The St. Louis Cardinals missed the playoffs in 2010, finishing five games behind the first-place Cincinnati Reds. It was a disappointing finish, but there were reasons for Cardinals fans to be optimistic. They had the best hitter in the game. They had three fantastic pitchers at the top of the rotation. They weren't going to be heavy favorites, but they had a pretty good shot at the playoffs.
But things didn't go their way, and 2011 ended no differently than the previous season. The Cardinals are watching the playoffs again, making it another long offseason for the St. Louis area.1 Here are the four turning points of their disappointing season.
Adam Wainwright's Injury
Any chance the Cardinals had was because of Wainwright, who took a step forward in 2010 and became the ace of the staff. In 2009, there was some question about whether Wainwright or Chris Carpenter was the leader of the rotation. Last year there was no question, as Wainwright finished in the top three of the Cy Young voting for the second year in a row.
In February, though, Wainwright underwent Tommy John surgery, which guaranteed that he'd miss 2011. Without their ace, the Cardinals would have to get creative with pitchers like Kyles McClellan and Lohse. That was obviously too much to ask.
Albert Pujols's Injury
Well, it wasn't just the injury. Pujols began his contract year miserably, hitting into all sorts of double plays. He was clearly not the same hitter that he once was, and it was probably a good idea just to sit back and wait for the decline. But then in late June, Pujols fractured his wrist. It was an injury that was going to keep him out at least until mid-August.
Without Pujols, the Cards' offense was a mess, and even when he came back, wrist injuries are very tricky things. His power was likely to be down, or even gone completely. If he were under contract for next year, it would have been wise to limit his time for the rest of the season so he could start 2012 strong.
Losing against the Dodgers
It could have been any series, really, but this one best fits the timeline. In late July and early August, the Cardinals lost two series against the Brewers, putting them four games back when Milwaukee left town. Those two series stung, but just two weeks later, the Cards were swept at home by the Dodgers, getting outscored 24-7 in the series. When the three-game debacle was over, St. Louis was 10 games back of the Brewers, and 10½ behind the Braves in the Wild Card standings.
The two Brewers series might have cost them the division, but it was the Dodgers who let the world know that the Cardinals weren't going to the playoffs.
Drawing the Phillies in the first round of the playoffs
Uh, look, I just wrote that the Cardinals missed the playoffs entirely, but I'll play along. Nature has different ways to warn you that you might be in danger. A rattlesnake has its rattle. Dogs growl. Cacti have a bunch of spikes jutting out of them -- seriously, they're right there in front of your face. Spikes. A lot of them.
A Game 1 match-up of Roy Halladay vs. Kyle Lohse is one of those warnings. It's a sign to slowly back away ... then turn around and run. It's not that Lohse was truly the Cardinals' ace. It was just the idea of team putting Kyle Lohse up against Roy Halladay and saying, "So, this is us, what with one of our Kyles here, and we'd very much like to play some postseason baseball." That was supposed to go against one of the best pitching staffs ever assembled?
The Cards used to have a front of the rotation that could match up with any team, and their offense was just as fearsome as any in the NL. But without Wainwright and Pujols, they didn't stand a chance in the regular season. And if there was some sort of miracle -- like Pujols' bones healing all creepy-like in two weeks, or Kyle Lohse filling in admirably for Wainwright for most of the season -- it still wouldn't have made a difference in the playoffs. The Cardinals were eliminated four different times this year. Only now is it really sinking in.
1. I mean, I'm just guessing. I haven't followed a lot of baseball lately, what with Dancing of the Stars coming back on, and ... wait, the National League Championship Series? What in the absolute hell? That has to be a misprint.