was a surprise hire when to replace La Russa. There were questions about whether or not he had enough experience to lead this team. So far things have worked out pretty well.
While the Cardinals scraped together enough money to make Pujols a serious offer to stay, they were not willing to match the 10-year, $240 million offer on the table from the Angels, so they lost him. The signing of Carlos Beltran as the fill-in for Pujols worked out as the Cardinals gambled. They knew that Beltran was not going to be as good as Pujols at his best, but they got enough of Beltran at his best to make up the difference in concert with other players’ play.
Beltran smacked 32 home runs and added 97 RBIs with 13 steals this season. Pujols had 30 home runs and 105 RBIs with 8 steals; he also out-hit Beltran .285 to .269. That’s almost a wash. The Cardinals also had guys like Matt Holliday putting up lines like 27 homers, 102 RBIs with a .295 average. Also, Allen Craig more than doubled his production from 2011 while going 22, 92, and hitting .307 in 44 more games. Jon Jay hit .305 and David Freese, star of last year’s playoffs, hit .293. Oh yeah, catcher Yadier Molina, who batted .315, might be the National League’s Most Valuable Player.
The Cardinals needed all of that hitting to best the Nationals, 9-7, Friday night to advance. Typical of the St. Louis way, the Cards pulled the game out with a four-run rally in the ninth inning. By the way, Beltran went 3-for-3 and hit .444 in the series. Freese stroked two hits.
This was definitely not supposed to be the Cardinals’ year. But then, that was said about last year, too. A week from now we might be speculating on how St. Louis might fare in the World Series against either the Yankees or Tigers because there is absolutely no reason to think they can’t also handle the Giants.