Eleven years ago today (specifically, tonight), the lone postseason series ever contested by the St. Louis Cardinals and the Philadelphia Phillies concluded. Today, the two teams add a new chapter to their postseason history. Only time will tell if their 2022 tilt reaches the heights of 2011, a series filled to the brim with drama and intrigue.
The 2011 Cardinals, despite having three batters–Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday, and Albert Pujols–who had MVP-caliber offensive performances at the plate, had a double-digit deficit in both the National League Central and National League Wild Card (back when there was just one of them) in late August, but coupled with an Atlanta Braves collapse, the Cardinals came roaring back to pass the Braves on the final game of the 2011 regular season. This victory was made possible by the efforts of 2011’s best regular season team, whose ninth-inning comeback and thirteenth-inning go-ahead run brought their win total to 102–the Philadelphia Phillies.
Although the Phillies lost right fielder Jayson Werth to the Washington Nationals the previous off-season, the 2011 squad was the most instinctively intimidating team the Phillies fielded since 2007, a five-year stretch during which the Phillies won the NL East every season. Their 102 wins were the most in franchise history, and their lineup included some of the most talented position players of their era–first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, catcher Carlos Ruiz, and center fielder Shane Victorino were headliners, while trade deadline acquisition Hunter Pence tore the cover off the baseball over the last two months of the regular season for the Phillies. But what most intimidated opponents for Philadelphia were its unholy trinity of starting pitching: by Wins Above Replacement, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels ranked first, third, and sixth in all of baseball among pitchers, and their fourth starter, Roy Oswalt, hadn’t fallen too dramatically off the pace that garnered him sixth place in Cy Young balloting the year before. The Phillies’ pitching staff was so loaded that Vance Worley, an eventual Rookie of the Year finalist with an 11-3 record and 3.01 ERA, was relegated to bullpen duty.
Much to the relief of Cardinals fans simply hoping to find a seat at the table, the Philadelphia Phillies fielded competitive teams in the final week of the season, but the one concession they made to rest and relaxation came via their starting rotation–they lined up their pitching so that games one through five could be started by Halladay, Lee, Hamels, Oswalt, and Halladay again, thus meaning that the Cardinals would need to win at least two games against a Hall of Fame-ish level pitcher (or a literal Hall of Famer in the case of Halladay) in order to continue what already amounted to a miraculous playoff run.
Meanwhile, since ace Chris Carpenter had started on September 27 for the Cardinals, he would not be available for Game 1–it was Kyle Lohse, a solid pitcher though not to the level of Carpenter and certainly not to the level of Halladay, who would take the mound. But in the early going of Game 1, things came up the Cardinals’ way. Rafael Furcal and Albert Pujols each reached base in the first inning, and a Lance Berkman home run gave the Cardinals a 3-0 lead. Lohse was sharp through three in a very Kyle Lohse-y way–nine batters, zero strikeouts, zero base runners. But in the bottom of the fourth inning, after being bailed out by a David Freese error in foul territory which would have marked the final out of the inning, Shane Victorino singled to bring home Chase Utley and give the Phillies their first run of the game. Lohse regrouped for a quiet fifth inning, but in the sixth, with the Cardinals still stuck at three after Roy Halladay very much found his footing, Jimmy Rollins and Hunter Pence singled, while Ryan Howard crushed a three-run home run to the give the Phillies the lead.
The next batter, Shane Victorino, singled, and Raúl Ibañez hit a two-run home run of his own. This marked the end for Lohse, but hardly the end for the Phillies’ offense. In the bottom of the seventh, with the Cardinals still stagnant at the plate, the Phillies nearly batted around, adding two more runs with nothing more than a single along the way, and Mitchell Boggs, the man on the mound for all three Phillies runs in the seventh inning, allowed a two run single to Hunter Pence in the eighth that, by this point, barely merited a response. The Cardinals would claw back to make the score semi-respectable in the ninth–Adron Chambers singled to drive home one and Skip Schumaker doubled to drive home two and at least assure St. Louis cheap sodas at Mobil on the Run the next day–but it wasn’t enough. Phillies 11, Cardinals 6.
