Tony LaRussa’s arrival in St. Louis in 1996 had paid immediate dividends. A proud Cardinal franchise that had been on the outs for several years got to within one game of the World Series. But that progress was not sustained. Over the next three seasons, St. Louis finished under .500 twice and topped out at 83 wins. The 2000 St. Louis Cardinals turned that around. They won the NL Central, advanced in the postseason and set the stage for a sustained run of success.
A big reason for the change in fortune was that the front office got very aggressive in the offseason prior to the 2000 season. The Cardinals made a series of trades that netted them starting pitching in Pat Hentgen and Daryl Kile. They got a closer in Dave Veres and a solid second baseman with Fernando Vina. St. Louis further strengthened their rotation with the free agent signing of Andy Benes. And in late March, just prior to the start of the season, the coup de grace came when the Cardinals traded for centerfielder Jim Edmonds.
St. Louis used a strategy of quality over quantity. They gave up more players than they were getting back in all of these deals, but only second baseman Adam Kennedy, sent to the Angels in the Edmonds deal, had any real impact in the years ahead. It was, indisputably, a spectacular offseason for the front office.
Edmonds posted a stat line of .411 on-base percentage/.583 slugging percentage, hit 42 homers, drove in 108 runs, scored 129 more and finished fourth in the National League MVP voting. He was the leader of an offense that excelled at drawing walks and hitting home runs.
Mark McGwire, who had set the single-season home run record in 1998 (fueled by PED use), was 36-years-old. He still hit 32 home runs in just 89 games. When McGwire was injured, St. Louis swung a deal at the July 31 trade deadline to get another excellent 36-year-old. Will Clark was brought in and merely delivered a .426/.655 stat line, without the benefit of the PEDs.
Vina stepped right into the lineup, batting .300 and finishing with a .380 OBP. The young right fielder, J.D. Drew, had a stat line of .401/.479 .Third baseman Ferando Tatis Sr (father of the current San Diego Padres star of the same name) was just 25-years-old and his stat line was .379/.491. Ray Lankford’s numbers were .367/.508 in left field. Edgar Renteria posted a .346 OBP at the shortstop position.
LaRussa added veteran depth, ranging from the now 38-years-old Eric Davis, once a star in Cincinnati, and former Cubs shortstop Shawon Dunston. Each were solid contributors. Offensive numbers were soaring throughout baseball, with PED use widespread, so even with all these numbers, the Cardinals still didn’t have the best offense in the National League. But they did place a solid fourth in runs scored.
Pitching numbers were correspondingly weak, so the ERAs won’t jump off this page. But to give some context, the fact St. Louis’ entire starting rotation kept their ERAs under 5, is notable for this period of baseball history. So is the fact that those five starters combined to make 155 starts. That kind of reliability goes a long way.
Kile won 20 games with a 3.91 ERA. Rick Ankiel, at the age of 20, added 11 more wins and with a 3.50 ERA, finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting. Garrett Stephenson, Hentgen and Benes combined to win 39 more games. Veres had 29 saves and a 2.85 ERA. Matt Morris, a 25-year-old who would eventually become the rotation ace, did solid work out of the bullpen this season. So did Mike James.
St. Louis’ ERA ended up seventh in what was then a 16-team National League. It wasn’t great, but it was steady and it combined with that potent offense to win games.
The Houston Astros were a National League team prior to 2013 and they were also the team to beat in the NL Central. The Astros had won this division three years running. After St. Louis got the season off to a nice start by going 5-1 at home against the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs, they headed to Houston for a three-game set.
Edmonds quickly put his mark on this season, going 4-for-4 in Monday night’s opener. McGwire, Renteria, Drew and Lankford all homered. The Cardinals led 8-3 and then held off a late Astro rally to win 8-7.
St. Louis trailed 6-3 into the seventh inning on Tuesday night. Then they exploded. Backup outfielder Thomas Howard delivered a pinch-hit grand slam. Renteria ripped a three-run blast. The Cardinals won 10-6. Even though they lost the finale 7-5, in spite of three more RBIs from Howard, the season was off to good start.
By Memorial Day, St. Louis was 28-21. They were one game up on the Cincinnati Reds, who had high hopes after trading for Ken Griffey Junior in the offseason. But Houston had collapsed, enduring an aberration of a season, and they would not recover. The race quickly became about the Cardinals and Reds.
St. Louis struggled in the early part of June against American League teams, but Cincinnati did as well, so it really didn’t impact the race. The Cards recovered by winning 10 of 12 against the NL West. The Reds did not have a similar rebound, and St. Louis spurted out to a comfortable lead. The rivals split four games with each other in Cincinnati. When the Reds made the return trip on the Fourth of July, the Cards were riding high at 8 ½ games up.
Edmonds celebrating the Fourth by homering twice in the series opener against Cincinnati. Catcher Mike Matheny had three hits and drove in three runs. Benes gave six good innings in a 14-3 rout. Wednesday’s game was tighter. Hentgen pitched well and it was a 3-3 tie in the seventh. Dunston’s solo blast was the difference and St. Louis won 4-3. Cincinnati recovered to take the finale, but the Cardinals had again met a test against a division rival.
St. Louis slumped a bit out of that series when they faced other contenders in the National League. They dropped a series to San Francisco, who would eventually win the NL West. The Cardinals lost three of five games to the Arizona Diamondbacks, who were in the mix. And they were swept three straight on the road by the New York Mets, who were playoff-bound.
As the calendar flipped to August, St. Louis had a four-game edge on Cincinnati. In the crucial dog days of summer, the Cardinals responded by playing consistent, steady baseball. They won four of seven against the Atlanta Braves, who would win the NL East. The Reds weren’t keeping pace and the NL Central margin was pushed back out to 7 ½ games.
Then, on Labor Day weekend, the Cards took a measure of revenge on the Mets. They swept three games at home, all of them in walk off fashion. It was a great way to begin the fall, it pushed the division lead to nine games and all but put the NL Central race to bed.
St. Louis coasted home in September, finishing 95-67 and clearing the field by 10 games. They finished tied with Atlanta for the National League’s second-best record behind San Francisco. Taking those four of seven from the Braves in August proved crucial, because that’s what settled homefield advantage when the two teams met in the Division Series.
The explosive offense that had carried the Cardinals through this season did a number on a great Braves’ pitching staff that included Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. St. Louis scored 24 runs in three games, swept Atlanta out and advanced to the National League Championship Series.
New York had knocked off San Francisco in the other NLDS matchup. The Mets may have been the wild-card, but they had been playing good baseball for a sustained stretch and finished the regular season with 94 wins. Even with homefield advantage, St. Louis was unable to slow New York down. The Mets came into Busch Stadium, grabbed the first two games and then ultimately closed out the series in five games back in Queens.
Even with that ending, 2000 was still a terrific year in St. Louis. Even better, it was a tone-setting year. This began a stretch of seven seasons where the Cardinals would make the playoffs six times, win the National League pennant twice, and in 2006, they returned all the way to the top and won the World Series.