Wayback Wednesday: ten years ago tonight

I still remember when the Cardinals first sniffed World Series success in my lifetime. I was one when Don Denkinger flubbed his way to officiating infamy in 1985, and three when the Cards succumbed to the Twins two years later. But 2004, that was a fun summer. St. Louis steamrolled its way to 105 wins, took out the Dodgers with relative ease in the NLDS, narrowly avoided an upset at the hands of division rival Houston Astros in the NLCS, then were summarily flattened by the Boston Red Sox in a quick four-game World Series. I was even in the bleachers at old Busch Stadium for game 4, where the Cardinals went out with a whimper, losing 3-0 to the Red Sox, who had just reeled off eight straight wins beginning with an unprecedented comeback against the Yankees in the ALCS and following it up with the Cards.

Boston Red Sox Vs. St. Louis Cardinals: 2004 World Series Game Four

The following season proved to be fun, as well. The ’05 Redbirds coasted to 100 wins and seemed to be on pace to make it back to the World Series; the second-best NL team, in Atlanta, finished with a mere 90 wins, and St. Louis would face the 82-80 NL West champion San Diego Padres in the NLDS. They handled that with ease, but the 89-win Astros surprised the Cards in 6 games in the NLCS.

By 2006, the championship dream shared by the “MV3” (1B Albert Pujols, 3B Scott Rolen, and CF Jim Edmonds) seemed to be fading. Rolen missed roughly two-thirds of ’05, and Jim Edmonds would end up playing only 110 games in ’06. Chris Carpenter and Pujols also made short trips to the disabled list, as well.

There was some turnover on the pitching staff, as well. Woody Williams left for San Diego after the ’04 postseason run, while Matt Morris departed for San Fransciso following the ’05 campaign. Holdovers Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan combined for 65 starts, but Marquis’ 6.02 ERA didn’t do the slumping offense any favors. The team limped to the finish line at 83-78, barely allowing the Padres to retain their distinction from the previous season as the worst division champ and postseason contestant in a full season in MLB history. As September waned, it felt as though the Cardinals would likely need to enter a rebuilding phase after another unsuccessful attempt at a World Series title.

Compounding the team’s problems heading in to October was the fact that closer Jason Isringhausen, who was an integral part of the team’s postseason runs the two prior seasons (2.55 ERA and 86 saves from 2004-05), had been up and down all season, before finally heading to the DL in mid-September. Rookie reliever Adam Wainwright was thrust in to the closer’s role on September 7, but only had the chance to close out five games prior to the season’s end.

pujols

The Cards skipped past the Padres in the NLDS yet again. The pitching suddenly seemed to click; the Padres only hit .225 and scored 6 runs in the four-game series. Carpenter and Suppan were the only pitchers to allow any runners to score at all, in fact (though Carp’s were over two starts and 13 1/3 innings, while Suppan took the sole loss in game 3, only lasting 4 1/3 innings).

 

Unfortunately, the path to World Series glory would have to go through New York.

The ’06 Mets possessed a fearsome, if not over-the-hill, starting rotation. Fortunately for the Cardinals, injuries to Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez–both of them starting pitchers with substantial postseason experience–wiped the duo out of the Mets’ postseason plans in the last week of the regular season. Tom Glavine was still in the rotation, though, and had just posted a sub-4.00 ERA with 15 wins at age 40. Carlos Delgado, David Wright, and Carlos Beltran would combine to provide significant offensive firepower, hitting .285 combined, with each player contributing at least 26 HRs and 114 RBIs. Jose Reyes also joined the fun, leading off and hitting .300, and generally making pitchers nervous by swiping 64 bases during the season.

The teams split the first two games at Shea Stadium, but the Cardinals gave the home-field advantage right back, dropping one of the three games at brand-new Busch Stadium, heading back to New York with a 3-2 series lead. Game 6 went the home team’s way, meaning the Cards and Mets would square off in a winner-take-all Game 7.

Both Jeff Suppan and Oliver Perez would turn in solid quality starts, each lasting at least 6 innings and allowing only one run apiece. Entering the final frame, in fact, the game was still knotted at 1-1, the two bullpens having done their respective jobs accordingly. In the top of the 9th, Aaron Heilman struck Jim Edmonds out, but allowed Scott Rolen to single. Then this happened:

 

Of course Yadier Molina homered. He hit .216 during the season, and managed all of six HRs. But his timely tater to left put St. Louis up 3-1 with only three outs to go.