The optimistic takeaway from Game 1 for the Cardinals was that this was the game the Phillies should win–Roy Halladay versus the team’s third starter. For Game 2, the Cardinals had a red-hot Chris Carpenter–no, scoring runs off Cliff Lee wouldn’t be any easier than scoring them off Roy Halladay, but they certainly seemed to have a puncher’s chance. But all of this optimism was challenged almost immediately. Although a Rafael Furcal triple led off the game for the Cardinals, they couldn’t bring him in to score. And in the bottom of the first, Chris Carpenter looked immediately spent. Jimmy Rollins doubled, and subsequent walks to Chase Utley and Hunter Pence led to a quick bases-loaded jam. Ryan Howard drove in two with a single, and although Carpenter did retire Shane Victorino, a Raúl Ibañez single gave the Phillies a 3-0 lead. A double play held the damage to that for the inning, but the Phillies added one more in the second, and by the end of the third inning, the Phillies led 4-0 and Chris Carpenter was on the verge of being replaced.
But in the top of the fourth, the Cardinals offense came back to life. Ryan Theriot and Jon Jay drove in the first and second runs of the game for St. Louis, and although the man who was brought in to pinch-hit for Carpenter, Nick Punto, struck out, a Rafael Furcal single brought home Theriot. Although Jon Jay was thrown out trying to tie the game, it was suddenly a fair fight. And in the top of the sixth, with Cliff Lee still on the mound for the Phillies, Jon Jay singled to drive home Ryan Theriot and even up the game. Meanwhile, the Cardinals’ bullpen held up their end of the bargain, with Fernando Salas and Octavio Dotel emerging unscathed. In the top of the seventh, Cliff Lee still pitching (in the moment this was not considered a critical lapse in judgment from Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel, though in subsequent years, even the most conservative of managers became far more aggressive in utilizing their bullpen), Allen Craig tripled, Albert Pujols singled, and the Cardinals had a 5-4 lead. And Dotel, Marc Rzepczynski, Mitchell Boggs, Arthur Rhodes, and Jason Motte kept things in check for the Cardinals. It felt like the Cardinals had stolen one. They would return to Busch Stadium with a tied series.
Although Cole Hamels and Jaime García would not be the game this series to go down as a historic pitcher’s duel, neither pitcher allowed a run for the first six innings of the game. The lefties bent but neither broke. But in the top of the seventh inning, the Phillies, led primarily by the bottom of the order, started to nibble. Shane Victorino led off with a single, and although Jaime García retired the next two batters, he issued an intentional walk to Carlos Ruiz (Victorino was already on second base thanks to a passed ball). Cole Hamels was rolling, but at 117 pitches (it’s incredible how much baseball has changed in eleven short years), the choice to pinch-hit seemed obvious. The Phillies opted for right-handed backup outfielder Ben Francisco, and Francisco made the Cardinals pay with a three-run home run.
The Cardinals would piece together a couple runs via singles, a David Freese one in the bottom of the seventh and a Yadier Molina one in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, but the Ben Francisco home run was ultimately enough. The Cardinals were suddenly on the brink of elimination.
Game 4 was one of those strange 5:07 local start games, ones where shadows permeate in the early innings but the final frames are played under the bright lights of the stadium. The Cardinals could breathe a very minor sigh of relief as they would now face Roy Oswalt, a very good pitcher but not a Cy Young candidate that season. Taking the mound for the Cardinals was Edwin Jackson, the centerpiece of a divisive July trade which sent recent top prospect Colby Rasmus to the Toronto Blue Jays. Jackson was a pure rental–he would become a free agent the next month–and if Jackson laid an egg, even with the team’s ferocious September comeback, it would be viewed as a referendum of sorts on the transaction. And in the early going, Jackson looked shaky. Jimmy Rollins opened up the game with a ground-rule double, while a subsequent Chase Utley triple and Hunter Pence single gave the Phillies a 2-0 lead before the Cardinals even recorded an out. But the next batter, Ryan Howard, was retired via strikeout while Pence was thrown out at second base attempting to steal, quieting the potential rally. Lance Berkman drove in Skip Schumaker in the bottom of the first, and while the Cardinals didn’t add any more runs, a one-run deficit given how poor of a start the Cardinals had was certainly a favorable outcome.
For the next two-and-a-half innings, the game became a bit of a pitcher’s duel–each team recorded a relatively quiet single but no major threats emerged. But in the bottom of the fourth, Lance Berkman led off with a walk and Matt Holliday was hit by a pitch, and the Cardinals suddenly had a potential rally. A David Freese double flipped the script of the game on its head–the Cardinals now led by one run.
