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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