Tony LaRussa brought in his new closer to finish out the biggest game of his career. Wainwright would be facing the bottom of the Mets order. Jose Valentin, hitting .217 in the series, led off with a single; Endy Chavez, .154 in the NLCS, moved him over to second with a single of his own. Waino buckled down and retired pinch hitter Cliff Floyd and Reyes in succession. Unfortunately, he summarily walked Paul Lo Duca, which brought Beltran to the plate with 2 outs and the bases juiced. Any hit would likely tie the game; any extra-base hit would almost certainly win it for the Mets.

Fans in St. Louis may have fonder memories of Beltran now, after spending two All-Star seasons here in 2012-13, the latter of which included a trip to the World Series. But in 2006, he was one of baseball’s most fearsome hitters, particularly to Cards fans. Playing for the division rival Astros in ’04, he’d helped his club sweep the Redbirds in the regular season’s penultimate series, helping Houston leapfrog Philadelphia for the NL Wild Card, um, title in the final week. In the ‘stros’ near-miss in the NLCS, Beltran produced a ridiculous slash line of .417 / .563 / .958 with 4 HRs and 4 SBs; Cardinals pitchers walked him 8 times (only once intentionally). He also scored 12 of his team’s 31 runs in the series.

With all that baggage–Beltran was hitting .308 in the present NLCS, as well–it was hard not to be a little scared as a Cardinals fan. Rookie closer, bases loaded, noted slugger at the plate… it was almost too much. But Wainwright rose to the occasion and established a name for himself in his first full season with the big league club with a sick 12-to-6 curveball that absolutely froze Beltran:

 

Two reasons that make the nostalgia of that clip even more beautiful:

  1. Waino would follow up that performance with one slightly less apprehension in the World Series

2. Wainwright and Molina are still important pieces on the team, now one decade removed from some of their first big league success

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Unfortunately, we don’t get to cheer on our Redbirds this postseason, but at least we can remember some past postseason glory tonight.

And hope that the Cubs lose to the Dodgers again.

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Back to the Past

The Cubs have the Mets right where they want them.

“But, Ryan, the Mets have a 3-0 lead on them in the National League championship series!”

Precisely.

Let’s take a little trip down memory lane, back to 2004.  On this date, the Boston Red Sox were preparing for their World Series showdown with the St. Louis Cardinals after having completed the first comeback of its kind in MLB history the night before: a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven postseason series turned in to a 4-3 series win.  And, technically, that memorable game 7 had ended juuuuust after midnight on October 21 (bbref lists a start time of 8:30 and a duration of 3:31, putting the deciding game’s end at 12:01 AM).

Back to the present.  Surely, you say, the Red Sox’ improbable run in 2004 has absolutely nothing to do with this year’s iteration of the Chicago Cubs.  Not so fast.

Obviously, both franchises have/had extraordinarily lost championship droughts.  The Red Sox were staring 86 seasons in the face; they last won it all in 1918, two seasons before their owner sold none other than Babe Ruth to their hated rivals, the New York Yankees.  The Cubs, meanwhile, have been trophy-free since 1908, and haven’t even appeared in a World Series since 1945, the same year the owner of the local Billy Goat Tavern jinxed the Cubs after he and his pet goat were asked to leave a World Series game against the Detroit Tigers.

Both teams finished with win totals in the upper 90s (Cubs: 97; Red Sox: 98) and finished precisely 3 games behind their main rival and division champion (Cardinals: 100-62; Yankees: 101-61), thereby relegating the beleaguered club to the Wild Card (or, in Chicago’s case, the 2nd Wild Card and a one-game playoff).

Both teams defeated the Cardinals in four games in their respective postseasons–the Red Sox, of course, in the World Series and the Cubbies in the NLDS.

Both teams squared off against their respective league’s New York franchise in the LCS and dug themselves an 0-3 hole against said club.

And, really, that’s approximately where the eerie similarities end.  I was hoping, prior to researching this topic, that the Red Sox had beaten the A’s in the ALDS that in ’04, because then I could draw a connection between a former location from that franchise (Kansas City) and the American League’s likely World Series representative this season (Royals).  But it wasn’t to be.  The 2004 A’s finished a game behind the Anaheim Angels, whom the Red Sox swept out of the postseason in the ALDS.