In the fifth inning, an otherwise quiet frame, came the most famous moment of Game 4–the emergence of the Rally Squirrel. My official historical take on the matter is as follows–if you’re getting this bent out of shape about one mildly distracting squirrel (who, like, isn’t an employee of the Cardinals–my dude doesn’t even know what a baseball is) and you’re preparing to use it as an excuse for your shortcomings, you’re probably going to lose. Anyway, here goes that squirrel. I can’t stress how famous this squirrel was, if you weren’t around in 2011. This squirrel was more famous than Matt Holliday.
The Cardinals did not add to their lead in the fifth, but in the sixth, it was once again David Freese who came through, via a two-run home run that gave the Cardinals, rather than a narrow one-run lead, a solid three-run one. As it turned out, a minor eighth-inning rally which produced one Phillies run did render the Freese home run necessary. Cardinals win 5-3 and set up an elimination game in Philadelphia on Friday night.
The matchup was the stuff of legend–Roy Halladay and Chris Carpenter, two of the best pitchers in the sport, former teammates in Toronto who were off-season fishing buddies, squaring off at Citizens Bank Park. The advantage, to be clear, was with the Phillies–as good as Carpenter was, Roy Halladay was a defending Cy Young winner who was even better in 2011 who had, the previous season, pitched a perfect game and tossed the second no-hitter in MLB postseason history. But Cardinals fans could take solace in knowing that they had what amounted to the next-best thing in Carpenter.
Not unlike in Game 1, the Cardinals struck early against Halladay before he ever got the chance to settle in. Rafael Furcal led off the game with a triple, and the next batter, center fielder Skip Schumaker, added a double. The Cardinals immediately held a 1-0 lead before they retired a single batter. This was the point at which my cell phone died. I was at work that night at a job with highly restrictive internet access (we weren’t even supposed to have active cell phones in our possession, but I was at least evasive enough to avoid any issues there). Mercifully, I would get out of work well before the end of the game, but I had no idea what was going on. In the sixth inning, I finally left and immediately flipped to KMOX in my car. I patiently waited for Mike Shannon to provide a score update, but to no avail. It was the seventh inning by the time I got home, and I immediately sprinted into the house and indecipherably yelled (excitedly, not angrily) at my mom for a score update. She let me know what had happened–not very much. When the seventh inning ended, it was still 1-0 Cardinals, with Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay still keeping opposing offenses in check.
The nature of Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS was that, statistically, there weren’t really dramatic swings in win probability or anything like that–the Cardinals would experience the epitome of that twelve games later. But it meant perpetually walking on eggshells, a belief that you were one mistake away from squandering your advantage and not having the offensive firepower to recover. The bottom of the eighth typifies that sensation. Plácido Polanco and Carlos Ruiz had quiet ground outs to Rafael Furcal, but after Chris Carpenter struck out Ross Gload, pinch-hitting for Roy Halladay, an error on Yadier Molina allowed Gload to advance to first on a dropped third strike. Suddenly, with a former MVP in Jimmy Rollins coming to the plate, the sense, irrational as it was, was that this was the wiggle room the Phillies needed. But a terrific play by Nick Punto, recovering from a ball off Carpenter’s glove, ended the inning quietly.
In the bottom of the ninth, with the game still at 1-0 and Chris Carpenter needing a SWAT team if Tony LaRussa had hoped to remove him from the game, Chase Utley hit a deep fly ball that felt like a home run. It wasn’t–it went about half-way into the warning track area–but nothing felt assured. Jon Jay made a semi-casual catch. One away. Hunter Pence grounded to third base and Daniel Descalso made a strong throw to first to retire him–there’s two. Ryan Howard, famously of St. Louis, came up with the season on the line and nearly slipped one past Nick Punto, but the second baseman ranged over to grab the ball. Rather than throwing to Albert Pujols for the easy out, Punto took seven or so steps towards the bag before making a gentle flip to Pujols. We later learned that Punto was so conservative for a logical reason–Howard had slipped running out of the batter’s box, tearing his Achilles tendon in the process, and unfortunately, the likable Phillies first baseman was never really the same caliber of player again–but in the moment, it felt like the quest to secure the final out was going to simply take an hour. But when all was said and done, the Cardinals had defeated the World Series favorites.
In 2022, the Phillies are not World Series favorites, nor are the Cardinals scrappy Wild Card underdogs. That two players remain from the 2011 series (or, in the case of Pujols, returned) is higher than one could reasonably expect eleven years later, but even so, these teams are largely different. But the fan loyalties remain the same, and those who remember 2011 can only hope to have the dramatic highs of 2022. If I am allowed to omit the catastrophic injury to the Phillies first baseman, I will gladly take a repeat.