A History Of The Cards and the NLCS

The National League Championship Series came into being in 1969, when that year’s expansion to Montreal and San Diego forced baseball to divide each league into divisions.  While it took a while for St. Louis to visit the NLCS, they’ve done a great job of making it their home.

The Cards didn’t make the big stage until 1982, when they swept the Atlanta Braves in three games.  (No, that’s not a “Detroit in three” reference, the NLCS didn’t expand to seven games until 1985.)  Darrell Porter took home MVP honors there, but given that this one was 1) before I started watching baseball and 2) never much talked about, I’m guessing it wasn’t largely memorable.  Sounds like it was a wet series, though, with a couple of rainouts.

St. Louis returned to the NLCS in 1985 against the Los Angeles Dodgers.  It’s possible you know something about this series.

Indeed, Cardinal Nation went crazy but it’s easy to forget that this series wasn’t over.  Ozzie Smith‘s homer sent the Cards out to LA for Game 6, where Tommy Lasorda’s fateful decision to pitch to Jack Clark with a base open gave Tom Niedenfuer back-to-back games that would never be forgotten.  I don’t know the reception Dodger fans gave Niedenfuer in 1986 and beyond, but these days I can’t imagine how a player would survive given social media and so much extended coverage.  Ozzie got the MVP for this series, by the way.

St. Louis won their third NLCS in 1987 in their first postseason matchup with the San Francisco Giants.  This was a seven game classic that went back and forth as both teams won once on the opponents’ soil.  The Cardinals had to rally in this series, coming back to St. Louis for Games 6 and 7 down three games to two.  Not only did they win those games, but John Tudor and Danny Cox both led the staff to shutout wins as the Giants didn’t score for the last 22 innings.  Even with all that, Jeffery Leonard, who made waves with his “one flap down” home run trot won the MVP though his team lost.

If there is still bad blood between the two organizations, something that’s debatable in my opinion, it most likely started here.  Leonard’s home run trot was designed to infuriate and Chili Davis stoked the fire by calling St. Louis a “cow town” before the series started.  Add those elements into a fairly tight series and, well, perhaps it’s not surprising the next season Will Clark and the Wizard got into a scrap.

After appearing in the NLCS three times in six seasons, St. Louis disappeared from the big stage for a while.  New ownership arrived and they brought in a new manager.  That seemed to work out pretty well.

In 1996, his first year at the helm, Tony La Russa led the Cardinals (liberally dashed with his former A’s) to the Championship Series.  This was the first time that the Cards had to get by another round of playoffs before reaching this one, having disposed of the Padres in three games before reaching a matchup with the NL team of the decade, the Atlanta Braves.

The Braves were in the midst of their run of eight straight NLCS appearances, the all-time record.  While they didn’t always win them, this was a powerhouse squad that had plenty of postseason experience.  Experience that came into play when they dug themselves a hole.

St. Louis raced out to a 3-1 lead in this series.  As they’d never lost an NLCS, no doubt there were many visions of taking on the other team of the decade, the Yankees, in the Fall Classic.  However, as we know, 3-1 leads can be anathema to this squad.  I guess when you throw Todd Stottlemyre, Alan Benes and Donovan Osborne against John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, you kinda understand how the Braves outscored the Redbirds 32-1 in the last three games to take the title.  Game 7 was as anti-climatic as they come, as Osborne didn’t make it out of the first inning, leaving with a six-run deficit.  Javier Lopez, the Braves’ catcher, took home MVP honors.

Once the new millennium came around, though, the Cardinals started changing their address most every October, having their mail delivered to the championship series.  Since 2000, they’ve played in nine (counting the one that begins Saturday night) of fifteen championship series.  If the NLCS had a sponsor, it’d be the Gateway Arch.

They started the 2000s off by facing off against the New York Mets in the championship series.  While there’s a very memorable LCS against the Mets coming up, this one was fairly unremarkable, overshadowed for the most part by the continuing meltdown of Rick Ankiel.  Ankiel had started his strange inability to throw strikes against the Braves in the divisional series and proved that wasn’t a one-time deal when he couldn’t get out of the first inning of Game 2 due to balls leaving the local ZIP code.  The legend of Mike Hampton culminated in this series (he was the MVP), as he was a target of the Cardinals during free agency in part because of the way he was able to manhandle them both here and when he was with Houston.

The Cards missed 2001 when they lost in the bottom of the 9th in Game 5 of the NLDS, but returned in 2002 to face off again with the Giants.  St. Louis had leads in both Games 4 and 5 but were unable to hold them as the Giants lost only Game 3 in the series.  Kenny Lofton proved to be an irritant to the Redbirds, shouting at the Cardinals before delivering the game-winning hit, then spending his first moments as NL champ pointing and hollering at their dugout.  However, Benito Santiago was the one that took home the MVP hardware.

