Wild Card run testament to Cards' sharp focus
Injuries and Pujols' looming free agency didn't sidetrack club
HOUSTON -- Spring Training's import is often overstated, but in retrospect, the tone for the 2011 Cardinals was set back in February and March. That the St. Louis was still standing at the end of a chaotic six weeks in Florida was a pretty good indication of how the club would handle the ensuing six months.
Any and every challenge that could befall a ballclub managed to find its way to the Cards' clubhouse at some point. It started in the spring and lasted all the way through Game No. 162.
The hope, the belief, is that those experiences will stand them in good stead in the playoffs. A team that trailed by 10 1/2 games in the Wild Card race on Aug. 25 is now in the postseason, so it's hard to argue against the Redbirds. There's not much they haven't already seen, so there's not much you could throw at them that would be daunting.
"Everybody thought you were crazy if you were the one who said we could do it, but we had to keep believing," said Kyle Lohse. "Otherwise, it wasn't going to happen."
St. Louis dealt with a slew of injuries, starting with ace and two-time National League Cy Young Award candidate Adam Wainwright. The staff anchor required reconstructive elbow surgery before he threw his first competitive pitch of 2011. Matt Holliday, Albert Pujols, Skip Schumaker and David Freese all spent time on the 15-day disabled list, and just in the final series, Holliday and Rafael Furcal came down with injuries of still indeterminate duration.
Holliday's run of maladies is a story in itself, a run that included an emergency appendectomy, a back injury suffered while warming up to lift weights, a gastrointestinal illness and getting a moth lodged in his ear.
The club endured far more than its share of bad news off the field as well. Drew Baur, a core member of the club's ownership group, passed away during Spring Training. Manager Tony La Russa came down with a nasty case of shingles that forced him away from the club for a time and left him dealing with pain long after he returned to action. And pitching coach Dave Duncan took a leave of absence in late August to tend to his wife, Jeanine, who is dealing with a serious health issue.
Between the lines, the bullpen imploded early in the season, with closer Ryan Franklin losing his job and eventually his roster spot. Rising star Colby Rasmus, expected to blossom into a key offensive contributor, instead stagnated and was traded in a major late-July deal.
With all that went wrong, it's a wonder the Cards were even in position to win, never mind actually pulling it off.
"The entire year, somebody's come through," Schumaker said. "That's why it's so special. ... Really, everybody has contributed. We took a hit with Wainwright, and we took a hit with Holliday. First day of the year and the last day of the year, we've taken humongous hits, and it hasn't affected anybody. And that's why it's so gratifying."
And then there was the rarely spoken but always-present element underlying it all: Pujols.
The three-time NL Most Valuable Player Award winner addressed the media when he arrived at camp about his decision not to sign a contract extension, then announced that he wouldn't talk about it anymore. And for the most part, his request has been honored. He hasn't publicly talked about his contract, and he hasn't been asked about it much.
But that doesn't mean the story went away. It just went underground. As the club has chased the postseason, it has done so with the underlying truth that it could be the last run with Pujols. Then again, it could also be the last run with La Russa, who has been rumored to be contemplating retirement -- though he has insisted that he's given his future no thought.
Few if any Cardinals fans stopped thinking about Pujols' future, even though the slugger himself insists he is focused entirely on the present. The faithful made that abundantly clear on Sunday, when it appeared Pujols might well be making his last appearance as a Cardinal at Busch Stadium. He received four robust ovations, including a 40-second standing tribute before his first at-bat.
And as the Redbirds ready for the postseson, it's with the known (if unspoken) acknowledgement that this could be their last run with the face of the franchise. Pujols is eligible for free agency this winter, and there are no indications that he'll bypass the chance to test the waters, at least. There aren't really any indications one way or the other, actually.
There is always urgency not to squander a chance to win. But that urgency has a slightly different cast in St. Louis, where fans know that it could -- repeat, could -- be the end of an era.
La Russa's status is in question as well, but that's not new. For several years now, La Russa has waited until after the season to declare his intentions for the upcoming year. Pujols' situation is a new one.
It won't factor in the minds of the players on the field much. The goal in the clubhouse is simply to do this season justice, to take a determined team as far as it can go. They're already off to a good start.
"Everybody in here always believed, 'Hey, we have a good team. No way we're not going to put some sort of a streak together at some point,'" Lance Berkman said. "It's just taken a while to show up."
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.