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Nightengale's Notebook: Pushing for playoff spot, St. Louis Cardinals were 'waiting to bust out all year'

USA TODAY
USA TODAY
 2021-09-19

It was the final year of the Oprah Winfrey Show. The rise of Adele. The year of Kim Kardashian’s 72-day marriage to Kris Humphries.

And the year the St. Louis Cardinals rose from the dead to win the World Series.

The year was 2011.

Now, here we are 10 years later, and the Cardinals are working on a sequel.

This is a team that was 53-55 on Aug. 5, eight games out of the second-wild card spot, with a fanbase calling for president John Mozeliak’s head after acquiring only aging veterans J.A. Happ and Jon Lester at the trade deadline.

“I actually gave up Twitter last November,’’ Mozeliak told USA TODAY Sports. “I didn’t want to hear what people were saying. I was getting killed last offseason, so I took it off my phone.

“It’s hard to make anyone happy.’’

Well, it may be safe to jump back on.

Funny how a month of winning will change the outlook for your loyal followers.

The Cardinals have since gone 24-14, the fourth-best winning percentage in the National League while other NL contenders have come apart. The Cards entered Sunday having won seven in a row by a combined score of 44-18, and nine of their last 10 games.

Can they keep it going into October?

Well, all they had to do Saturday was look on the field and watch the 10-year celebration of that 2011 team for inspiration.

You remember the one.

The 2011 Cardinals trailed the Atlanta Braves by 10½ games in the NL wild-card race in late August. . The Cardinals went onto to win 18 of their final 26 games while Atlanta went 9-18 in September, clinching a playoff berth on the final day of the regular season. It was the largest comeback after 130 games in MLB history.

The Cardinals shocked the powerful Philadelphia Phillies by beating future Hall of Famer Roy Halladay in Game 5 of the best-of-five Division Series. They beat the NL Central champion Milwaukee Brewers and MVP Ryan Braun in the National League Championship Series. And then staged a miracle comeback in Game 6 of the World Series against the Texas Rangers where David Freese became a legend, forcing Game 7. And were reveling in a boisterous downtown parade a few days later with manager Tony La Russa announcing his retirement.

You still can’t walk around Busch Stadium without memories flooding back, and considering what the Cardinals are doing these days, well, they’ve got a whole lot of folks in red dreaming of something big.

“We’ve been waiting to bust out all year,’’ Cardinals outfielder Tyler O’Neill said. “This is crunch time. September baseball. Here to win. That’s what we do.

“We’re the Cardinals.’’

Yes, indeed.

After losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sept. 7, the team's odds of reaching the postseason was at 2.8%, according to FanGraphs.

“People had us dead a month ago,’’ Mozeliak said, “and now all of a sudden, we’re playing for something. Internally, we always felt like we were playing for something. We needed to have some good fortune, play better, and have some teams come back to the pack.’’

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Yadier Molina, Dylan Carlson and Nolan Arenado celebrate Carlson's grand slam against the Padres. Jeff Curry, USA TODAY Sports

You know the stars must be aligned when Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, who were on that 2011 team, were making their 303rd start together on Saturday night in front of their old teammates.

Wainwright, 40, has 2.89 ERA after giving up two earned runs in six innings against the Padres on Saturday, while Happ and Lester have each found success since joining St. Louis. Happ was 5-6 with a 6.77 ERA in 19 starts with the Minnesota Twins, and now is 4-2 with a 4.08 ERA in six starts with the Cardinals. Lester was 3-5 with a 5.02 ERA with the Washington Nationals, and is 3-1 with a 4.14 ERA, including a 1.90 ERA in his last four starts with Molina as his catcher.

Mozeliak will tell you that he acquired Lester and Happ primarily to eat innings and save his bullpen, knowing the moves would be as popular as warm beer.

“We wanted to bring veteran stability to our rotation,’’ Mozeliak said. “They were very under-the-radar type deals. Just ask Twitter.’’

Really, at that juncture, Mozeliak was thrilled they even had a pulse. In a matter of four days from May 31 to June 2, they lost 9-2 to the woeful Arizona Diamondbacks, ace Jack Flaherty strained his oblique muscle that would sideline him for 2½ months, and lost 14-3 to the Dodgers when starter Carlos Martinez gave up 10 earned runs in two-thirds of an inning.