Unfortunately, there were no players from that team who played for this year’s Royals or Toronto Blue Jays.  It would be far too easy to complete a “six degrees of a 2004 Anaheim Angel” with either of this year’s ALCS participants.  After all, a few players suited up for KC and Torotno as recently as two or three seasons ago.  But only four ’04 Angels were still active in 2015, most notably Bartolo Colon for the Mets and John Lackey for St. Louis.

Different managers, too.  I mean, Ned Yost and John Gibbons both played in the majors around the same time as Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who was far and away the most successful of the trio of catchers. Gibbons did catch a handful of games for the ’86 Mets, who prolonged Boston’s misery in that year’s World Series.  But I’ve otherwise given up on trying to connect the 2004 Angels to the 2015 Royals and Blue Jays, geographically, personnel-wise, etc.

Then there’s Theo Epstein and Manny Ramirez.  Epstein was the architect of Boston’s nearly-unprecedented postseason success as the general manager; he has also seemingly resurrected the Cubs in just a few short seasons.  Manny, of course, was a key figure in Boston’s postseason success.  Presently, he serves as a hitting consultant in the Cubs’ organization.  So there’s that.

Back to the future.  Either way, there will be an interesting narrative to write tonight.  Either the Mets will sweep the Cubs out of the 2015 postseason on the date to which Doc Brown and Marty McFly traveled in Back to the Future Part II, in which Marty initially conceives of his sports betting scheme after seeing the breaking news that the long-shot Cubbies won the World Series.  Or they’ll begin their epic turnaround tonight and surge to their first World Series title in 108 years, just as Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale foretold some 26 years ago.

Combined World Series title drought

It’s fairly inevitable that any MLB postseason “final four” involving the Cubs is going to have a pretty long combined number of years between World Series titles for the teams involved.  But it’s not as though any of the other three teams rounding out the LCS slate have won especially recently, either.  The Blue Jays are the most recent champions, winning the Fall Classic in 1993.

List of ALCS & NLCS participants, 2000-2015, and a listing of each franchise’s most recent title and respective championship drought

One example on process of counting the number of years: when the St. Louis Cardinals, who won the 2011 World Series, appeared in the 2012 NLCS, their drought number would be 0, even though they didn’t advance to and win the title.  I’m essentially counting the number of postseasons played in their entirety from the season following the most recent championship through the postseason played the year prior.  To figure this out mathematically, using the column headers in the chart, take (Year) – 1 – (Last Title).  So, using the above example, St. Louis’ would be 2012 – 1 – 2011 = 0, because, when the 2012 NLCS began, the Cardinals hadn’t gone any years without winning a title since their most recent.

A number in parentheses under the “Last Title” column indicates the franchise has never won the World Series, and that was their inaugural season.  The formula for these teams is ever so slightly different: it’s simply (Year) – (Last Title).  If hypothetical Team X was founded in 2014 and was participating in a 2015 LCS, they would have a drought of 1 year (2015 – 2014 = 1).  Using the formula described in the previous paragraph would result in a drought of 0 years, which would only be possible if they participating in the LCS in their inaugural campaign.

I’m sure there’s some standard-deviation-fanciness someone could pull off with the averages and what-not, but I ain’t that guy.

Some observations:

Since 2000, the 2012 LCS participants combined for the shortest drought.  The Cardinals, Giants, and Yankees, after all, had won each of the previous three titles.

Only four teams have yet to advance to their respective league’s LCS since 2000, and all happen to be in the National League: the Padres, Reds, Pirates, and Nationals/Expos.

We’re now at the fourth consecutive season in which all four LCS participants have won at least one World Series title in their history (even if one of them was over a century ago and there were only 16 teams in all of MLB).  Nine of the preceding twelve seasons (2000-2011) had at least one franchise playing that was still searching for its first title.

And, of course, the notion that piqued my curiosity in the first place: the 2003 NLCS and ALCS teams actually combined to have one season longer of a drought than 2015’s teams.  That was the postseason when the Cubs missed out on a trip to the Fall Classic in epic fashion and Red Sox Nation actually seemed pleasant, especially when compared against the perennial Yankees juggernaut.

This season is unique, however, in that no other time in the previous fifteen postseasons have all four teams in the LCS gone at least twenty years since their last World Series title.  In 2003, even with the Cubs’ & Red Sox’ epic droughts, the Yankees and Marlins had both won it all within the past half-decade.  So if you get the feeling like it’s been a while since any of the four finalists have won gone the distance, you’re not crazy.  Unless you’re a Cubs’ fan.