In doing some research for my next batch of I-70 Baseball articles, I started thinking about how some of the great Cardinals teams in the last few decades won their division. One thing led to another, and pretty soon I’m wondering how this cast of characters that John Mozeliak has assembled will do in 2011. If you are looking for an analytical approach, you are probably in the wrong place – what follows is going to be totally anecdotal, and terribly burdened with the optimism of a long time fan. Should you desire a more technical (and perhaps even unbiased) treatment, check out our friend Pip at Fungoes or the fine folks at Gas House Graphs.
Come from Behind
For my money, this is the most exciting brand of baseball not involving a Bob Gibson pitching duel. An aggressive running game, some timely hitting, the sound of Ernie Hayes banging on the keyboards and the crescendo of crowd noise – if this doesn’t make you a baseball fan, nothing will. The only thing better than watching it on TV or listening on the radio is being there, adding to the cacophony. While all championship teams must display a certain ability to overcome adversity, some recent teams were better at this than others.
Today, these teams are easy to spot. All you need to do is look at the number of wins (and losses) out of the bullpen. A good example is Whitey Herzog’s only World Series Champion, the 1982 Cardinals. 1/3 of the Cardinals 92 wins came from the bullpen, which helps explain how a World Series winner didn’t have a starter with more than 15 wins. Some unfortunate injuries (Andy Rincon) played a role in that, but Joaquin Andujar’s 2.47 ERA just doesn’t match up with 15 wins, unless the offense was inconsistent. And it was. But the real tell is Bruce Sutter’s 9 wins. Herzog would only bring him in close games, and in 9 of them the Cardinals scored the winning run in the last 2 innings (ok, maybe once or twice in the 7th inning). In looking back at 1982, one of the unsung heroes was Dave LaPoint, but we’ll talk more about him in a future article.
Of all the come-from-behind teams, the 1964 Cardinals may have been the best. Not only did they win many of their games in the late innings, it was an unbelievable surge in August and September that propelled them to the World Series. This was not the first time they had rallied late in the season either. Johnny Keane’s Cardinals almost pulled off a similar upset in 1963, falling just a few games short of the Dodgers in the end. If Branch Rickey had not played the role of puppet master in the summer of 1964, there might be more pennants blowing in the wind in St. Louis. ’64 was no fluke, and Johnny Keane is a very underrated (and unappreciated) manager.
The key to the ’64 Cardinals success ? Mischief at the top of the batting order and then the big names coming up big. Curt Flood and newcomer Lou Brock terrorized National League pitchers with their hitting and base running. It would not be the only time they did this, but in 1964, the middle of the order was brutally consistent in the second half of the season. Ken Boyer and Bill White challenged each other down the stretch, with Boyer winning the NL MVP in the end. The few runners that this duo left on base were quickly driven in by Dick Groat, Tim McCarver or a new local kid named Shannon. There were some great role players on the team as well. Dal Maxvill, Carl Warwick and Bob Skinner all made big contributions, especially in the World Series, but it was the every day players that brought the pennant to St. Louis in 1964.
Red Schoendienst’s 1967 Cardinals were a similar team in many respects, but it was the role players making the different. It seemed that every night, a different player stepped up and drove in the winning run late in the game. Unlike last season, we cheered the late inning bench players coming up to bat. Ed Speizio, Bobby Tolan, Alex Johnson – and who could forget Harry Caray spitting out the name Phil Gagliano, as only Harry could do.
In recent history, Tony La Russa’ s 105 win 2004 team fits into this category. They are an unusual team in that no pitcher had a losing record, not even in the September callups. Even though the starters accounted for about 75 of their wins, high ERAs plus relatively low innings pitched meant that the bullpen were eating a lot of innings and consequently also picking up a lot of late victories. This is a typical pattern in a Tony La Russa managed game – as the bullpen goes, so go the Cardinals.
