The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals were a team rich in irony. The two previous seasons had seen the Cardinals enjoy huge regular season success, winning 100-plus games in both 2004 and 2005. They also had postseason success, winning a combined three playoff series and the 2004 NL pennant. But they hadn’t won a World Series. The 2006 edition of this proud franchise followed a different path—they barely stumbled into the playoffs, but once there, they won it all.
Albert Pujols was the same vintage All-Star he’d been the previous two seasons, the foundation on which the team could always fall back. Pujols hit 49 home runs and had an on-base percentage of .431. Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds were each productive power hitters, and shortstop David Eckstein had a .350 on-base percentage.
The depth the Cardinals had should not be overlooked—four bench players got significant playing time and had OBPs of .350-plus. St. Louis also brought up a talented young catcher in Yadier Molina. They finished sixth in the National League in runs scored.
Pitching was where the problem lie. The team ERA was ninth in the NL. Chris Carpenter was still a stabilizing force at the top of the rotation, winning 15 games with a 3.09 ERA. Jeff Suppan had a manageable season, winning 12 and posting a 4.12 ERA. After that, it was a mess. The team lost Mark Mulder for the year. Closer Jason Isringhausen first blew ten saves, then was lost for the season.
Nor did the lineup avoid the injury bug. Edmonds and Eckstein each missed noteworthy amounts of time. In spite of it all, the weakness of the NL Central still saw St. Louis hold a 6 ½ game with a week and a half left. Then second-place Houston swept St. Louis in a four-game series and the lead shrunk to a half-game. The Cardinals avoided disaster and clinched the division on the season’s penultimate day, but the 83-78 record they dragged into the playoffs didn’t have anyone inspired.
The good news was that the National League was clearly the weaker of the two leagues. Much like the 2006 NFL season saw an unbalanced bracket where all the strength was in the AFC, an observer could be forgiven for thinking that the American League had the best four teams remaining. The San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers each won 88 games. While the New York Mets enjoyed a great season, winning 97 games, they were down three starting pitchers by playoff time. The Mets team that took the field in October was a shadow of itself.
Furthermore, the Cardinals were healthy and whatever problems they had in the regular season, this was still the core of a team that had rolled to 100-plus wins in the previous two seasons and was playoff-tested. Now that everyone had a fresh start in the postseason, more focus should have been given to what St. Louis was clearly capable of, not the problems they’d played through.
St. Louis drew San Diego in the Division Series. Carpenter won two games with an ERA of 2.03. Ronnie Belliard, a role player acquired in midseason stepped up with six hits and the Cardinals won the best-of-five series in four games. It set up a battle with the Mets for the NL flag.
The Cardinals and Mets had shared residency in the NL East prior to the realignment of 1994, and the two teams had staged a great division race in 1985. The 2006 National League Championship Series would supplant 1985 when it came to memorable moments.
Pujols swung the bat well, and had seven hits in the series. The Mets had the man who had haunted St. Louis and nearly upended them in 2004, in Carlos Beltran. The centerfielder went 8/27 and hit three home runs. But the big difference makers were Molina and Suppan, and the came to a head on the night of October 19 in the Big Apple.
The series went to a decisive seventh game and Suppan got the ball. He’d already delivered a Game 3 victory, and was sharp again tonight. The teams traded early runs, and the 1-1 tie held into the ninth inning. Rolen led off the St. Louis ninth with a single to left. Molina came up to the plate with one out and didn’t hesitate. He took the first pitch from Aaron Heilman and hit it over the left field fence.
St. Louis didn’t get out of town easily though. The Mets led off their own half of the ninth with two singles, and eventually loaded the bases with two outs. Adam Wainwright was then a rookie pitcher that had been thrust into the closer’s role after Isringhausen injury. And Beltran, of all people, was at the plate. Wainwright got ahead 0-2, and threw a nasty 12-to-6 curveball that completely froze Beltran and was a called third strike that won the pennant.
The Cardinals would face the Detroit Tigers in the 2006 World Series. Detroit was a young team that had come out of nowhere to make the playoffs and then upset the favored New York Yankees in the first round. Most people—including me—thought Detroit would go on to win the World Series. We underestimated the value of St. Louis’ experience, and were still overly focused on the 83-78 record rather then what this team was clearly capable of.
St. Louis split the first two games in Detroit, took Game 3 at home, and set up the decisive moment in Game 4. The game was tied 4-4 in the bottom of the eighth. Detroit’s flame-throwing righthander Joel Zumaya, who had dominated the American League playoffs, was on the mount. With two outs, Eckstein beat him for an RBI double. One night later, St. Louis won 4-2 and took the World Series. Eckstein, who went 8/22, was named World Series MVP.
The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals might not have been a dominant champion, but they were an example to all organizations who have lost as heavy favorites in the playoffs. That example is just keep plugging away and get your chances, you never know when the door will finally get broken down.