BOSTON -- After the 2011 World Series, all Cardinals fans, deep down, secretly have assumed that their team is going to win every postseason game. The 2011 World Series was a series that will do that to you. For a Cardinals fan, the 2011 Series was the pinnacle of the sports fan experience. It just doesn't get any better than:
- Being 10½ games out of the wild card on Aug. 24, and then coming back to win the slot on the last day of the season.
- Beating a historically dominant Phillies team, in an NLDS that ended with Chris Carpenter, one of the most beloved Cardinals pitchers ever, throwing a shutout to defeat Roy Halladay at the top of his game.
- Watching as Albert Pujols, the second-best hitter in Cardinals history, hit three home runs in a World Series.
- That Game 6, in which, in case you forgot, the Cardinals were down to their last strike twice before one of the most famous walk-off homers in World Series history.
After that, you don't get to complain about anything, and you don't get to doubt. Last season's comeback against the Nationals in the NLDS -- in which they overcame a 6-0 deficit against a roaring home crowd, in a situation somewhat similar to Game 6 on Wednesday -- only secured it: This team was special. They amount of joy the Cardinals have provided their fans over the last two seasons is unparalleled in modern team history. It has been the era of happy.
Just for my benefit after Wednesday night's World Series Game 6, here's the video to end all videos on the subject:
I'm pretty sure it ended with the Red Sox's World Series-clinching victory, 6-1, on Wednesday night. That's not to say the Cardinals aren't going to be good again next year -- very possibly they're going to be better, and for a few more years to come. But that team, and future teams, will be different. They won't be connected to that 2011 team. That age, as of Wednesday, is over.
There are players from that team that will still be around; Yadier Molina, obviously, as well as Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn and Jason Motte. But this was the break in history: All those players who lent their magic to the Cardinals in 2011 lost it this year, and next year, they'll be gone.
In 2011, the Cardinals won not necessarily because of big stars like Pujols or Holliday, but because of performances that came out of nowhere. In Game 6 that year, after the Cardinals had tied it up in the ninth, they were behind by two with Daniel Descalso, Jon Jay and the pitcher's spot coming up. Those two players are mostly no-names now; in 2011, they were anonymous to all but the most devoted baseball fans. But they both singled, allowing Lance Berkman to tie the game for the second time in two innings. They were the little guys you need to contribute to make such a wild comeback happen.
Then there is of course David Freese, who will be shown on a loop at Busch Stadium as long as baseball exists.
But that was 2011. Now? They're just dead spots in the lineup. The Cardinals never really got much offense going in this series, despite some success from Craig, Holliday and Carlos Beltran, and that was mostly because of a relentless succession of outs from the bottom of the order -- Descalso, Jay and Freese. And Pete Kozma, too, a postseason hero from 2012. Descalso was 1-for-10; Jay was 3-for-18; Kozma was 0-for-10. And perhaps worst of all was Freese, who went 3-for-19, striking out seven times and hitting into a double play. The contrast between 2011 Freese and 2013 Freese, in particular, was profound. So focused and locked-in back then; so lost, glassy-eyed, confused and almost scared now. He was two different people.
This game, in particular, seemed specifically constructed to make Cardinals fans cut the link between 2011 and 2013. The Cardinals had multiple runners on in five different innings, including four in a row from the second through the fifth, but only scored one run. They ended up leaving nine men on base (actually two fewer than the Red Sox). This was the theme of the series for the Cardinals: missed opportunity after missed opportunity. The Cardinals had the best batting average with men in scoring position in baseball history this year; they were barely over .200 in the World Series. Everything that had worked for them during all those postseason comebacks the last three seasons -- even this postseason, particularly against Pittsburgh -- vanished against the Red Sox.
This is only natural in baseball, but those last three postseasons had convinced many Cardinals fans they -- and players like Freese, Jay and company -- were immune from natural baseball business. The 2011 run had that effect. But now that's over, and that era of the Cardinals -- the one of Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols, and that crazy four weeks in October -- is behind them. Some of those players may return -- particularly Jay, who could serve as a fourth outfielder behind Holliday, Craig and prospect Oscar Taveras -- but the Cardinals will rely on them no longer. This is a new era, the Mozeliak era, the era of prospect after prospect after prospect. If anything, this series closed the door on La Russa forever.
The new era of the Cardinals will have loads of victories. This franchise is as well positioned now for sustained success as any in baseball. It just won't have that connection to 2011. The tie may be severed completely if Freese is traded in the offseason; the Cardinals want a spot for postseason goat Kolten Wong, with Matt Carpenter moving over to third base. This has been the Cardinals' modus operandi, feeling comfortable enough to say goodbye to icons, from Pujols to now Carlos Beltran and ultimately Freese. This is smart planning. But it's undeniably the end of something.
The Boston Red Sox are proof that you can shift on the fly and win championships. This team looks nothing like last year's, by design, and it turned out beautifully. The Cardinals' loss is the pivot moment from the La Russa-Pujols era to the Wacha-Martinez-Miller-Rosenthal-Craig-Carpenter era, with Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday as the sole links. The Cardinals have moved on from 2011. They have a promising though uncertain future. Before Wednesday night, 2011 Game 6 was part of an ongoing present. Now, it's just a memory. There are worse things.
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