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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bernie: Cardinals fell short, but they went far

Bernie: Cardinals fell short, but they went far

The 2012 Cardinals didn't have a happy ending to their season. The ending was rather hideous. The defending World Series champions were overthrown in the NL championship series, handing over a 3-1 lead in succumbing to the San Francisco Giants.
In losing three consecutive games by a combined 20-1 score, the Cardinals were to the Giants what Missouri football is to the SEC. The result was a stunning elimination and an early frost as the Cardinals staggered home to begin the offseason.
"I'm still trying to deal with it," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said Thursday, three days after his team's elimination. "I should be driving to the ballpark to get ready for a game instead of driving to the stadium to say goodbye to the players."
The Cardinals' 2012 season can be interpreted in several ways. They should have put the Giants away and didn't. That's a negative, but the Cardinals also outlasted all but two of the other 31 MLB teams and fell one victory short of advancing to the World Series.
The Cardinals won 88 regular-season games and barely qualified for the playoffs in the expanded postseason format that accommodated two wild card entries.
Now consider the Cardinals' degree of difficulty. It isn't easy being the king. Just ask recent defending World Series champions that experienced down years in their encore seasons. The 2012 Cardinals went against that established trend.
Of the previous 10 teams to win the World Series, four followed up by missing the playoffs, three lost in the league division series and two lost in the league championship series. Only one, the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies, made it back to the World Series.
By winning a wild-card playoff game in Atlanta, then upsetting Washington in the NL division series, the 2012 Cardinals did better than seven of the last 10 defending champs.
That's why the 2012 Cardinals have no reason to apologize. They won seven postseason games and largely maintained the high standards set in place years ago. This year did nothing to diminish the Cardinals' status as one of the most elite franchises in professional sports.
Since Bill DeWitt Jr. took control as owner before the 1996 season, the Cardinals have won two World Series titles, three NL pennants and 57 postseason games. And over those last 17 seasons only the New York Yankees have more postseason victories. Since 2004, the Cardinals lead the majors with 41 postseason victories — 10 more than the Yankees, who rank second.
As the Cardinals were winning 57 postseason games since 1996, the other teams in the NL Central combined to win only 29.
Great organizations specialize in finding solutions. Great organizations always have a foundation that prevents collapses. Accordingly, in a year of dramatic transition and turmoil, the 2012 Cardinals pushed through the hard times to attain more postseason success.
So much had happened since the World Series parade last fall. There was a seismic change in leadership, with future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa and esteemed pitching coach Dave Duncan retiring after the 2011 season.
The lineup lost the iconic presence and mass production of Albert Pujols, who bolted to the Los Angeles Angels for a $240 million free agent deal of a lifetime.
The Cardinals also lost Jeff Luhnow, their director of scouting and the amateur draft. After earning accolades for his work in replenishing the Cardinals' farm system, Luhnow was hired as general manager by the Houston Astros.
DeWitt's organization has displayed considerable staying power though the strength of stability. DeWitt had one manager and two general managers over the remarkable 16-season stretch that ended with the hoisting of the 11th World Series trophy in franchise history in 2011.
The Cardinals hired Matheny to manage, and he'd never managed at any level. Considering La Russa's vast experience of managing more than 5,000 big-league games, the Matheny appointment represented a tremendous leap of faith.
The experiment worked.
The Cardinals promoted from within the front office to fill Luhnow's roles. Derek Lilliquist moved from bullpen coach to pitching coach. To replace a healthy percentage of Pujols' offense, the Cardinals made a calculated gamble by signing outfielder Carlos Beltran and his unhealthy knees.
That all worked, too.
"Ever since you look back to 1996 when DeWitt and the group took over, we've had a lot of consistency with the manager, and in the baseball operations," Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said. "I think this past year we've had the greatest turnover. And to still be able to produce like we did on the field is really a credit to a lot of people."
An already formidable challenge was made more difficult by an outbreak of injuries that bedeviled the Cardinals all season. Yeah, I know: Every team must deal with injuries, and change.
Did other teams lose Pujols, La Russa and Duncan? Did the other teams lose Chris Carpenter for all but three regular-season starts? How many teams had to make do without a hitter the caliber of Lance Berkman, who was limited to only 97 plate appearances because of injuries?
Did those teams have an RBI machine, Allen Craig, idling on the DL twice during the first two months? Did those teams lose starting pitcher Jaime Garcia (shoulder) for more than two months? (You may not be thrilled by Garcia now, but in 2010-2011, only Clayton Kershaw had more wins among lefthanded NL starters.)
It never ended. The Cardinals had to play Shane Robinson in center field for a month when starter Jon Jay went on the DL with a bum shoulder. Another shock to the system came Aug. 31 when the Cardinals lost their starting shortstop, Rafael Furcal, to a season-ending elbow injury.
Sure, every team has emergencies, but no team got walloped more severely than the 2012 Cardinals. They are worthy of respect.
Matheny was a strong leader who helped guide the players through the hardships. Beltran wasn't Pujols, but he did swat 32 homers and drive in 97 runs.
The Cardinals covered roster shortfalls by rushing young pitchers to the majors. They were thrilled by what they saw from Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal and Shelby Miller. Rookie Matt Carpenter was valuable as an all-purpose problem solver on the lineup card. Late in the year, rookie Pete Kozma took over at shortstop and may have saved the season with his surprisingly superb play in September.
Mozeliak cited the young talent that's already in place, with more on the way, when he referred to 2012 as a 'steppingstone" season. Yes, and winning seven postseason games is a nice springboard to the future.
So if you want to stay mad and stew all winter in reaction to the Cardinals getting thrown out of the postseason by the Giants, then go ahead and simmer. Stay bitter even though you've been fortunate to witness a golden era for the Cardinals franchise. I'm sure the baseball fans in Kansas City and Pittsburgh will feel really sorry for you.

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