“That’s when it definitely felt like we had a dark cloud over us,’’ Mozeliak said. “Losing Flaherty, having our starters not go deep, that really carried over into June.’’

Yet, even after going 10-17 in June, it was Wainwright who prevented a total collapse. He went 3-1 with a 2.45 ERA in June, and then got better. Much better. The man is 9-2 with a 2.02 ERA since the All-Star break, and 5-0 with a 1.26 ERA in the last month, pitching his way into the Cy Young discussion.

“No, I didn’t see it coming,’’ Mozeliak says, “but I can’t say I’m surprised, either. You never bet against this guy. What he’s done is incredible. It's refreshing to see someone go out and have success as a pitcher, and not just a thrower. Man, it’s impressive.’’

It’s the Cardinals Way, a veteran team, with a wealth of postseason experience, and players with nine World Series championship rings in the clubhouse.

“This team understands what’s at stake, and the experience helps,’’ Mozeliak says. “No matter how long your odds are, no matter the obstacles, you can still achieve what you want.

“Perseverance is the theme of this group.’’

So go ahead, bring on the powerful Dodgers or Giants in the sudden-death wild card game. The Cards will gladly take their chances.

“That one game play-in is cool, it’s fun,’’ Mozeliak says. “If the haves can have, it’s sort of nice when they have not.’’

The retirement that almost wasn't

Ryan Braun officially announced his retirement this week, but he will let you in on a secret.

He almost came back this summer for one final ride with the Brewers.

Really.

“There were a couple of times we discussed the possibility of coming back,’’ Braun told USA TODAY Sports. “We actually discussed it in July and August. But it had to be the perfect set of circumstances for me to do it, and it just never quite lined up that way. Once we got past August, I knew it was time to make it official.’’

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Braun was the NL Rookie of the Year in 2007 and won the MVP award in 2011. Charles LeClaire, USA TODAY Sports

So Braun quietly announced his retirement after a 14-year career where he’ll be honored in a retirement ceremony before their home regular-season finale on Sept. 26, going down as one of the greatest players in Brewers’ history.

Braun, born and raised in the Los Angeles area, and going to college at Miami, had never set foot in Milwaukee when he was drafted with the fifth pick in the 2005 draft.

He fell in love with the place. And Milwaukee loved him right back.

Braun helped lead the Brewers to five playoff berths, won the 2007 Rookie of the Year award, the 2011 National League MVP award, and five Silver Slugger awards along the way.

He was also one of 13 MLB players ensnared in the Biogenesis scandal involving performance-enhancing drugs and suspended for 65 games.

Braun remained adored in Milwaukee, and became further entrenched in the community, donating money to the Brewers community foundation, Habitat for Humanity, the AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin and was the co-founder of California Strong.

He may live in Malibu, California with his wife and three kids, ages 7 to 15 months, but his heart will always reside in Milwaukee.

“I don’t have the words to adequately articulate how grateful I am for the support of that city and community,’’ Braun says. “I love Milwaukee. There’s something unique and special about the Midwest where people are rooting for each other and pulling for another. We live in an incredibly divisive time, but there, people really care for each other. It’s a unique environment.

“Often times, the baseball aspect felt insignificant, but I was always trying to use my platform to positively impact people. That was always a priority for me. The people there mean the world to me.’’

Braun, who’ll have a contingent of about 30 friends and family members accompanying him to Milwaukee, will have a chance to say goodbye, and personally thank the community. He’s going to soon join an asset management firm, help educate athletes on financial advocacy, and is working on a project with 15 MLB players.

“I’m sure it’s going to be emotional for me,’’ Braun said. “I expect a wide array of emotions. One of the things I missed was not having the fans there last year, not interacting with everyone, and now I have a chance to say thank you.

“I’m incredibly grateful for all the support through the good and bad, the ups and downs. It means the world to me. I could never imagine being more fortunate and blessed for the experience I had in Milwaukee.’’

Trying to make make a difference

You see them every day. You drive or walk past them on your way to ball games. You probably ignore them.

There were nearly 600,000 people experiencing homelessness in 2020, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness and San Diego Padres chairman Peter Seidler, a cancer survivor, is personally trying to make a difference.

He leads a group of business leaders that has met every Tuesday for the past six years trying to find solutions to the issue. This week will have a different twist. The Padres and San Francisco Giants, who are playing this week at Petco Park, will have a private event with 200 business and community leaders before the game Tuesday with the Alphacore Wealth Advisory, with Hall of Fame pitcher Trevor Hoffman as a guest speaker.

