Greatest Teams Never to Win a World Series in the Past 30 Years-04 Cardinals
When it came to the mid-2000's portion of Major League Baseball, it was really dominated by two teams with the headlines then: the Yankees and Red Sox. When it was 2003 and 2004 it was pretty much the Yankees and Red Sox and the rest of baseball was living in their worlds. The ALCS in 2003 was a classic tilt ending up on Aaron Boone's walk-off. And then in the off-season after numerous rumors had offensive stud Alex Rodriguez being traded to the Red Sox from Texas it was the Yankees who swept in and took ARod and the war was on. And that is what baseball was in 2004.
But it was a shame because we saw one of the best teams roll through not in Boston or New York, but St. Louis.
The Cardinals had been in the thick of the National League's upper echelon since 1996, the year when former Athletics manager Tony LaRussa took over. They got to the NLCS in his first year but imploded to the Braves. After 96, the Cardinals traded for slugger Mark McGwire and became a threat. But in 1998 and 1999 the Cardinals couldn't get past Chicago or Houston. In 2000 and 2001 St. Louis found their way in October, getting to the NLCS in 2000, but not any further. McGwire was gone, but a young star was coming out and taking over McGwire's production in Albert Pujols. Adding on, the Cardinals had a good core of veterans like Jim Edmonds, Edgar Renteria, Scott Rolen, and Reggie Sanders. Many looked at the Cardinals and went "well, they may threaten the Cubs and Astros, but they may not have the pitching to supplant those guys." (The Cubs had Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, who had a great run at the end of the 2003 season and were bringing back former ace Greg Maddux to the fold; Houston added Yankees stars Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens to go with Roy Oswalt).
The Cardinals pitching staff would be in slight question. The rotation was a mix of journeymen like Jeff Suppan and Woody Williams; a young arm in Jason Marquis (who came over from Atlanta in the JD Drew trade); and an unproven commodity in Chris Carpenter, who did not pitch in the entire 2003 season because of injury. Matt Morris was the staff's ace, but compared to the likes of Pedro, Randy Johnson, the Cubs starters, wasn't on par with those.
But as they say, you have to play the games.
As expected in April and the first part of May, the Astros and Cubs were ahead in the division. The Cardinals were hovering around the .500 mark up through the end of May thanks to struggles with the pitching staff. However, after Memorial Day, the Cardinals picked it up. They won 20 of 26 games and jumped ahead of the Astros who were slipping and the Cubs who were feeling the effects of not having Prior to start the year and had Wood on the shelf.
When the calendar turned to July, the Cardinals broke the division wide open, going an impressive 20-5 in July and continued their trend in August going 21-7 having a 15.5 game lead on the Cubs, going an astounding 41-12 in that stretch (46-12 if you add the first 5 games of September). And the Cardinals clinched by mid-September.
One of the keys to the Cardinals stretch was during that run was a trade with the Rockies for slugger Larry Walker after the non-waiver deadline. With the talk shifting to Houston (again) for getting prized trade target Carlos Beltran and the Cubs for getting Boston star Nomar Garciaparra, this went fairly unnoticed. Walker, while didn't necessarily gave a massive jolt to the Cardinals, still produced strong numbers for them down the stretch to keep them from falling back.
The Cardinals, because of rolling in the NL Central and really distancing themselves from the NL in general from the Braves and Dodgers, could set up the rotations and rest their stars down the stretch played the rest of September at .500 ball, but finished 105-57, tied for 2nd most in franchise history, right behind those great Cardinals teams in the 40's.
WHAT MADE THEM SO GOOD? All you need to do is look at Pujols, Edmonds, and Rolen. You're talking about one of the most lethal trios in this time period alone. You're talking a total of 122 HR among the three, 358 RBI, all over .300 for average and all over 1.000 in OPS in 2004. And when you threw in Larry Walker in that mix in August, he added a lot of pop to the lineup (11 HR in 44 games and a .953 OPS-by the way, for anybody who said Walker couldn't hit at Coors....shut up). Reggie Sanders had a solid season in his first year with the Cardinals, hitting 22 HR and nearly an .800 OPS. Before John Mabry got hurt, he was having a great start to his season, having a .296 average with 13 HR and an .867 OPS. Mike Matheny wasn't much for a bat, but he helped guide the Cardinals rotation to the second best ERA in the NL, thanks in part to a stout bullpen. The pitching staff was solid if anything. Williams and Suppan both had ERA's around 4. Reasonable in that time period given while Jason Marquis was a good pick-up (15-7, 3.71 ERA) and Carpenter pitched great, having a 15-5 record and a 3.46 ERA. It would be the start of a great run in St. Louis for him.
