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12/26/11 11:25 AM EST

Cardinals soared to improbable heights in 2011

Team overcame early injuries, large late deficit to win it all

ST. LOUIS -- A season that seemed destined to be remembered by what went wrong will instead be recalled for glory.

The 2011 Cardinals battled one obstacle after another, starting in February and continuing virtually all season. They battled major injuries and distractions, and at one point appeared to be collapsing under the weight of all of the adversity.

Instead, they turned everything around, surging first into contention, then into the playoffs and finally to a World Series championship. Even the disappointments of two postseason departures can't dim how the '11 Cardinals made the most of an almost-extinguished opportunity.

It was a club not defined by individuals, as St. Louis had no serious contenders for any of the major postseason awards. Instead, contributions came from all over the roster, from a deep lineup to a cast-of-thousands bullpen, on the way to October magic.

Here's a look at five stories that defined the 2011 season in St. Louis:

Year in Review
Looking back at 2011
2011 Cardinals
Cardinals 2011 stats
Final standings
Hot Stove tracker
MLB Year in Review

5. Puma power

The Cardinals set out last winter to improve their club in two main areas: offense and personality. Of the several transactions the club made coming into 2011, none worked out so brilliantly as the signing of Lance Berkman to a one-year contract. Berkman brought life and fun to the clubhouse, of course. But more importantly, he was a major impact bat for a team that did without virtually every other key hitter at some point in the season. Berkman stayed healthy and raked, and he was an enormous factor in the Cards finishing first in the league in runs scored.

4. Major midseason makeover

As the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline approached, the Cardinals were in a tight race for the National League Central crown (and, by the way, not thinking at all about the NL Wild Card). But despite the team's solid place in the standings, the front office didn't like St. Louis' chances to hold up to the end. So general manager John Mozeliak pulled the trigger on one big trade and a series of smaller moves that significantly bolstered the Cards' chances in '11. Out went Colby Rasmus, Brian Tallet and Trever Miller. In came Edwin Jackson to boost the rotation, Rafael Furcal to stabilize the middle-infield defense and leadoff spot, and Octavio Dotel, Marc Rzepczynski and Arthur Rhodes to firm up the bullpen.

3. An ace goes down

Before the Cardinals ever played a Grapefruit League game, it was clear this was going to be a trying year. Albert Pujols' contract talks dominated the run-up to Spring Training. Drew Baur, a core member of the Cards' ownership group, passed away in late February. And just on the eve of Spring Training games, Adam Wainwright learned he would require reconstructive elbow surgery. Wainwright missed the season, dealing what might have been a crushing blow to the Cards. Instead, they regrouped and won despite their best starting pitcher's absence.

2. End of two eras

For a decade, the two faces of the Cardinals were manager Tony La Russa and Pujols. Now they're both gone. La Russa hung it up after 16 years at the helm of the Redbirds, heading into retirement on the highest possible note. Pujols left to a bit more rancor, heading west to the Angels for 10 years and $254 million. The uniform will be the same, but with Mike Matheny in the dugout and Berkman manning first base, it's safe to say that in some ways the 2012 Cardinals will be unrecognizable.

1. Eleven in '11

Had the Cardinals not advanced past the first round of the playoffs, it would have been a historic season. When they turned that 10 1/2-game August deficit into a World Series championship, the 2011 campaign crossed into waking-dream category. The franchise's 11th World Series title was its most improbable, with all the team went through. The Cardinals overcame a mountainous deficit late in the season, a heavily favored Phillies team in the first round and a fierce rival in the Brewers in the second. Then they survived a World Series for the ages, riding the momentum from an amazing Game 6 to win it all in seven.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.