One of the primary discussions will be the growing homelessness in their local communities, and what can be done to help the critical problem.

“Just driving over to the ballpark I saw someone who looked like a 22-year-old,’’ Seidler said, “standing at a red light and looking like there’s not much life in the kid’s eyes. But you know that with a shower and shave, he could look just like anyone else. It’s just so sad.’’

Dick Pfister, CEO of the Alphacore Wealth Advisory, Giants vice chairman Rob Dean and Padres CEO Erik Greupner hope their symposium can help make a difference in the homelessness epidemic in San Diego and San Francisco.

“These aren’t numbers or statistics,’’ Seidler says, “they are children. Grandmothers. Some born in poverty. Others born with bipolar schizophrenia. …

“I thought we were making progress with the homelessness among the youth and elderly, but the pandemic set everything back. It’s the economics. It’s mental health. Its drug and alcohol abuse. The youth homelessness has grown, and the elderly just run out of money.’’

Seidler, who often jogs late at night in his beach community, says he frequently runs across familiar faces among the homelessness. He’ll say hello. He’ll sometimes stop and chat. The appreciation of a smile and not a look of disdain, he said, can make such a difference.

“In my experience it’s so impactful just to say, 'Hello, how are you doing,'" Seidler says. “You see these service organizations offer a bed, a warm meal and a shower. Sometimes within a month, that person is cleaned up and getting job training on their way to a constructive life.

“Those turnaround stories are really inspirational, and part of what fuels us to do constructive things.’’

Says Dean: “A lot of organizations and people throw money at it. Peter combines private money and effort. He inspires all of us.’’

Around the basepaths

– Well, just in case you want some optimism there won’t be a lockout or work stoppage this winter, consider this:

Major League Baseball is still conducting business as usual with the hope that the two sides will reach an agreement on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement by the Dec. 1 deadline, according to two league officials who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity.

The general manager meetings, which feature the top executives from each team, are back after a one-year hiatus in Carlsbad, California.

The Winter Meetings also are scheduled a month later in December, after the CBA negotiating deadline.

The two sides may yell and scream and fight during their labor talks, but they also realize the damage and grave consequences that would result from a work stoppage disrupting the 2022 season.

– Forget the speculation that the Yankees are going to go all-in on the free-agent shortstop market.

The truth, according to a high-ranking Yankee official, is that they only need a short-term fix because they believe that 20-year-old Class A shortstop Anthony Volpe is a future star and could be ready in a year or two.

– The Angels never envisioned that Mike Trout would not play again in 2021 after straining his right calf muscle on May 17. They expected him out six to eight weeks.

The concern now is whether Trout can stay healthy long term. He hasn’t played more than 140 games in a season since 2016.

– The last time the Yankees had a losing record? 1992, the year Aaron Judge was born.

– The scariest team these days may be the red-hot Toronto Blue Jays. They are an MLB-best 14-3 in September, and their confidence is soaring every day. Toronto hit .331 with 36 homers in its first 13 games of the month.

“I think we’re a great team,” Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette said. “I expect to win every time I go on the field. We think we’re better than the teams we play. I think we’re showing everybody who we are.’’

Does anyone really want to play the Blue Jays in a wild-card game in Toronto?

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Bryce Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies prior to the 2019 season. Bill Streicher, USA TODAY Sports

– Bryce Harper, vying for the NL MVP award, doesn’t want anyone to mention his stats.

“I really don’t want to look at my numbers,” Harper said. “I haven’t looked at my numbers. I don’t let Joe (Girardi, Philadelphia Phillies manager) show me my numbers. I don’t let my friends show me my numbers. I don’t let (wife) Kayla or anything. I don’t look at them on Instagram. Every time my eyes even come close to looking at something, I’m out of it as quick as possible. I really worry about this season. I really worry about what we do from an individual standpoint and a team standpoint at the end of the year. I’m a very big season guy. I’ll look at my numbers at the end.

“I know that’s kind of crazy and it doesn’t make sense, but I don’t like MVP talk. I don’t like looking at my numbers. I don’t like looking where I’m at or where I am in the second half, or anything like that. I just want to play my game. I just want to show up every night, make sure I’m playing right field, batting third, and helping this team win.”

