How The 1987 St. Louis Cardinals Won The NL East

The 1987 St. Louis Cardinals were a team with some amends to make. They were coming off a horrid run of a year plus ten innings. It went back to the 1985 World Series when, on the verge of a championship in Game 6, a bad umpire’s call triggered a ninth-inning collapse and they melted down completely in Game 7. The lingering hangover led to a sub-.500 year in 1986. The ‘87 Cards made those amends, getting back to the postseason and almost winning a World Series.

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St. Louis was a running team in an era where stolen bases were still a valued commodity. Leftfielder Vince Coleman swiped 109 bases and finished with an OBP of .369. Shortstop Ozzie Smith, in addition to being a Hall of Fame defender, stole 43 bases, had a stellar OBP of .392 and finished second in the MVP voting.

The Cardinals were the best in the National League in on-base percentage. Third baseman Terry Pendleton’s OBP was .360 and he drove in 96 runs. Tom Herr, the steady second baseman had an OBP of .346. Jose Oquendo was a utility man whose OBP was .408 in his 300-plus plate appearances.

And no one was better at getting on base than the one man who also provided some power—first baseman Jack Clark finished with a dazzling OBP of .459, while also hitting 35 home runs and 106 RBI. Centerfielder Willie McGee wasn’t a home run hitter, but he drove in 105 runs. St. Louis was second in the NL in runs scored.

The pitching wasn’t quite that good, but they were more than acceptable. Danny Cox, Greg Mathews and John Tudor all finished with ERAs in the high 3s and each won double-digit games. Bob Forsch was an 11-game winner with a 4.32 ERA and 22-year-old Joe Magrane gave the team 170 innings and a decent 3.54 ERA.

Todd Worrell anchored the bullpen and saved 32 games. Manager Whitey Herzog had two reliable lefties to turn to in Ricky Horton and Ken Dayley. The Cardinals were fifth in the National League in ERA.

In the MLB alignment that existed prior to 1994, with just two divisions per league and no wild-cards, St. Louis was in the NL East. The New York Mets were coming off a 108-win season and a World Series title. The Mets were young and had a lot of pitching. They were seen as unbeatable and this division race was seen as a foregone conclusion.

The Cardinals had other ideas and quickly made that plain when the Mets came to Busch Stadium for a three-game weekend series in mid-April. Tudor and Horton combined to scatter twelve hits and win the opener 4-3. Saturday’s game was a wild affair. Cox pitched poorly and gave up five runs in the fourth. St. Louis answered with five of their own in the bottom of the same inning. They led 6-5 in the ninth and had two outs when a two-run RBI put them in a 7-6 hole. In the bottom of the ninth, Ozzie Smith worked a walk, was bunted up, stole third and came home when the throw went wild.

In the 10th inning, the Cardinals looked done again when a wild pitch put the Mets in front. In the bottom of the frame, the got three singles and a walk to tie it 8-8. Herr came to the plate and hit a grand slam that ended the amazing 12-8 game. On Sunday afternoon, McGee and catcher Tom Pagnozzi each homered early and a 4-2 victory completed the sweep.

St. Louis made a return trip to New York and won two of three. They went on a 12-4 run through the teams of the NL West in May and by Memorial Day they were 26-14 and in first place. The lead was only a game, but more significant than their edge on the Chicago Cubs (who ended the season in last place) was the 7 ½ game margin the Cardinals had on the Mets.

The fade of the Cubs began when St. Louis went to Wrigley Field in early June to win three of four. They swept three straight when Chicago made a return visit to Busch. Even though the Cards lost a series to the Mets in Shea at the end of June, they won 10 of the last 11 games before the All-Star break. At the midway point, St. Louis was soaring at 56-39, up nine games on the Montreal Expos and 9 ½ on New York.

At the end of July the race began to tighten and it happened when the Mets again came to town for a three-game set. The Cards took a 4-2 lead in the opener, but Worrell was unable to hold the lead for Magrane in the eighth inning and they lost 6-4. St. Louis looked ready to return the favor the next night when they trailed 4-3 in the ninth. Coleman singled, stole second and scored on a base hit by Herr. But the Cards fell in extra innings. In Thursday’s finale, Mathews was chased early, giving up three runs in the first and losing 5-3.

The sweep was part of a seven-game losing streak that included four losses in San Francisco against the eventual NL West champion Giants. In August, St. Louis lost 11 of 17 and their lead shrunk to 2 ½ games. An 11-4 run against the NL West stopped the bleeding, but when Labor Day arrived St. Louis still clung to a 3 ½ game lead over the Mets and the Expos lurked at five back. The race to the finish line was on.

A trip to Montreal was nothing short of a disaster, as the Cardinals lost three straight by a combined score of 21-6. They were battered and bleeding as they went to New York for a highly anticipated three-game weekend series. The margin was down to a game and a half. Tudor gave up three runs in the first inning of the opener and they trailed 4-1 in the ninth. St. Louis might be in first place, but they had taken on the appearance of the team doing the chasing.

The momentum took a sudden turn back the other way. The Cardinals scraped out one run, had another man aboard and brought Pendleton to the plate. He stunned the Shea Stadium crowd with a game-tying home run. In the 10th, Coleman, Ozzie and Herr all singled to produce two more runs and an amazing 6-4 win.

St. Louis carried it over to the next day, scoring five runs in the top of the first. Mathews pitched a complete-game 8-1 win. Even though Cox lost the finale 4-2, the Cardinals had survived and nudged their lead back to 2 ½ games, with the Expos sitting three games back.

Over the next two weeks, St. Louis played non-contenders in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Chicago. The race stayed exactly the same and set the stage for a big final week. The Cardinals might have the edge and might be playing at home, but Montreal was coming in for four games to start the week and New York would be here for the final weekend.

Instead of a thrilling finish, the Cards took the drama out of it. They won two of the first three games over the Expos, while the Mets lost two of three in Philadelphia. St. Louis had the chance to clinch on Thursday against Montreal.

Cox got the ball and met the moment, with a complete game, allowing just five hits. Ozzie, Herr and Dan Driessen combined for six hits and a walk. Leading 3-2 in the seventh, the Cardinals broke it open with five runs. When Cox induced Tim Foley to hit a comebacker to the mound for the final out, the NL East race was finally over. The Cardinals had dethroned the mighty Mets.

St. Louis wasn’t done and nor was Cox. They won an exciting seven-game National League Championship Series over San Francisco. Cardinal pitching dominated the conclusion, with shutout wins at home in Games 6 & 7, the latter pitched by Cox. For the third time in six years, the Cardinals were going to the World Series.

For the second time in three years, St. Louis won three games in a World Series and took a 3-2 series advantage. And for the second time in three years they dropped the final two on the road, this time in Minnesota. In a Series where the home team won every game, perhaps St. Louis just had the misfortune to win a pennant in the “wrong” year (homefield was alternated each year between the AL & NL).

What should be most remembered about the 1987 St. Louis Cardinals though, is that they were a team that began the year with no one giving them any chance to still compete in their own division. They ended it with two champagne celebrations and nearly got the last one.