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MLB wild-card race: 2011 Cardinals offer hope to teams still outside October’s playoff picture


The Yankees and Reds have 12 games left in the regular season. The Phillies, A’s, Padres and Mariners have 13 each.

The Mets have … you know what? It doesn’t matter. This is a column about hope and needing minor miracles to reach October and the Mets are four games under .500 with a dozen games remaining in their 162-game schedule. The pizza rat has taken that playoff slice into the flooded subway, folks.  

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But for the other six, shades of hope do exist. They’re out of the playoff picture at the moment, but close enough that they haven’t made early October vacation plans just yet. 

A decade ago, the eventual World Series winners were in a very familiar need-a-minor-baseball-miracle situation — 150 games into in the 2011 season, the Cardinals were 3 1/2 games behind the Braves in the race for the National League’s wild-card race. 

“You looked around the clubhouse and we weren’t playing up to our potential, whatever that means,” David Freese told a group of reporters Saturday at a reunion for the 2011 World Series-winning Cardinals. “A group like we had gets hot, though, anything can happen.” 

Here’s where the 2021 contenders stand:

Yankees: 1 1/2 out of second AL wild-card
Reds: 3 out of second NL wild-card
Phillies: 2 out of NL East lead, 3 1/2 out of second NL wild-card
A’s: 2 out of second AL wild-card
Padres: 3 1/2 out of second NL wild-card
Mariners: 4 out of second AL wild-card

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The biggest difference between the 2011 Cardinals and any of those teams is this: By this point in the 2011 season, the Cardinals were already in an all-out sprint to the finish line. After a loss on Aug. 24, St. Louis was just 67-63 and 10 1/2 games behind the Braves in the chase for what was, at the time, the lone wild-card spot. 

“For us, it was so frustrating because we knew we were good, but we just weren’t playing good,” said Nick Punto, who had his career-best 125 OPS+ as a reserve for that 2011 Cardinals squad. “We were playing so poorly for the entire season, and the last six weeks, really the last five weeks, we took off. We were an average baseball team, around .500, and people were like, ‘Why are they average when they should be better than that?’” 

From Aug. 24 to Game 150 (Sept. 16), the Cardinals went 15-5. In that same span, the Braves went 8-12. Things changed dramatically. 

“It was just day to day,” said Jon Jay, another member of the 2011 Cardinals squad. “Hey, let’s keep our heads down and win games. Win games.” 

Here are the “past 20 games” records for our six 2021 teams: 

Yankees: 7-13
Reds: 7-13
Phillies: 12-8
A’s: 11-9
Padres: 8-12
Mariners: 10-10

Not a sprint to be found, eh? The Phillies and A’s have found a nice race-walking pace and the Mariners seem to have mastered the walk-and-chew gum thing, but the Yankees, Reds and Padres are going all Ruben Rivera-on-the-basepaths on their way to the 2021 finish line. Oh, it’s a scene. 

The team that actually has followed the 2011 Cardinals’ example, of course, is the 2021 Cardinals. They’re 13-7 in their past 20 and currently riding an eight-game winning streak that’s catapulted them from 3.5 back to 3 up in the race for that second NL wild-card spot. 

And like the 2011 club, the 2021 club’s hot streak has coincided nicely with a team ahead of them falling apart. It was Atlanta a decade ago; it’s San Diego and Cincinnati this time around. The Padres have gotten most of the “they’re collapsing!” headlines, but at least they’ve lost to good teams, such as the Dodgers and Giants. The Reds are 3-6 in September against teams that are under .500 for the season and have lost eight consecutive series.

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The Braves wound up going 9-18 in September 2011, and the Cardinals had an 18-8 record that month. St. Louis caught Atlanta in Game 161, and when the Braves lost in 13 innings in the regular-season finale and the Cardinals shut out the Astros. St. Louis advanced.

“The whole year, up to that point, at least for me, it was uneven,” Lance Berkman said. “I’m looking around the room and there’s all this talent; I mean, we’ve got Albert Pujols, maybe the greatest hitter in the history of the game, we’ve got Matt Holliday, unbelievable hitter hitting fifth. We’ve got Chris Carpenter and (Kyle) Lohse and guys like that anchoring the rotation and a good bullpen. It was like, ‘Why aren’t we winning more games?’ It all came together at the right time, and when it clicked, I think everybody knew it clicked. It was like, ‘OK, this is the team we thought we had in spring training, and here we go.’”

And away they went.

“We knew that, if we snuck in, with the ability we had, we had a chance,” Carpenter said. “And we were able to sneak in.” 

Remember, with only one wild-card spot, there was no win-or-go-home wild-card game; the Cardinals went directly into the NLDS and lost Game 1, 11-6, to the 102-win Phillies. Who knows how things might have been different if it was a one-game “series.”

They beat the Phillies in the best-of-five, when Carpenter outdueled Roy Halladay in a 1-0 Game 5 victory. The Cardinals beat the Brewers in six in the NLCS, then used all seven games to beat the Rangers in the World Series. 

Oh, and you will, I promise, hear a lot of reminiscing about Game 6 of that Series next month. 




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