But the bullpen was excellent. Jason Isringhausen had established himself as one of the game's top closers was excellent, having 47 saves and a 2.87 ERA to go with it. But the guys leading him up to it, Steve Kline (Mr. Dirty Hat), had a 1.79 ERA. Ray King, who had also come over from the Braves in the Drew trade, was a strong guy for LaRussa (2.61 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP). Julian Tavarez was another reliable arm in the pen and had an ERA under 3. And even young Kiko Calero was good for the limited games he was in (41, but also an ERA under 3 and a WHIP under 1).
The Cardinals had a first round date with the Dodgers. And aside from a Game 3 shutout loss the Cards waxed the Dodgers, outscoring them 22-8 in the 3 wins. The boppers of Pujols, Walker, and Edmonds continued their hot hitting (though Rolen went 0-for-12 in the series). It was Edgar Renteria who stepped up and hit .455 while Sanders also had a good series. The pitching was solid with Suppan and Williams pitching well and young arm Dan Haren coming in to win a game as well.
The Cardinals saw their NL Central foe Astros in the NLCS. Houston made a late-season run thanks to the Carlos Beltran trade and jumped ahead of the Cubs at the end of the season and then slayed their dragon in Atlanta in 5 games. It seemed like the first two games of the series, the Cardinals would not have a whole lot of trouble with the Astros, winning both of them and clubbing Houston's pitching around. The crew of Pujols, Rolen, Walker, and Edmonds went 15-for-31, 4 HR, and 13 RBI in the first two games. However, when the NLCS went to Houston and their loudhouse venue, things changed. While the 4 hitters had some good moments, it wasn't as blistering and the Astros made the other hitters tried to beat them. By Game 5, the struggles were now felt by the St. Louis sluggers as Brandon Backe pitched a 1-hit gem in 8 innings and Jeff Kent sent home the Houston faithful with a walk-off 3-run blast. The Cardinals bats woke up again back home as Pujols continued his tear, but the offense outside of them continued to sputter. Adding on, Isringhausen blew a save in Game 6, but was bailed out by Jim Edmonds walk-off blast in the 12th inning to force a Game 7. In the final game, the Cards had a tough task of facing Roger Clemens, but did just enough to get him out, with the big blow being a Scott Rolen 2-run HR to erase the early 2-0 Astros lead and the Cards didn't look back.
The Cardinals went to face the momentum riding Boston Red Sox in the World Series. In Game 1, the Red Sox got off to a 7-2 lead but was erased quickly with of all things the bottom of the order doing the damage. In the 8th inning, the Cards tied it at 9 but in the bottom half, Mark Bellhorn continued his post-season heroics for the Red Sox hitting the go-ahead 2-run blast. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, the offense after Game 1 didn't make a dent the rest of the way, only scoring 3 runs in the next 3 games including a shutout in the series clincher for Boston.
WHAT WENT WRONG? I think there were a couple of things that went awry with the Cards. First, the Astros had a strategy of "well, if those powerhouses the Cards have can do damage, let's take away the rest of the crew." It worked for 3 of the 7 games. It was just Houston's bats who didn't live up to the hype. Secondly, I don't think the Cards recovered from the NLCS win over Houston. They got off to a 2-0 lead, kinda got somewhat gut-punched in the next 3 while having to go in extras in Game 6 to win as well. Yes, I know Boston had more of insurmountable odds but I think how they won those games and 4 in a row mind you that their momentum took over the rest of the way. It just felt like after Game 1 of the Series, the Cards had nothing left as Edmonds and Rolen went 1-for-30.
AFTERMATH: The Cardinals won 100 in 2005 and the offense was probably slightly more rounded but Rolen missed most of the season, Walker missed a good chunk, as had Sanders. When the latter two were playing, they were strong contributors but Walker wasn't as strong for the Cardinals like he was when he came over. Chris Carpenter's pitching continued to be strong, winning the Cy Young in 05 by going 21-5 with a 2.83 ERA and 7 complete games. The starting pitching as a whole was better and while the relievers as a whole fell back, it wasn't a major drop-off as St. Louis was ranked #1 in pitching in 2005. The Cards beat the Padres in the NLDS and faced off against the Astros for the 2nd straight year in the NLCS. The Astros stole Game 2 in St. Louis and despite a monumental blast by Pujols off of Brad Lidge in Game 5 to win the game, the Cardinals failed to hold ground at home.
However, Pujols and Rolen aside, the Cards gained more balance in the years following, using their farm system to remain competitive and not go by the way of the Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers (later on), or Dodgers of buying the players from other teams.
Ironically, the Cardinals would hoist the world championship in 2006 on one of the worse teams in their run, at least from a record standpoint. They sneaked by the Mets in a classical 7-game NLCS and then their experience took them over the Tigers in the World Series. Despite a small hiccup in 2007, the Cards continued to be a threat in the NL, seeing one more world title in 2011 and an NL pennant in 2013.
So if there was one team who was able to shrug off the World Series loss, this was the team.
OTHER GREAT TEAMS NEVER TO WIN THE WORLD SERIES:
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat