The 2011 baseball season was historic, marked by September comebacks and collapses so thrilling that they inspired changes to the postseason format. The World Series is remembered for a dramatic game marked by two late-inning comebacks. When all was said and done, the St. Louis Cardinals stood, quite improbably, at the top of the heap.
For at least five months, this season didn’t look like St. Louis’ year. The Philadelphia Phillies were setting the tone in the National League. The best pitching in baseball was led by Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, and Roy Halladay. This trio combined to win 50 games, and all had ERAs in the 2s. The everyday lineup had a solid all-around player in Shane Victorino, while first baseman Ryan Howard hit 33 homers and drove in 116 runs.
Philadelphia was in a close NL East race at the All-Star break, leading the Atlanta Braves by 3 ½ games. But Philly pushed their way out to a 7 ½ game lead by Labor Day and was not challenged down the stretch. The Phils were the team to beat heading into the postseason.
In Milwaukee, the Brewers had two of the best individual performers in the league. Ryan Braun won the MVP award with a .332 batting average, 33 home runs and 111 RBIs. Prince Fielder finished third in the MVP voting, with numbers of .299/38/120. The rotation was anchored by 17-game winner Yovani Gallardo. The bullpen got a superlative performance from John Axford, who saved 46 games with a 1.95 ERA.
The Brewers and Cardinals were tied in the NL Central at the break, but Milwaukee was another team that used the late summer to create breathing space. By Labor Day, the Brewers were 9 ½ games up and coasted into the playoffs as the 2-seed in the National League.
Atlanta seemed to have what was then a single wild-card spot well in hand. The Braves had a lights-out bullpen. Craig Kimbrel saved 46 games, while the setup team of Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty was often unhittable. Dan Uggla hit 36 homers to lead an otherwise pedestrian offense.
St. Louis had plenty of offense, scoring more runs than anyone in the National League. The great Albert Pujols had another vintage year, batting .299, drilling 37 homers and driving in 99 runs. Lance Berkman posted an on-base percentage of .412 and a slugging percentage of .507. Yadier Molina gave St. Louis the luxury of offensive production at catcher, batting .305.
But when the stretch drive beckoned on Labor Day, the Cardinals were staring at a steep 8 ½ game hole in the wild-card race. In fact, from the perspective of the outside observer, there was no race.
St. Louis struck fast in early September and slashed the margin to 4 ½ games within a week. By the time the final three games arrived, Atlanta’s lead was reduced to a single game. The Braves were playing the Phillies, while the Cardinals were playing the Astros.
In the meantime, something similar was going on over in the AL East. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox were the prime contenders for the first five months. A terrific Yankee offense was led by the trio of Curtis Granderson, Mark Texiera, and Robinson Cano. They combined for 98 home runs and 348 RBIs. Granderson, with 41 of those homers and 119 of the ribbies, finished fourth in the AL MVP vote. A good pitching staff had 19-game winner C.C. Sabathia leading the rotation. The great Mariano Rivera saved 44 games with a buck-91 ERA.
The Red Sox had no problems scoring runs. Jacoby Ellsbury had a magnificent season. The centerfielder hit .321, homered 32 times, drove in 105 runs, scored 119 runs, and stole 39 bases. He was the runner-up for the AL MVP. Adrian Gonzalez had numbers of .338/27/117 in the Triple Crown categories. David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia each cleared the thresholds of a .300 batting average and 20 home runs.
Boston scored more than anyone in the league and held a one-game lead over New York at the All-Star break. But the Red Sox didn’t pitch well, at least not after the top two of Josh Beckett and Jon Lester.
The Yankees nudged into first place by Labor Day, but the race for the AL East title still appeared cosmetic. The Red Sox were eight games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays for the wild-card spot.
Tampa Bay, like St. Louis, made their move in early September and had the wild-card deficit down to 3 ½ games within a week. New York wasn’t necessarily playing well, but Boston was in a free-fall and the Yankees were able to comfortably clinch the division.
When the final three games of the year arrived, Boston—like Atlanta—saw their once-hefty wild-card lead down to a single game. The Red Sox were visiting lowly Baltimore. The Rays were hosting New York.
Tampa Bay’s surge was made possible by balanced pitching. James Shields won 16 games with a 2.82 ERA, finished third in the Cy Young voting, and led a staff that had no real weak points. Evan Longoria carried the offense with 31 homers and 99 RBIs. He got help from Casey Kotchman, who batted .306, and Matt Joyce’s 23 home runs.
A dramatic final three days had arrived. On the final day, both races were tied. Boston was leading in Baltimore, while Tampa Bay trailed New York 7-0. It looked like the Red Sox would survive. St. Louis was routing Houston, while watching Atlanta go extra innings in Philadelphia. Tension grew.
In stunning turn of events, the Red Sox blew a ninth-inning lead and lost. The Rays put on a furious rally and pulled out an 8-7 walkoff win. Tampa Bay was in. Atlanta lost in the 13th inning. St. Louis was in. Both historic September comebacks were complete.