The 2011 Cardinals don’t seem to be built for a come-from-behind type of game. Late inning defensive substitutions, such as Skip Schumaker or Jon Jay replacing Lance Berkman in right field, remove a huge offensive threat from the game and make the 2011 Cardinals look a lot like the 2010 Cardinals. And we know how that ended, don’t we ? Not exactly the poster child for “come from behind” wins. No, we must look elsewhere to see how the next season will play itself out.
Methodically winning, night after night
While “businessman-like” seems an odd adjective for a team that ran with the wild abandon of Whitey Herzog’s 1985 Cardinals, it does accurately describe how they navigated the NL East on their way to the World Series. Joaquin Andujar started the season on fire, so much that “30 wins” was starting to get thrown around at the time of the All Star Game. Of course, that didn’t happen. John Tudor and his historic turnaround, going 19-1 after an abysmal 1-7 start was the personification of “businessman-like”. Shutout after shutout. Methodical, indeed. Let’s not forget Danny Cox. He was steady as a rock with a career high 18 wins and never losing consecutive starts during the regular season. Unlike Andujar, Cox was a rock in post-season.
As thrilling as their style of play was, the outcome of the ’85 season was anything but. It was “businessman-like” and the first place finish was a rather h0-hum event. Only an injury was going to derail this methodical leviathan, and that did not happen until a rainy night in October. A bad trade doomed the team in 1983 (Keith Hernandez for Neil Allen) and injuries took care of 1984 and 1986, but in 1985 they remained healthy and were able to outlast a very good Mets team. An automatic tarp and a very good Royals pitching staff ultimately beat them, but even then it went down to the wire.
Shut you down
A special case of the methodical winners were the 1968 Cardinals. Of all the championship teams, they were the only ones that just shut down the opponent, night after night. Not just a little bit, it was complete and total domination from the first inning until the last out. It is far too easy to become fixated on Bob Gibson’s historic season and miss the real story here. While the offensive struggled most of the year, except for the engimatic Dal Maxvill who had a career year at the plate, the pitching staff was lights out. Bob Gibson, Ray Washburn, Steve Carlton and Nelson Briles pitched some of the best baseball of their careers, and in the few games that they did not go the distance, Joe Hoerner and Wayne Granger shut things down very quickly out of the pen. If the ’67 Cardinals were Go Go El Birdos, the ’68 team should have been called Throw Throw El Birdos.
In an attempt to keep one of my New Years Resolutions, I’ll take a closer look at the ’68 Cardinals to see if there if we can find anything to be optimistic about in 2011. Fortunately, there is, but that will have to wait for part 2.
Just hang on
In 1982, the Cardinals theme song was “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang. The 1985 Redbirds went with Glenn Fry’s “The Heat is On”. Although they were fun in the beginning, we would soon tire of both songs. Had the Cardinals chosen a theme song for the 2006 World Championship team, it might have been Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons’ “Let’s Hang On”, because that really described the way the season went. They built a small lead in the NL Central in May, but gave all of it up in early June. Without really falling behind, they managed to regain their lead later in the month, just to have it evaporate as the calendar turned over to July. More oscillation in August and one more hot run early in September gave the Cardinals a seven game lead with just 15 to play – a lead they would all but squander before the end of the season. Let’s hang on, indeed.
La Russa’s ’06 team isn’t the only one that did that. Facing more adversity than any team in recent memory, the 1987 Cardinals played just about every type of baseball imaginable. They overcame the loss of John Tudor for half of the season, Tony Pena for the first two months, and the only legitimate power threats in the batting order: Jack Clark and Terry Pendleton at the end of the season to come within a few outs of a World Series Championship. How they accomplished this is fascinating. In the first half of the season, they outslugged, outhit and outran everybody. They were scoring 6 runs a game and really didn’t need the pitching staff to be all that good to win games. They ran away with the NL East by the All Star Game. Then the offense fell apart and it was a painfully long summer as we watched the Mets and Expos coming ever closer. Unlike the 2010 Cardinals, most of key injured players were beginning to return to the lineup and for the most part were able to pick up the slack from the struggling offense. They did hang on and win the division. They also outlasted a much healthier San Francisco Giants in the NL Championship Series – one more round of Frankie Valli’s falsetto before getting pummeled in the Metrodome.
