Tough finish can't mar Cards' great '09
Led by NL MVP Pujols, Redbirds returned to postseason
ST. LOUIS -- A disappointing end can't overshadow a terrific summer.
For the first time in three years, the Cardinals played playoff baseball, and they did so after being forecast to finish as an also-ran. A strong start, despite injuries, put St. Louis in position to make some moves before the non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Once those moves were made, a contending team turned into a freight train. The Redbirds roared through August, turning a close race into a runaway. They stumbled a bit in September but still popped champagne with more than a week to spare, and made it to their seventh postseason this decade.
That it ended in three games shouldn't change what happened in the previous six months.
The omens were mixed as the new year began. In mid-January, the Cardinals learned that Troy Glaus would require right shoulder surgery that would sideline him for several weeks. As it turned out, the operation cost Glaus nearly the entire season and led to a lengthy scramble at third base until the Cards traded for Mark DeRosa in June.
There was also good injury news, though. Chris Carpenter began throwing in January, initiating a throwing program that led to a normal Spring Training and a superb season. The club knew its fortunes rested largely on Carpenter's health -- 28 excellent starts later, St. Louis was playing in the playoffs.
As the offseason rolled on, the Cardinals confirmed what was already becoming quite obvious: that their 2009 closer would come from in-house, rather than a free-agent signing or trade. At the time, though, it appeared that Jason Motte or Chris Perez would win the job.
It was a fairly quiet Spring Training for the Cardinals, though not entirely uneventful. The big news for much of camp was Skip Schumaker's transition from the outfield to second base. Schumaker put in long hours before and after workouts, concentrating on getting his defense up to snuff.
While the World Baseball Classic ravaged some teams' rosters, only one Cardinal headed off for the international competition. Yadier Molina represented the Puerto Rican team. Meanwhile, Joel Pineiro was irked when Puerto Rico chose not to use him as a starter, so he stayed back rather than pitching in relief. Albert Pujols passed on the competition.
The closer competition dominated much of the news coming out of Spring Training, and for much of March it wasn't a very big competition. Motte consistently impressed, and before the Cardinals broke camp, Perez had been sent down.
The Cardinals made a move during spring, adding left-handed reliever Dennys Reyes on a two-year contract. Reyes shored up an area that had been a bit short of depth.
Third base, which appeared to be a position of great depth for the Redbirds, instead saw one headache after another. Glaus' recovery showed its first signs of progressing slowly. David Freese was slowed by injury, though he managed to get back to camp in time to make the Opening Day roster. Joe Mather struggled and didn't go north with the big club.
Opening Day was a frustrating day for the home fans, as Adam Wainwright turned in a solid 5 1/3 innings but the Cards' bullpen couldn't hold the lead. Motte's first day as the primary closer was, it turned out, his last. Motte allowed four runs and took the blown save and loss.
A day later, though, things started to brighten, as Colby Rasmus got his first big league hit in the team's first win. The good feelings continued when Carpenter's 2009 debut was a raging success, and even the bullpen didn't stay chaotic for long. Ryan Franklin began to emerge as the closer, and fared well when he got opportunities.
However, in mid-month, one of the club's greatest fears was realized. Carpenter went on the disabled list due to a ribcage injury, and he ended up missing five weeks. Ultimately, those lost starts likely cost him the Cy Young Award.
After a 16-win April, things got a little tougher for the Cardinals in May. Already dealing without Carpenter, injuries began to mount in the season's second month.
Rick Ankiel suffered several injuries in a frightening crash into the outfield wall at Busch Stadium, one that sent him to the DL. Ryan Ludwick followed him on the injured list when he strained a hamstring. And Khalil Greene went to the DL as he attempted to conquer an anxiety disorder.
On the pitching side, what would eventually turn into a bizarre and frustrating year for Kyle Lohse started turning sour in May. Lohse dealt with a series of physical issues, the biggest of which was a forearm strain.
However, Carpenter made his return in grand form, giving a huge boost to the rotation, and even with all the trials the Redbirds managed a respectable 13-14 month. At season's end, surviving May turned out to be as critical as any winning streak.
As buildup for the All-Star Game steamed forward, the Cardinals endured their worst month in June. Yet even as they scuffled, so did the rest of the division -- and a 12-17 record saw them only lose one game on first place.