St. Louis started a run of three straight NLCS appearances in 2004 with possibly the strongest Cardinal team of the past decade.  However, the Houston Astros were just as strong, led by Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte on the pitching staff and the “Killer Bs” (Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman, Jeff Bagwell, Carlos Beltran and Derek Bell, two of which would eventually don the birds on the bat).  St. Louis trailed three games to two before Jim Edmonds ended an extra-inning affair with a dramatic home run.  The next day, the Astros got ahead early before Jimmy Ballgame did this.

That kept the game close and eventually Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen made Clemens pay.  Pujols took home MVP honors and the Redbirds moved on to face the Red Sox in the World Series, a series we will not discuss here.  Or anywhere.  Ever.

2005 saw these two teams match up again, but with a different result.  Houston had a chance to end this series in Game 5 but, well, you know…..

Unfortunately, all that did was send the series back to St. Louis, where MVP Roy Oswalt closed down Busch Stadium II with a Game 6 victory.

Nothing comes easy for the Cardinals in the postseason.  Nowhere was this more evident than in 2006, when they matched up again with the Mets.  The first six games went back and forth with the Cards taking a 3-2 series lead back to New York before losing Game 6.  While the rest of the games in this series had their moments, such as So Taguchi going deep off of Billy Wagner in Game 2, most all anyone remembers from this series is Game 7.  What a game it was.

After trading runs early, it looked like Rolen had put the the Cardinals ahead with a two-run home run in the sixth, but Endy Chavez had other ideas.

That kept the game tied and it stayed that way until the ninth, when Yadier Molina–not the full-blown offensive force that we know today, but a guy that hit .216 in the regular season–untied it.

That gave the Cardinals a two-run lead to turn over to their young fill-in closer, Adam Wainwright. Proving that Trevor Rosenthal‘s antics are only the latest in a long line of closer heartburn, Wainwright proceeded to load the bases to bring up Beltran, a noted Cardinal killer. The rest, as they say, is history.

That last pitch by Wainwright not only finished that series, a series that Jeff Suppan took home MVP honors for, but was the last pitch the Cardinals threw in a championship series for the next five years.  In 2011, the Cards returned to their rightful stomping grounds and faced the Milwaukee Brewers, the team that had beaten them out for the divisional crown.  Proving that the regular season didn’t mean all that much, the Cards pounded the Brewers in six games as La Russa managed his pitching staff like there was no tomorrow.  No starter went more than five innings as La Russa played matchup baseball frequently, but with MVP David Freese and the rest of the Cardinal offense putting up 43 runs, including two games of 12 runs apiece, it all worked out and their magical run continued.

It looked like things were going to repeat in 2012 as St. Louis matched up with San Francisco for the third time in their history.  And history did repeat, just not the history that the Cardinals wanted.  With a commanding 3-1 lead and Game 5 in Busch Stadium against Barry Zito, the Cards looked poised to go to back-to-back World Series for the first time since 1967-68.  Instead, the Giants outscored the Cardinals 20-1 over the last three games, moving on to their second World Series in three years with MVP Marco Scutaro proving to be one of those pesky hitters the Cards just couldn’t solve.

The Cards took another crack at it last year against the Los Angeles Dodgers.  It was the first time since ’85 the two teams had met with the Series on the line and with Los Angeles having otherworldly pitcher Clayton Kershaw, it seemed a tough task for even the potent St. Louis offense.  The Cards took a 3-2 lead to Game 6 in St. Louis on the basis of solid pitching, as they had only scored 12 runs total to that point.  Game 6 was a scoreless affair between Kershaw and Michael Wacha until Matt Carpenter had an at-bat for the ages in the third.

That opened the floodgates and eventually four runs would score in the frame.  With Wacha being so outstanding–he would take home MVP honors–that was more than enough, but the Cards scored five more in the fifth anyway to seal the deal.  For the second time in three years, St. Louis would be the National League representative in the World Series.

So what does all of that tell us?  Well, it tells us that it rarely comes easy for St. Louis.  They swept their very first one, but other than that they’ve never won a series in less than six games.  It tells us that the Giants have recently had our number, something that needs to change if the Cards are going to get those back-to-back Series berths.  More than anything, though, it tells us that in the next week or however long this series lasts, there are going to be some memorable moments, moments that, if we are lucky, will etch themselves in the deep fabric of Cardinal history.

What moment will be clip-worthy?  What shorthand will we use to describe that big home run or key defensive stop?  We don’t know.  All we know is it’s coming and we’re ready for it!

  • West Coast Redbird

    I watched parts of that 1982 series. The most important fact – the Cardinals were losing Game 1 when the rains came and washed it away. Thank God a playoff rainout was still just a rainout in 1982, not a ‘suspended game’ to be finished later as Bud Selig mandated in 2008. The 1982 post-season might have been very different.

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