The St. Louis Cardinals again added a future Hall of Fame pitcher nearing the end of his career but it didn’t end like in 1926.
Rarely have the St. Louis Cardinals been fortunate enough to land a sure Hall of Fame starting pitcher to add to their roster during a season for next to nothing. Yet that is exactly what happened in 2009 when John Smoltz, he of two decades of Atlanta Braves fame, chose the Cardinals as his new home for the stretch run.
The 42-year-old joined St. Louis on August 19 after having been released by the Boston Red Sox. The Cardinals were only liable for a pro-rated portion of Smoltz’ salary, roughly $100,000. He had spent the previous 21 years in Atlanta with a Cy Young Award and eight All-Star Games among his many accomplishments.
Smoltz looked to be the final piece to help get the Cardinals over the top, following the splashy and expensive in-season offensive additions of Mark DeRosa and Matt Holliday. Though he did not always receive the run and bullpen support to win consistently, Smoltz pitched well as a Cardinal overall.
In his seven regular season starts over the season’s final six weeks for St. Louis, Smoltz finished with a 1-3 record and a 4.26 ERA. He struck out 40 batters in the 38 innings pitched and walked just nine, the latter a concern in Boston as he worked to recover from off-season shoulder surgery.
What perhaps appealed most to St. Louis was the right-hander’s unprecedented post-season success. Smoltz holds major league records for the most career playoff victories and strikeouts and ranks third in innings, fifth in games and starts and tenth in strikeouts per nine innings.
Cardinals historians hoped Smoltz would follow the October blueprint established by another future Hall of Famer some 83 years earlier.
In June 1926, the Cardinals picked up Grover Cleveland Alexander off waivers from the Cubs. The 16-year MLB veteran had already logged 318 career wins, but had an alcohol problem and was unwanted in Chicago.
All the then-39-year-old did after joining St. Louis was collect nine victories over the rest of the regular season, win Game Six of the World Series and earn a dramatic save in the seventh game against the New York Yankees for the Cardinals’ first World Championship.
Smoltz has proven an even greater versatility by having become the only pitcher in major league history to collect at least 200 career wins and 150 saves. Yet he never really had the chance to extend his post-season legend with St. Louis in 2009.
With the Cardinals en route to being eliminated in three straight games by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series, Smoltz saw only two innings of work. By then, the writing was on the wall. In relief of Game Three starter Joel Pineiro, he pitched the sixth and seventh innings, allowing the final Dodgers run in the 5-1 clincher.
With a need for a proven setup man and a swing starter, the Cardinals have stated a desire to have Smoltz return in 2010. A free agent for the second consecutive winter, Smoltz is weighing interest from a number of clubs.
Yet even if Smoltz signs elsewhere, Cardinals fans had the pleasure of seeing one of the game’s greatest pitchers ever wear the Birds on the Bat during the latter part of 2009.
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