Lohse was placed on the DL on June 5 as his forearm injury lingered, just one part of a difficult pitching month for St. Louis. The Cardinals allowed just under five runs per game for the entire month, an ugly average.
Off the field, the Cardinals garnered a great deal of acclaim for their first-round Draft pick, Texas high school right-hander Shelby Miller.
Manager Tony La Russa picked up his 2,500th win in Kansas City, becoming just the third skipper in history to reach that milestone.
At the end of the month, a slumping team got a shot in the arm with the acquisition of DeRosa. The Cardinals sent Perez and a player to be named later (Jess Todd) to acquire DeRosa to fill their third-base hole.
The season really began to turn when the calendar flipped to July. After losing six of their final seven June games, the Cardinals won three straight and seven of nine to open July. Pujols was named the player of the month for June, and on July 2, the Cardinals signed Dominican teen Wagner Mateo -- though that deal was later called off due to concern over Mateo's vision.
The Cards sent three players to the All-Star Game, two of them first-timers. Pujols was joined by Yadier Molina and Franklin, and he also put on a show before falling short in the Home Run Derby.
DeRosa went on the disabled list with a wrist injury, though he returned after the break, and Lohse was activated though still not completely right.
The big news came late in the month, though. In the span of two days, the Cardinals remade their offense with trades for Matt Holliday and Julio Lugo. The revamped offense unloaded on the Phillies in its first game together, and began a torrid stretch that put the division race away.
After the front office put the pieces in place in June and July, the team on the field steamrolled in August. St. Louis roared to a 20-6 record on the month, allowing barely three runs per game. Holliday was spectacular in his first full month as a Cardinal, the pitching locked into place, and everything came together. On the morning of Aug. 1, the Cardinals led the NL Central by one-half game. On the morning of Sept. 1, the margin was 10 games.
Still the tinkering wasn't done. John Smoltz came on board as insurance for the rotation and the bullpen, and turned in a series of fine starts.
Everything simply went smoothly as the Cards won one series after another, going the entire month without losing consecutive games.
The final full month of the regular season saw a bit of the summer euphoria fade. Franklin had some rough games, the offense fell quiet, and worry started to build as to how well the Redbirds would fare in October.
Even so, September also brought some tremendous high points -- none higher than the Sept. 26 clincher in Denver. Wainwright pitched a brilliant game, Jason LaRue starred after coming off the bench and the Cardinals won one of their most dramatic and hardest-fought games of the year.
Also in September, Carpenter pitched a spectacular one-hitter against the Brewers in Milwaukee, Pujols hit a game-winning extra-inning homer in Pittsburgh, and the Cardinals agreed to contract extensions with Franklin and lefty reliever Trever Miller.
As quickly as the Cardinals stormed into control of the NL Central, they were eliminated from the postseason even faster. A three-game sweep at the hands of the Dodgers seemed to be over before it even started. The Cards didn't hit much and were also done in by some shaky bullpen work and Holliday's infamous misplay in the outfield at Dodger Stadium in Game 2.
While the Cards missed the World Series, they were represented during the Fall Classic. Pujols won the Roberto Clemente Award, one of baseball's most prestigious honors, which was announced at the World Series.
At the end of the month, the club announced that La Russa would be back for a 15th season as manager, and that Mark McGwire would serve as his hitting coach.
When the postseason ends, awards season begins, and it was a busy one for the Cardinals.
Pujols received his third National League Most Valuable Player award and second in a row, as well as the Hank Aaron Award and his fifth Silver Slugger. Wainwright and Yadier Molina picked up Gold Gloves, while La Russa and Rasmus received consideration for Manager of the Year and Rookie of the Year, respectively. There was one big disappointment, though, when Wainwright and Carpenter both finished behind Tim Lincecum in Cy Young voting.
The month ended with the team's first offseason transaction, as backup catcher LaRue agreed to return for a third season.
Work toward building the 2010 team started really moving along in December. The Cardinals offered arbitration to three of their free agents -- Holliday, DeRosa and Pineiro -- while declining to offer to their only other rated free agent, Glaus.
The club made two moves at baseball's annual Winter Meetings. The bigger one was signing free-agent right-hander Brad Penny to a one-year contract worth a guaranteed $7.5 million. Additionally, they selected Ben Jukich in the Rule 5 Draft.
In mid-December, Freese was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.