Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Redbird Luck Runs Out

By Ross Lancaster

Think for a second about all the teams in pro sports you love to hate the most, or even the ones most people love to hate the most. The common thread with all of them is that they likely all win the most or have won the most in the recent. The Yankees, Duke basketball, the Red Wings, and the Patriots all fall into that camp among their respective sports.

But there are also teams that, as a fan, cause a temporary period of loathing. It may be that they beat your favorite team in a big game or series, have a rivalry a few years old or because they just get lucky all the time. It may even be a combination of all three. Until the last few weeks, I thought that this category of despising clubs could never reach the level of arch-rivals or the traditional mainstays.

I'm of course talking about the St. Louis Cardinals, whose two-year run of punching above their playoff weight ended on Tuesday night in anticlimactic, but pleasing fashion with a 9-0 loss to the Giants.

Now, if you've read my work and baseball columns on this site, you know that I'm a Texas Rangers fan. Therefore, if the entire MLB season was to be called off after the seven days dating from Sept. 29 to Oct. 5, I would have been fine with it. I never wanted to have to say this as a fan of any team, but I feel like I now know how it feels to be a Mets fan. In other words, take this paragraph of qualification as, "No, I'm still not over last year's World Series." You probably would be too if your favorite team came one misread fly ball by a reliable outfielder away from winning the World Series.

So, it's easy to see the genesis of my true dislike for the Cardinals. It didn't help that a mere six years ago, St. Louis won the World Series with what was that year's 13th best team in the regular season.

As an aside, recent sports history has made it harder and harder to hold to the claim that the best team in the sport wins in best-of-seven playoff series. Maybe it's still true in basketball, where the talent level is fairly widely dispersed and a playoff series represents a bigger percentage of games versus the regular season, but it's definitely not been true for baseball and hockey recently.

As the 2012 season progressed, and the Pirates tortured their fans with another losing season and the Dodgers' key acquisitions were railroaded by the Giants, it was pretty clear that the Cardinals and the Braves would meet in the Wild Card game. Once they were there, the Cardinals benefitted from one of the most egregious calls in baseball history, an infield fly ruling nowhere near the infield. When it was so bad that Atlanta's reputably docile fans started pelting the field with trash, you know something is up.

Then, in the NLDS, St. Louis happened to face the year-ahead-of-schedule Nationals, who made what I will always consider to be a huge personnel flub in shutting down ace Stephen Strasburg in September. Even though it's been covered here, and on every sports outlet imaginable, it was in hindsight an even bigger mistake because Strasburg is a player who has the mental toughness to stand up to a clutch-hitting team in a deciding game. After beating two of the National League's favorites for the World Series, and going up 3 games to 1 against San Francisco, it looked like baseball would have to settle for seeing the Cardinals on the biggest stage again.

Something funny happened in Game 5 and on through the rain-drenched conclusion of Game 7. The slightly above-average Cardinals, who had become the fortunate and superlative Cardinals just in time for another playoff season suddenly regressed into a team from the NL Central that resembled Houston more than Cincinnati. It's something that St. Louis fans older than their mid-20s can likely remember happening before.

This year, an 88-74 Cardinals team went up 3-1 against a favored team in the NLCS and scored a combined one run in the final three games. In 1996, an 88-74 Cardinals team went up 3-1 against a favored team in the NLCS and scored a combined one run in the final three games. Barry Zito, Ryan Vogelsong, and Matt Cain aren't going to be confused with Atlanta's amazing triumvirate of John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine from the corresponding three games, but the similarities are still too great to ignore.

As the LCS round started, I found myself wanting the Cardinals to win even less than the Yankees, an almost unthinkable thought for the fan of a quality AL team. The Cardinals had, in my mind, been lucky overachievers that didn't deserve to be in the World Series ahead of the other four playoff teams in the NL, based on the full season. I do have to give credit where it's due, because the Cardinals collection of hitters have come up big in most situations the last two years, and the pitching has been consistent enough to win. But I'm still glad that they're out, and a very promising Tigers/Giants Fall Classic is on tap.

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