Commissioner Bud Selig loved the last-day drama so much, he decided to make it a permanent thing. Baseball would add a second wild-card the next year, with one-game knockouts to be played by the two qualifiers in each league.
The Texas Rangers had gone to the World Series in 2010, and they were again the best in the AL West. Ian Kinsler and Adrian Beltre each hit 32 homers. Josh Hamilton slipped a bit from his MVP form, but still hit .298 and homered 25 times. Michael Young batted .338. A balanced staff was led by 16-game winners in C.J. Wilson and Derek Holland.
Texas got a challenge from the Los Angeles Angels, who had Cy Young runner-up Jered Weaver leading their rotation. The Rangers only led by a game at the All-Star break, and their edge was far from comfortable on Labor Day, at 3 ½. But Texas was able to keep LAA at arm’s length and clinch the West with some room to spare.
Detroit was getting one of the great pitching seasons of all-time from Justin Verlander. With a 24-5 record, 2.40 ERA, and 251 innings pitched, Verlander hit the parlay of both the Cy Young and MVP awards. He was backed up by 15-game winner Max Scherzer and closer Jose Valverde, who finished with 49 saves. The Tigers got an electric year from Miguel Cabrera, whose Triple Crown numbers were .344/30/105. Jhonny Peralta hit 21 home runs. Victor Martinez batted .330 and finished with 103 RBIs.
A slow start had Detroit 6 ½ games back of Cleveland on Memorial Day. But the Tigers were a half-game up by the All-Star break, plus-6 ½ on Labor Day and not challenged down the stretch.
The postseason field was rounded out by the Arizona Diamondbacks. The NL’s fourth-best offense was led by Justin Upton, who hit 31 homers, drove in 88 runs, scored 105 more, and finished fourth in the MVP tally. Miguel Montero was one of the league’s best catchers. And while the pitching staff had problems, they had Ian Kennedy going every fifth day—Kennedy went 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA.
Arizona trailed the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants by three games at the All-Star break but took over the race in late summer and were five games up on Labor Day. The Diamondbacks blew it open in early September and took home the NL West.
In recent years, the Division Series had often been anticlimactic, but that was anything but true this year. Three of the four matchups in the best-of-five round were won by the team who lost Game 1. Even the one exception—Milwaukee’s victory over Arizona—still went the full five games and was settled in extra innings of Game 5. Three of the four matchups saw a Game 5. And the one exception—Texas’ victory over Tampa—was marked by three straight close Ranger wins after they dropped the opener.
Detroit lost their opener in New York, but then won a pair of close games to put the Yankees on the brink. When New York responded with a 10-1 rout in Game 4, the Yanks were poised for a third straight ALCS trip. But the Tigers went to the Bronx and pulled out a 3-2 win, marked by a couple big strikeouts of New York third baseman Alex Rodriguez in the late innings.
And St. Louis? The Cardinal comeback magic kept rolling on. They lost Game 1 and bounced back. They lost Game 3 and bounced back. The decisive fifth game was an epic pitcher’s duel between Chris Carpenter and Halladay. Carpenter won it 1-0 and St. Louis had shocked the baseball world once again.
Texas was smelling a repeat American League pennant. The Rangers moved out to a 3-1 series lead in the ALCS, keyed by two extra-inning games where they exploded for four runs in the 11th frame. Detroit survived at home in Game 5, but when Texas went back home the bats unleashed. A 15-5 win sent them back to the World Series.
When Milwaukee was an American League team, they had lost a great seven-game World Series to St. Louis back in 1982. Now, as division rivals, they were playing in the NLCS. The Brewers and Cards split the first four games. Then the potent St. Louis bats took over. With 19 runs in the final two games, they got a pair of easy wins to capture the pennant.
The Cardinals and Rangers each had great offenses, but it was pitching that dominated the first two games in St. Louis. The Cards won the opener 3-2, and the Rangers responded, 2-1. The bats erupted in Game 3, with St. Louis winning a crazy 16-7 affair. But Texas pitching got settled back in, with wins of 4-0 and 4-2. The Rangers were one win away from the franchise’s first championship.
Game 6 would be one for the ages. Trailing 4-3 in the seventh, Texas scored three times. The 6-4 lead held to the ninth. There were two on with two out. Third baseman David Freese tripled to right on a ball that Ranger outfielder Nelson Cruz appeared to have in his sights a couple of different times. Tie game.
Josh Hamilton immediately responded with a two-run blast that gave Texas another chance to close it out. With two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the 10th, Berkman lined a base hit to tie it again. In the 11th, it was Freese one more time—he homered to dead center. St. Louis had done it again.
Game 7 had the feel of being anticlimactic, and that’s how it played out. Carpenter was ready to go, and the Cardinals closed out a routine 6-2 win. They had pulled off a stunning comeback in the regular season, a shocking upset in the Division Series and a historic rally to win the World Series.