For all of the positive things you can write about Tony La Russa’s Cardinals, the ability to overcome adversity is curiously absent from the list.
With the loss of Darryl Kile on June 22, 2002, the Cardinals had a lot to play for. Some of this covered in Buzz Bissinger’s Three Nights in August, so well done that Cardinals fans cannot read that section without shedding a few tears. Win it for DK became somewhat of a battle cry, but that’s not what really drove the 2002 Cardinals to the division title. It was a healthy Woody Williams returning to the rotation in late August, plus a brilliant late season trade, acquiring Chuck Finley for his Major League swansong. The Cardinals should have defeated the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS, but the inability of the bullpen to hold leads in Games Four and Five kept the Redbirds out of the fall classic.
Since 2004, the Cardinals have demonstrated even less ability to overcome injuries. Three first place finishes in 2004, 2005 and 2006. Coincidently, those were three seasons when Chris Carpenter was healthy. The big right-hander missed 2007 and 2008 with an injury, and the Cardinals in turn miss post-season. Healthy again in 2009, and a brief appearance in the NLDS. While Carpenter was healthy in 2010, and had a very good season, injuries to Brad Penny, Kyle Lohse and David Freese totally derailed the team. Whitey Herzog overcame this in 1987, thanks to a minor league system that produced some quality replacements when players went down (Curt Ford, Tom Pagnozzi) and some plucky veterans (avoiding the term scrappy due to it’s unfortunately attachment to some unproductive players in 2010). John Mozeliak’s depletion of the farm system and Tony La Russa’s questionable loyalty to veteran players don’t seem to be a good combination to overcome a lot of bad things that can happen to a team in a long season.
If you are looking for a team that overcame adversity, both Red Schoendienst’s 1967 and Whitey Herzog’s 1987 Cardinals did just that. In 1967, Red had to deal with the loss of starters Ray Washburn, a relatively common thing, and Bob Gibson – both for a long period of time. In their absence, some youngsters stepped up and filled in admirably. In Washburn’s case it was Jim Cosman. When Bob Gibson went down, Nelson Briles stepped up and pitched some of the best baseball in his career, but we should not forget the role that Dick Hughes played in all of this. Hughes, the 29 year old rookie, became the ace of the staff in Gibson’s absence and set the tone for the team in July and August.
Even in a small way, Schoendienst’s ’68 Cardinals overcame an early season disappointment when Dick Hughes injured his shoulder in spring training. That is another story that is lost in the continual recounting of Gibson’s 1.12 ERA and all those shutouts in June and July. The 68 team managed 31 shutouts without Hughes – it is frightening to think what their record might have been if he had been healthy.
No, the 2010 Cardinals get an F- in overcoming adversity, and we would be foolish to expect anything else in 2011.
What about 2011 ?
If the 2011 Cardinals are going to play beyond the regular 162 game schedule, they are going to have to do it much like Red Schoendienst’s team did in 1968. In many respects, they are built like the ’68 Cardinals and have the ability to play like them, but it is unreasonable to believe they can run away with the division title like Red’s team did. Thanks to some off-season improvements by the Brewers, Cubs and Pirates – perhaps even a young re-tooled Astros, La Russa’s Redbirds will also have to play a bit of “Let’s Hang On”.
What I can say with some confidence is that the 2011 Cardinals are nothing like Keane’s ’64 Champs, due in large part to the differences in managerial style between Keane and La Russa. If the Cardinals get down early in the season, don’t expect an August/September miracle. Similarly, if the Redbirds fall behind early in the game, don’t expect a late inning comeback. Come from behind wins will happen, to be sure, but they will be the exception and not the rule.