August was not a particularly good time for the St. Louis Cardinals. In fact, many – both outside and even within the organization – were already looking ahead to 2012.
There seemed plenty of reasons to feel that way. The club had lost both road and home series to the surging Milwaukee Brewers and dropped consecutive series to three clubs with losing records at the time, Pittsburgh, the Cubs and the Dodgers. It got so bad that Skip Schumaker made his professional pitching debut during one blowout loss to Los Angeles.
As the month neared its end, Milwaukee pulled ahead into a commanding lead of 10.5 games in the National League Central Division. That same week, the Cardinals were third in the wild card race behind Atlanta and San Francisco, 10.5 games behind the Braves. According to coolstandings.com, the Cardinals’ odds of making the post-season either way had dropped to a low of 1.1 percent.
Addressing a group of 200 boosters in St. Louis, general manager John Mozeliak offered what appeared to be a concession speech.
“As a whole, we were about as down as you could be,” Mozeliak recalled to the Washington Post. “I get up to speak, and it was sort of like a conciliatory speech: ‘Sorry, guys, about the season.’ It was like apologetic. It was more like, ‘A lot of things that we tried to plan for didn’t go right.’… I [was] trying to have that hint of optimism, but I was thinking about 2012.”
Mozeliak complimented the Brewers while acknowledging the problems were in his own backyard: “I compliment them and what they’ve done, but the reality is that we just didn’t play good baseball here,” he said.
The players weren’t there yet. At the same event, the Knights of the Cauliflower Ear dinner, Adam Wainwright told the audience, “We’re still in this.” It turned out he was right.
Characterizing the tenor of a team meeting held before their next game, Chris Carpenter seemed somewhere in between. “It was about playing hard and playing like we are capable of, not embarrassing ourselves, and also not giving up.”
When things looked bleakest, the Cardinals played their very best baseball of 2011. The club went 18-8 to close out the regular season, including wins in their final seven series.
Though Milwaukee’s division lead was never in serious jeopardy, Atlanta dropped 20 of their last 30 games, opening up the Wild Card as a legitimate opportunity. The last of those Braves defeats came on the final day of the regular season. Carpenter two-hit the Astros as the Cardinals won game 162. That meant the Cardinals took the fourth and last NL playoff berth by one game.
The Cardinals completed their regular season with a 90-72 mark, finishing second in the NL Central, six games behind Milwaukee. Their comeback was consistent but without a long winning streak. In fact, the team’s longest winning stretch all season long was just five games, logged from September 6-11.
The lineup’s big bats helped power the surge. Lance Berkman ranked fourth in the NL in batting during the month (.374), while Albert Pujols was ninth (.355). Pujols tied for fourth with 20 RBI and he and Allen Craig tied for fifth in the league with five September home runs each.
St. Louis’ comeback was truly historic. In just three prior times in history did a team overcome a Wild Card deficit of ten or more games to reach the post-season as did this club. The others were the 2003 Marlins and 2005 Astros (11.5 games each) and the 2001 A’s (10 games).
The 2011 Cardinals stand alone as the only one of those Wild Card comeback clubs to go on to win the World Series.