The tag "wild card" has never fit better. The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals were 10-and-a-half games behind the Atlanta Braves for the National League's fourth and final playoff berth with five weeks to play in the regular season.
Having caught the Braves (with a 22-9 finish) on the last day of the season, the Cardinals then beat the mighty Philadelphia Phillies — a team for which exactly one Cardinal pitcher would crack the starting rotation — in the opening round of the playoffs. Next came the Milwaukee Brewers, a team that finished six games ahead of the Cardinals in their own division.
Then finally the World Series against the formidable Texas Rangers. Down to their last strike — in two different innings — the Cardinals prevailed in Game 6 and then won their 11th world championship Friday night in the first Game 7 the Fall Classic had seen in nine years. Wild. Cards. Indeed.
When Allen Craig caught the final out to clinch the championship, there were no fewer than seven former Memphis Redbirds on the field at Busch Stadium. And mark this down: St. Louis doesn't win this championship without the contribution of players who just two seasons ago helped Memphis to its second Pacific Coast League crown.
Craig was the Cardinals' minor-league player of the year in 2009 for the Redbirds when he hit .322 with 26 homers and 83 RBIs. Playing a reserve role for the Cardinals, Craig delivered the game-winning pinch hit in Game 1 of the Series, then homered in the next three Cardinal wins (Games 3, 6, and 7). Matt Holliday will be pressed for playing time in 2012.
The remarkable, all-but-impossible comeback victory in Game 6 doesn't happen without key hits from Dan Descalso and Jon Jay, teammates of Craig at Third and Union two summers ago.
Then there's David Freese. In 2008, Freese hit 26 home runs and drove in 91 for Memphis, his first season in the Cardinal system after being acquired in a trade that sent St. Louis icon Jim Edmonds to San Diego. After injuries sapped most of his 2009 campaign, Freese delivered home runs that won a pair of PCL playoff games for Memphis, both by the score of 1-0.
Now two years later, he has cemented his name alongside those of Dizzy Dean, Enos Slaughter, Bob Gibson, and Willie McGee — Cardinal heroes who delivered world championships to Freese's hometown. A home run to win Game 6 two innings after delivering a two-out, two-run, game-tying triple in the 9th inning? An over-the-top Hollywood script comes to life. Freese-framed for posterity.
It shouldn't be forgotten that these Cardinals won the World Series without a single pitch being thrown all season from their injured ace, Adam Wainwright (yet another former Redbird). That just doesn't happen.
The void was filled this month, of course, by Wainwright's predecessor at the top of the Cardinal rotation, Chris Carpenter. If his efforts in the decisive game against Philadelphia (3-hit shutout) weren't enough to someday retire his number 29, the six innings he threw on short rest in Game 7 of the Series Friday night surely was.
Even as Sunday's parade down Market Street in St. Louis still resonated, speculation had begun about Albert Pujols' free agency and whether or not the greatest of these world champions would be in uniform next spring to defend his title. (The negotiations may have gained a complication with Monday's announcement that Tony LaRussa — the only big-league manager Pujols has known — is retiring.)
Considering the way his 11th season as a Cardinal ended, Pujols would have to see dollar signs in his cereal bowl to leave. But that's for another day, behind a closed door in a meeting room, far from the dream state created by a team that would not die for each other or its legion of fans.
Memphis fans should embrace the familiarity with the 2011 Cardinals. As wild as the ride became over the last two months, the trip for many of these world champions started a season or two earlier, with a solitary cardinal on their jerseys.
Frank Murtaugh, who lives and dies for the St. Louis Cardinals, is managing editor of Memphis magazine and sports columnist for the Flyer.