The National League champion St. Louis Cardinals are not a popular team among neutral observers. Going out on a limb here, I know. Despite the long and storied history of the club, they don’t seem to have much of an imprint among baseball fans at large.
For the second time in five years, the Cardinals reached the World Series despite having the worst regular season record of the eight playoff teams. Are they “coached up”, opportunistic, or just the beneficiaries of a few good breaks? Who cares. They’re playing for the World [Getting Blanked] Series title.
It is truly a strange time when the manager of a baseball team is ascribed more credit than the players on the field. True, the manager’s job is to place his players in the best position to succeed. Thus, if the players succeed, the manager, in turn, succeeds in his own right. But the nature of Tony La Russa’s larger-than-life persona, the long shadow he casts over the teams he controls in both good times and bad.
Looking past these Cardinals players is a mistake. Just like the 2006 team is better known for its unsightly won/loss record (83-78) rather than its murderer’s row of potential Hall-of-Famers in the middle of its order. The 3-4-5 hitters that season posted a combined 17 Wins Above Replacement that season and own more than 220 WAR over their careers.
The 2011 Cardinals still feature one of the greatest hitters of all time in Albert Pujols. They also sport another potential Hall of Famer in Lance Berkman and an elite outfielder in Matt Holliday. Exciting young players like David Freese and Jon Jay flesh out the National League’s highest scoring lineup. They are largely a team built for today. The economic impacts of trading a potential star like Colby Rasmus do not outweigh his inability to Help Them Win Now.
The pitching staff is again anchored by Chris Carpenter and, frankly, doesn’t inspire much confidence beyond that. The Cardinals defense inspires even less confidence.
Yet here they are.
The impulse to connect the dots and dish credit and blame in equal measure to explain why, in a seemingly just world, the Cardinals are playing for the World Series title is strong. But foolish. There isn’t any great and simple explanation. On the given days, they won. They got past the Phillies in a great and well-pitched game by their best pitcher, scoring one measly run against Roy Halladay.
Other teams played poorly against them and they played some great baseball when the situation demanded it. The lights out bullpen and the pummeling offense got them here. It’s the playoffs, it doesn’t take much to sneak through.
The Cardinals are 7-4 in their last 11 games and that is good enough to get them to the World Series. They scored 13 more runs than their opponents over that span. There isn’t anything else to ask of them or any other team in October.
We might argue about the process but this is results season and nothing else really matters. Let us all swallow our scorn and distaste for the Cult of LaRussa and just appreciate the Cardinals as National League champions for their unlikely run to the biggest stage.