Up until last Sept. 28, when the Cardinals won in Houston and the Braves lost in Atlanta and the National League wildcard spot completed its logic-defying defection to St. Louis, May 1, 2011, would have been as good a day as any with which to sum up the Redbirds’ season.
It was a day that featured so many of the characteristics that made 2011 such an agonizing, hair-pulling, face-slapping, exasperating mess – until, suddenly, it wasn’t.
Yes, the Cardinals won 90 regular season games, 11 postseason games and the World Series. The one game I attended – I currently live 300 miles from any MLB stadium – was the May 1 contest in Atlanta. Had the Braves collapsed just a bit less spectacularly, it was the type of game Cardinals fans could have looked back on as preventing the team from reaching October.
It also was the kind of game that makes you, in a petty fit of disgust, think about trying not to care so damn much about baseball, except for knowing it’s impossible. The Cardinals played these games all season, even when they started to inch closer to the Braves in September (see: the epic bullpen failure against the Mets on Sept. 22).
In this case, it was an afternoon game at Turner Field, pitting Jaime Garcia against Derek Lowe.
- I’ve been to hundreds of baseball games in my life without coming remotely close to seeing a no-hitter. And yet I distinctly remember thinking to myself after the first inning that Garcia had no-hit stuff that day. I’m no scout, but one knows filthy when one sees it. He whiffed Martin Prado, Jason Heyward and Chipper Jones in order in the first, throwing a total of two balls, and he got through four innings without allowing a baserunner. The Cardinals led 4-0 and had a 93 percent win expectancy, per FanGraphs.
- But in the fifth, facing the heart of the order for the second time, Garcia unraveled and gave up three runs.
- This is when the real fun began. The Cardinals loaded the bases with no outs in the sixth against now-Cardinal Scott Linebrink, only to have Ryan Theriot hit into a home-to-first double play to kill the rally. This was one of the team’s NL record 169 GIDP.
- Earlier that inning, Linebrink hit David Freese in the left hand with a pitch, knocking him out of action until late June. This, of course, in a season when the team lost Adam Wainwright for good in Spring Training, saw Albert Pujols go down with a freak injury and had Matt Holliday get attacked by his own appendix as well as a moth.
- In the bottom of the seventh, the Braves pulled even on a Pujols fielding error. The Cardinals tied for the fourth-most errors and seventh-worst fielding percentage in MLB and also compiled the fourth-worst UZR. The Braves took a 5-4 lead on Prado’s RBI single off Jason Motte, although a Yadier Molina sac fly tied the game back up in the eighth. Theriot, batting with two outs and the go-ahead run at second, struck out.
- Now short on position players, Tony La Russa moved Pujols to third base to start the bottom of the eighth, his first appearance there since 2002. Remember, this season also featured Allen Craig and Tony Cruz at both second and third base and Tyler Greene playing both corner outfield spots. Jones led off the inning with a ground ball to Pujols, which he handled.
- In the ninth, La Russa decided to push his luck and send Ryan Franklin out for a second inning of work. This was a pitcher who had long since pitched his way out of the closer role and entered the day with a 10.12 ERA. Needless to say, he needed all the help he could get. Instead, to lead off the inning, he got the opposite of help.
- Three batters later, Brooks Conrad blooped the game-winning single into right-center, accounting for one of 30 losses by a Cards reliever, tied for second-most in MLB.
- The experience created this graph, one that stared looking way too familiar to Cardinals fans.
Ultimately this game will fade from memory for most, if it hasn’t already. The story of the 2011 Cardinals is a championship story – even if the championship was unlikely and came out of nowhere. But whatever struggles put the team in position to make its furious end-of-season comeback now exist only as the opening act of an inspiring redemption story. And that’s great. It would be a lot harder to look back on this game without the storybook ending.
This just serves as a reminder, with Spring Training blessedly underway, that we’re all-in. Sometimes baseball punches you in the gut – just ask a Rangers fan – and sometimes it lifts you sky-high. It’ll do both in the same year, the same month, the same series, the same game, even the same inning. Fans sign up for all of it, and really, we shouldn’t want it any other way. It’s only because of games like May 1 that games like Oct. 28, with Craig catching a fly ball for the final out, mean as much as they do.
So hop in and buckle up. It’s time for baseball again.