10/29/11 1:46 AM ET
Never-give-up Cards finish ultimate comeback
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
The St. Louis Cardinals are World Series champs. That's a sentence best read with wide-eyed wonder, because what is arguably the greatest comeback in the game's long history is now complete.
"If you watch the history of baseball," manager Tony La Russa said, "teams come back. And sometimes they could have come back but they give in or give up. And I knew the character on our team, the coaches knew the character. We just challenged them to not give up."
This was the Team of the Living Dead, and its story will live on for all of eternity in the heart of every St. Louisan draped in red and every witness bewitched by ball.
So many -- too many -- teams talk about the adversity endured on the road to a title, but few lived it quite like these Cards. Theirs was a hurdle laid out not in some invented anecdote but in the cold, hard mathematics that lead to fairly basic conclusions. This team was 10 1/2 games back of the Wild Card on Aug. 25. The postseason, let alone the championship, was but a rumor.
Yet here they are.
"We have character," Lance Berkman said. "We have tough, professional guys who don't quit. It's not like football where you get fired up and charge the field before every game, but it comes from inside where you're going to fight for every last out."
The Cardinals were counted out rather quickly. The season, as it pertains to champagne wishes and championship dreams, seemed over before it started. Staff ace Adam Wainwright blew out his elbow in a bullpen session on the back fields of the Jupiter, Fla., Spring Training complex early in camp, and all looked lost.
It didn't end there. Matt Holliday needed an appendectomy after Opening Day, Ryan Franklin blew save after save early on, Albert Pujols started slow then snapped his wrist, David Freese tore a tendon in his right ankle in early August and general manager John Mozeliak called it "season-ending."
If this is some sort of recipe for success, it's a strange brew, indeed -- one best kept away from those with acid-reflux issues (thankfully, the Tums factory is located right next to Busch Stadium).
But the sheer length of the Major League season allows the narrative to wind its way from A to Z and back again. And somewhere along the line, the Cards became the team they had long ago imagined themselves to be.
It just took time. And tenacity.
The Cardinals trailed the Braves in the NL Wild Card hunt by 10 1/2 games when they awoke on Aug. 25. And mark that down as the birthdate of a red-letter run. You'll find no shortage of explanations, from the simple to the psychological, as to why or how the Cards came together from that day forward.
Some will point to an event called the Knights of the Cauliflower Ear dinner in downtown St. Louis, held Aug. 24, as the night Wainwright, of all people, stood in front of a crowd of area sports fans, declared, "We're still in this," and reminded everybody on board that the ship had not yet sunk.
Some will say a team meeting held before the Aug. 25 game against the Pirates helped the Cards clear the air and clear their heads.
"It was about continuing to play hard, to give something for our fans, no matter if we won or we didn't win," Chris Carpenter recalled. "It was about playing hard and playing like we are capable of, not embarrassing ourselves, and also not giving up."
Some will observe that the pitching staff solidified itself after the Colby Rasmus trade in late July, while bolstering the bullpen and the starting staff simultaneously.
Some will credit La Russa's leadership, Pujols' prominence or Berkman's beneficence.
All of the above and more apply, of course, and that's what makes a winning team -- a conglomeration of characters stronger together than apart. You don't make this ridiculous a late-season rise in a team sport without belief in your abilities and in the abilities of those around you. It's the kind of stuff neither man nor squirrel can easily synopsize, though many a man has tried.
"It takes 25 guys to win a world championship," Berkman said. "It's not one or two guys. And this is a great group."
The Cardinals went 23-9 down the stretch to overcome Atlanta. Their September surge was incredible, and it will certainly be pointed to by every future playoff hopeful seemingly out of the running and looking for a light at the end of the tunnel. But all it earned the Cards was a date with the 102-win juggernaut Phils, whose loaded rotation had made them a World Series favorite long before pitchers and catchers even reported.
No worries there. The Cardinals pushed the Phillies to the limit of a Game 5 in the National League Division Series, then pitted their ace, Carpenter, against the game's most highly touted arm, Roy Halladay, and came out victorious, by a 1-0 count. Next up was an NL Championship Series date with the Brewers, who had long ago outlasted the Cards in the division race but who couldn't adequately combat an abundant lineup and La Russa's aggressive relief ruses. And the next thing you knew, St. Louis was home-field hosts of a World Series that only the most biased or bugged out would have predicted pre-Labor Day.
Sure enough, the Series itself was a nightly test of wills. Game 2 slipped away on an Ian Kinsler swipe and a couple of sacrifice flies. Game 5 was a mess of miscommunication that had everybody wondering if La Russa needed a new landline or a long vacation.
And then Game 6. What more can be said about Game 6?
"Legendary," Berkman said.
Down to their last strike twice, the Cardinals showed the kind of resilience and never-say-die demeanor we try to instill in our kids the first time they take up athletic competition. Some called the comeback a microcosm of their season, when, in fact, it was just part of the bigger picture. The talent was on this team all along, but the championship grit was built, bit by bit, until it revealed itself, fully constructed, on the game's greatest stage and in one of its greatest games.
Game 7 was the coronation, a first-inning deficit erased and a shockingly breezy victory unfolding. When it ended, the Cards were kings, their wild ride wrapped up in grand fashion.
Pujols was asked what he'll remember most.
"Just the way that we did it," he said. "The way that we got in and the way that we finished. We're the world champions. It's pretty special."
Pretty unbelievable, too.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.