As the 2011 Major League Baseball regular season concluded, the St. Louis Cardinals had just completed an impressive comeback from the dead. Having barely claimed the final Wild Card berth and facing the team with the best regular-season record in the game, the National League East Division champion Philadelphia Phillies, the Cardinals were a decided underdog in the National League Division Series.
Few, if anyone, thought St. Louis had a chance against the 102-win Phils. In fact, they were seeded eighth of the eight playoff teams by every source I recall reading. At ESPN, for example, the Phillies were predicted to defeat the Cardinals by all two dozen of their personalities.
As the old line goes, “That is why they play the games.” In the hard-fought five-game series, St. Louis prevailed. Faced with two consecutive elimination games, the Cards took both, including the deciding match at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park.
The best-of-five series began with a pair in Philly. The Cards got out on top in Game 1, but gave back a three-run lead behind Kyle Lohse and fell 11-6. Some of the writers were probably already starting their “Phillies Sweep Cards in Three” articles.
It was the home club that squandered a four-run edge in Game 2, however, as the Cards came back for a 5-4 win despite Chris Carpenter pitching ineffectively on three days rest. Albert Pujols drove in the lead run in the top of the seventh and the pen held the rest of the way.
Having taken away the home field advantage, St. Louis returned home for Game 3. The Phils quickly took back the high ground as Ben Francisco’s three-run home run off an obviously-spent Jaime Garcia in the seventh inning powered them to a 3-2 win.
The Cardinals held off elimination in Game 4 as David Freese plated four in the 5-3 St. Louis victory. Edwin Jackson pitched very well, allowing only two runs over six innings for the victory in the first of two must-win games for St. Louis.
In the deciding Game 5 in Philadelphia, Carpenter pitched perhaps the most clutch elimination game in Cardinals playoff history. He bested another former Cy Young Award winner, Roy Halladay, in a three-hit complete-game shutout, walking none. The tense 1-0 win propelled the Cardinals into the Championship Series. Carpenter, who induced 17 ground ball outs, became just the third pitcher in MLB post-season history to throw a shutout and allow three-or-fewer hits in a winner-take-all game.
Oddly, MLB does not select a MVP for any of their opening round series. I helped fill the gap, naming Carpenter The Cardinal Nation/Scout.com 2011 National League Division Series Most Valuable Player.
The Cards had been at full strength in the NLDS with one notable exception. Matt Holliday was active, but a non-factor in the first three games, reduced to pinch hitting because of a finger injury.
Pujols batted .350 (7-for-20) while Ryan Theriot and Skip Schumaker both went 6-for-10 (.600) with two doubles, but the latter suffered an oblique injury that kept him out of the upcoming League Championship Series. Freese led the team with five RBI.
Even those whose numbers did not stand out on the stat sheet found ways to contribute. For example, Lance Berkman scored four times and drove in four despite batting just .167. Allen Craig, subbing for Holliday in Games 1-3, went just 1-for-10 at the plate, but also drew a club-best four walks and crossed home plate three times.
Rafael Furcal handled two dozen chances flawlessly, including six putouts and 18 assists. He was involved in two double plays and was especially sharp behind Carpenter in Game 5. Furcal led off three of the games with a hit, including two triples.
Setting a pattern for the rest of the post-season, the bullpen was as dependable as it was busy. Jason Motte saved two games, throwing one-hit ball over 3 1/3 innings. Octavio Dotel added 2 2/3 shutout innings. Fernando Salas allowed one run in 3 2/3 innings and deserves special note for stabilizing pivotal Game 2 with two important shutout innings after Carpenter’s early departure.