Tony La Russa would never say he'd given up on making the playoffs. At least he'd never admit it publicly. His genius was getting his players to focus on the smallest of tasks: execute the pitch, throw to the right base, have a competitive at-bat. NFL coaches call it trusting the process.
The Hall of Fame manager believed big accomplishments grew from small tasks done well. He convinced his teams to ignore the outside noise and to simply play the game a certain way.
When the 2008 Cardinals were hit hard by injuries, La Russa made that season something akin to a crusade. He talked to his players almost every day in the final six weeks, saying things like, "If we finish this deal, it'll be one of the greatest accomplishments of your lives."
The Cardinals didn't have enough to make the postseason in 2008, but La Russa had been fiercely proud of how they'd hung in there and won 86 games.
In 2011, La Russa wasn't thinking about winning the World Series when he called a team meeting in late August. At the time, the Cardinals were 67-63 and 10 1/2 games out in the National League Wild Card race. Making the playoffs was about the last thing on their minds.
"Listen," La Russa recalled telling the Cardinals that day. "You guys have gained a terrific reputation of being great professionals this season. It hasn't gone the way we'd like, but we've competed hard and respected the game. Let's not do anything to change that in these last few weeks."
Being 10 1/2 games behind the Braves in the NL Wild Card race was one thing. Being just 3 1/2 ahead of the Cincinnati Reds was another. He didn't know if his team was capable of running down the Braves, but the last thing he wanted to do was finish behind the Reds and their manager, Dusty Baker, a fierce rival.
After La Russa finished his meeting, he went back to his office, pulled out a sheet of paper and charted out the final 32 games of the season. He ran his finger down to Game 162 and wrote the name "Chris Carpenter."
While he didn't think a playoff berth was in his future, La Russa guessed that if the Cardinals were to make a run, he'd want his best guy going in the final game. So he set up his rotation by working backwards from there.
He ran into one problem with the September 1 game at Milwaukee. Since he wanted Carpenter to start the next night at home against -- you guessed it -- the Reds, he needed a fill-in starter to face the Brewers. When the Cardinals won the first two games against the Brewers and seemed to have some momentum building, a St. Louis reporter said to La Russa, "You are not going to do this, are you?"
Yes, yes he was. The Cardinals gave right-hander Brandon Dickson his first -- and as it turned out, only -- career start on September 1 against the Brewers. Dickson didn't make it out of the fourth inning, but the Cardinals won 8-4, to say La Russa was starting to feel good about things was an understatement.
Something had changed. The Cardinals morphed back into the team they were supposed to be. Down the stretch, they were almost unbeatable, going 23-9 down the stretch. And as the Braves stumbled, the Cardinals got the Wild Card-clinching victory from Carpenter in the 162nd game of the season.
You probably know what happened after that. Carpenter beat his buddy Roy Halladay 1-0 in Game 5 of the NLDS. The Cardinals then beat the Brewers in six games in the National League Championship Series and the Rangers in a World Series for the ages. Carpenter got the ball -- and the victory -- in Game 7.
Today, the 2011 St. Louis are a bright and shining light for every baseball team that finds itself buried in the standings. If the Cardinals can do it, why can't someone else? That 2011 season isn't much different from that one. In fact - not only has there been a Wild Card team added since then - there was another team that made a similar comeback in 2011.
When the Rays started that season 3-8, Joe Maddon passed around shot glasses on the team plane and toasted, "The best [bleepin'] 3-8 team in history."
Like the Cardinals, the Rays were dead in the water: 11 1/2 games out in the AL Wild Card race on July 27, and 9 out on September 3. Maddon tried every trick up his motivational sleeve. Team parties. Odd lineups. Weird dress codes. In the end, though, it was a matter of the young Rays staying after it. In the end, they were who we thought just might be.
The Rays needed a historic collapse by the Red Sox to squeeze into the postseason, but they deserve all kinds of credit for putting themselves in position to get there by going 17-8 in the final days of the season and earning a playoff berth in the most dramatic fashion imaginable.
In the Rays and Cardinals, there's hope for the White Sox, Marlins, Mets and every other team hanging around on the edge of contending this summer. Baseball's best two dozen teams are close in terms of talent, perhaps closer than they've ever been before. Even if the odds are long and the time starting to grow short, there's hope.
And if a manager is looking for motivational examples, there are plenty of them. Teams are dead. Then they're not.
• The 1995 Mariners trailed the Angels by six games with 16 to play. The Mariners went 12-4 down the stretch, the Angels 6-11. And then the Mariners beat the Angels in a one-game playoff berth.
• The 1964 Cardinals trailed the Phillies -- excuse me if you've heard this one -- by 6 1/2 games with 13 to play. The Cardinals finished 103 while the Phillies -- excuse me if you've heard this one -- went 2-10.
• The 1951 Giants trailed the Dodgers by 6 1/2 games with 17 to play. They went 14-3 after that while the Dodgers went 8-11. The Giants then beat the Dodgers 2-1 in a best-of-three playoff series. Bobby Thomson delivered the shot heard round the world to finish it.
• The 2007 Phillies trailed the Mets by seven games with 17 to play. They went 13-4 the rest of the way, including 3-0 against the Mets. The Mets went 5-12.
• Sticking with that same year, the 2007 Rockies were 4 1/2 games out in the NL Wild Card race on September 15th and had three teams to pass. They were a mere 76-72 at the time. And then something amazing happened. They started winning and winning and then winning some more. They led the major leagues in runs down the stretch. They had the second-best ERA at 3.13. Once they started rolling, it felt like they'd never lose again. They finished the regular season on a 14-1 roll and then opened the playoffs with a seven-game winning streak. They were swept by the Red Sox in the World Series, but not before giving their fans a run they'll remember forever.
• The 1988 Red Sox were 43-42 and nine games out on July 10 when they fired manager John McNamara and hired a nice native New Englander named Joe Morgan. He was unassuming and relaxed, a complete contrast to McNamara. The Red Sox played like a burden had been lifted, winning their first 19 of 20 under him and sprinting right into the playoffs.
• The 2004 Astros tried everything. They fired manager Jimy Williams. They made a blockbuster trade for Carlos Beltran. And on August 14, they were 56-60. Something clicked after that, helped by a reliever named Dan Wheeler, who incited a bench-blearing brawl at Wrigley Field after plunking Michael Barrett. The Astros rallied and went 36-10 to clinch a playoff berth on the final day of the season.
So, to quote a famous man, it ain't over 'til it's over. And if the 2011 season isn't enough of an inspiration, these other examples should suffice.
Players who've been on those miracle clubs will tell you it's the best experience they've ever had, that there's something absolutely magical at work. Keep the faith, boys.