Cardinal Unpredictability of MLB Playoffs
Issue   |   Wed, 11/02/2011 - 01:25

It’s fair to say that the 2011 baseball season did not go the way any of us expected.

In many ways, the season ended exactly the opposite of how it should have. Down the stretch, the Red Sox and the Braves, two teams all year, faltered massively and missed the playoffs. Meanwhile, the otherwise disappointing Rays and Cardinals somehow caught fire in September and snuck into the postseason, each team taking advantage of it’s divisional counterpart’s collapse. And for one of those teams — whom, in my first column this year, I referred to as “underperforming” — this combination of late-season fire and good fortune was enough to make October history.

Still, the demise of those top teams does not tell half the story of how the Cardinals pulled off a World Series championship in 2011 — their second such coup in five seasons. Long after the regular season ended, the collapses continued. The American League’s best team, the Yankees, went down in the first round. In the National League (NL), so did the Phillies, courtesy of the Cardinals themselves. It’s worth emphasizing that the Phillies did not just fall — they fell hard.

They dominated the regular season, mostly on the strength of their all-world starting rotation, posting a record six games better than that of any other team. Yet the Cardinals managed to beat them at their own game in the NL Division Series, holding Philadelphia’s offense to four or fewer runs in each of their last four games. In game five, arguably the highlight of the Cardinals’ postseason, pitcher Chris Carpenter out-dueled Roy Halladay with a complete-game, 1-0 shutout. To add insult to injury (or injury to insult?), Phillies’ stalwart Ryan Howard ruptured his Achilles tendon on the final play of game five, laying ignominiously along the first base line while the Cardinals celebrated around him.

Coming off this monumental upset, the Cardinals had a relatively straightforward time dispatching the Brewers, 4-2, in the NL Championship Series. In that series, it was the Cardinals bullpen that deserved the most accolades, as its combined ERA over the six games was just 1.88. Offensive surprises also began to emerge, namely in the form of third baseman David Freese, who hit a staggering .545.

Still, none of this previous success was of much help to the Cardinals following that fifth game of the World Series, the loss of which put them behind in the series, 3-2. At the time, media attention centered on a communication gaffe between Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa and his bullpen. The wrong reliever had been brought into the game in a critical late-inning situation, contributing to the Rangers’ 4-2 victory. Even the hoary LaRussa admitted that he’d never seen such a thing happen during an MLB game. Symbolically, it looked like the end of the Cardinals’ run had arrived. In the sixth game two nights later, flame-throwing Texas closer Neftali Feliz had a 7-5 lead and two outs in the ninth inning. The Rangers were finally poised to get what they deserved, but it was not to be, as a clutch two-run triple by Freese tied the game. After taking the lead in the top of the 10th, Texas had another chance to end things in the bottom of the inning: a one-run lead with two outs and two strikes on Lance Berkman. But their dreams were dashed once again as the 35-year-old Berkman delivered an RBI single to center field. An inning later, Freese, twice the hero, belted a walk-off home run for the win. To a Boston baseball fan, this looked exactly like a rather infamous World Series game six that occurred 25 years earlier — and we all know how that ended. And after all the improbability of the Cardinals’ run, game seven was their time. Holding Texas scoreless for the last eight innings, the Redbirds cruised, 6-2, with Freese, who had yet another RBI extra-base hit, earning the title of World Series MVP.

Perhaps there is something inherently appealing about the triumph of the Cardinals, the worst of the eight teams to make the playoffs. The same was true of the 2006 World Champion St. Louis squad, which went an appalling 83-78 but won an equally appalling NL Central division. Modern professional sports follow a decidedly American model: with many-team and multiple-round playoffs, teams without the most talent or the largest payroll have a greater opportunity to earn championships. The inescapable truth, however, is that this year’s World Series winner was not exactly a fan favorite; neither were the 2008 or 2010 Series, which tied for the least-watched ever. I know that baseball has nothing close to the “national pastime” status it once held, and I’m not going to speculate (right now) on why that might be. Still, I have a couple of observations to make regarding the baseball season and postseason that, generally, have occurred to me since I became old enough to consider such things. These also apply in some senses to the NFL or NHL (the NBA is exempt from comment, since it is a well-known fact that the NBA is a joke) but I point them out with respect to baseball especially.

I have recently become even more aware of the disparity between the length of baseball’s regular season and its postseason. A five-game series — all it took for the normally dominant Phillies and Yankees to be knocked out of contention — is only half as representative of overall performance as a similar NFL game or NHL series. Imagine a football playoff game being over after only the first half — in some sense, that’s what’s going on in an MLB divisional series. Consequently, it is more likely to yield an anomalous result, which is exactly what happened in the case of the Cardinals-Phillies series.

At the beginning of the Wild Card era, that possibility for greater variation was exciting. Now, we have gotten used to it. Baseball fans in my experience have become a bit bored by their teams’ regular seasons. Why delight in watching the Phillies pummel the rest of the league, for example, when that short division series is really what decides everything? What’s the point of playing six months of winning baseball when it will all come down to one week (the NFL season is four months but the NFL, which has a similar problem, plays for slightly more than six months)? Upsets in baseball have become rather blasé.

There used to be a “Fall Classic.” Nostalgic old-timers remember it as an exciting culmination of the season — same with the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup, or, yes, even the NBA Championship. Now, a championship game or series can feel more like the merciful end. That’s principally what has been lost: a certain feeling. We have seen with the 1996-2001 Yankees that the Wild Card era does not necessarily preclude dynasties. Its main effect, with eight teams, three series and nearly a month of action, is to dilute the proceedings. Indeed, this dilution is actively taking place in all the major sports. Why it seems to be hitting baseball worst may be another matter entirely. All I know is that I find myself among fewer and fewer baseball fans every year, and I’m not sure I’m happy about it.