– Fernando Tatis, with 39 homers, will be among an exclusive group of players in baseball history who have had a 40-homer season before their age-22 season.

He’ll be joining Hall of Famers Mel Ott (1929), Joe DiMaggio (1937), Eddie Matthews (1953 and '54) and Johnny Bench (1970); along with Juan Gonzalez (1992), Alex Rodriguez (1998), Bryce Harper (2015) and Vladimir Guerrero (2021).

– That is Rio Gomez, son of the beloved late ESPN broadcaster Pedro Gomez, who has a 24-inning scoreless streak at Class AA Portland .

– If Robbie Ray wins the Cy Young award in the American League, and Max Scherzer wins it in the National League, the D-backs will have watched their former pitchers win six Cy Young awards in the last eight years. Scherzer already has three Cy Young awards and Trevor Bauer won the NL award last year with Cincinnati.

– The Dodgers and Giants are set to make history.

The most victories by a non-division winner in MLB history are the 1942 Brooklyn Dodgers and the 1909 Chicago Cubs with 104.

Just one 100-victory team has ever appeared in the current wild-wild format: the 2018 Yankees, who beat the Oakland A’s in the wild-card game.

– If the Yankees miss the postseason, they have to look no further back than their season series against the woeful Orioles.

The Orioles went 8-11 against the Yankees, which is twice as many victories than they produced against any team this season.

– If Atlanta misses the playoffs, they can blame it on their ineptitude in extra innings.

They are hitting .143 in extra innings this season, explaining why they are an MLB-worst 1-10 in games in which they’re tied entering the ninth inning.

– The Baltimore Orioles had only two 100-loss seasons in franchise history (1954 and 1988) until 2018. They’ve now had three consecutive 100-loss full seasons: 115 in 2018, 108 in 2019 and they hit the 100-loss mark during the weekend.

“Hopefully soon, we’re going to turn this around and not have 100-loss seasons,’’ Orioles manager Brandon Hyde says. “It’s tough to stomach. It’s hard on everybody.’’

Well, if nothing else, at least they have company this year.

The Arizona Diamondbacks have already crossed the 100-loss threshold and the Texas Rangers and Pittsburgh Pirates are on pace to join them.

– The Blue Jays may have caught a break, of sorts, when rookie Alek Manoah slipped on the dugout steps after the All-Star break in Buffalo. He was expected to be shut down in September when he reached his innings limits but, after being out three weeks, is fresh and will be available to the Jays the rest of the season.

“His first full season in the big leagues and he still looks strong,” Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said. “That’s huge. He looks just like he did at the beginning of the season. He’s not losing anything. He looks pretty strong to me.”

Manoah, who became the fastest Blue Jays pitcher to record 100 career strikeouts, has pitched 93 innings this season, shy of career-high 125⅓ innings he pitched in the minors in 2019.

They badly need him considering ace Hyun-Jin Ryu’s recent struggles. He is 2-4 with a 7.49 ERA in his last eight starts, yielding a .295 batting average and .896 OPS.

– Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon, 67, says no one was happier than he was when Tony La Russa, 76, returned to manage the Chicago White Sox.

“I felt it added 10 more years of shelf life to me immediately,’’ Maddon said. “My goal has always been to work as long as Mick Jagger wanted to be on stage, and Tony just validated all of that.”

– The Royals became the first team in MLB history to have five pitchers from the same draft class, 2018, start a game in the big leagues for their original team in a single year: Jonathan Heasley, Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic and Jackson Kowar.

– The Giants, holding on for dear life in the NL West, have managed to stay ahead of the Dodgers despite having five bullpen games in 11 days because of their depleted rotation. Meanwhile, the Dodgers are going with a traditional five-starter rotation for the first time since June.

– The most underrated manager in baseball may be Dave Roberts of the Dodgers, who never seems to get any credit for his team's success. The Dodgers haven't missed the playoffs since Roberts became their manager, and his .619 career winning percentage is the best by any manager in history.

“He’s been great for us since the first day he put on the Dodger uniform as our manager,’’ Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “He’s a positive guy. He loves the game. He loves his players. We love going out and competing for him.

“I can’t say enough about him and what he’s done. We’re going to do everything we can to go out and win him another championship.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nightengale's Notebook: Pushing for playoff spot, St. Louis Cardinals were 'waiting to bust out all year'

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