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The Strike Zone

Catching up with key players from epic Cardinals-Rangers World Series

David Freese, CardinalsDavid Freese has not built on his 2011 World Series MVP performance the way many expected. (AP)

On Friday night, the Rangers and Cardinals will touch off their first-ever regular season series at Busch Stadium, one of the seven unconsummated interleague pairings I highlighted earlier this week. This isn't exactly a true first; the two teams squared of in an epic seven-game World Series back in 2011, one that featured Albert Pujolsthree-homer game, Tony La Russa's bullpen phone mishapa Game 6 for the ages in which the Cardinals came back from down to their final strike in both the ninth and 10th innings and won it in the 11th with David Freese's walkoff homer, and a strong title-clinching performance by Chris Carpenter in Game 7.

Much has changed since then, but the two teams both remain contenders. The Cardinals (47-26) have the majors' top winning percentage (.644) and run differential (+111); they lead the NL Central by 3 1/2 games. The Rangers (41-32) are just one game back in the AL West and have the league's fifth-highest winning percentage, but they've fallen on hard times recently, going 7-12 this month while scoring just 3.26 runs per game and getting terrible starting pitching beyond Yu Darvish. The good news is that they've activated Mitch Moreland, who was hitting .288/.338/.561 with 12 homers when he went on the disabled list with a hamstring strain on June 6, and plan to call up Martin Perez, who's been on a roll at Triple-A, to start Saturday's game, opposite St. Louis' rookie sensation Shelby Miller. Friday night's pairing features another Cards rookie, Tyler Lyons, facing Derek Holland, while Sunday's game pits Adam Wainwright against Nick Tepesch — meaning that the Cardinals get to avoid Darvish, who's easily the single best thing to happen to the Rangers' franchise since their fateful meeting.

What follows is a quick "Where are they now?" look at some of the key figures from the 2011 World Series.

Lance Berkman

Berkman hit an outstanding .301/.412/.547 with 31 homers as the Cardinals' regular rightfielder in 2011, not to mention a searing .423/.516/.577 in the World Series, including a Game 6-tying RBI single in the 10th inning off Scott Feldman. He shifted to first base for the Cardinals last year, but knee problems limited him to 32 games. He appeared bound for retirement, but an opportunity to return to his home state to serve as the primary DH for a contender tempted him to come back. Alas, after a strong April (.319/.449/.486), he's skidded to a .232/.318/.351 showing in May and June.

Chris Carpenter

The pitching hero of the World Series for his three starts, including seven strong innings in Game 7 on three days' rest, Carpenter was limited to just six starts last year — three in the regular season, three in the postseason — due to thoracic outlet syndrome. Recurrent symptoms in the spring prompted him to announce that he wouldn't pitch this year, but he has been rehabbing with an eye toward returning to the bullpen nonetheless. Recent tightness in his back is threatening to shut down the 38-year-old righty's throwing program, however.

Allen Craig

After hitting .315/.362/.555 in a part-time utility role during the regular season, Craig was  one wag's pick for series difference-maker, and he made good by clouting three homers and hitting .263/.417/.737 in the winning cause. Knee surgery delayed his 2012 debut until May, but Berkman's injuries created an opening and he hit .307/.354/.522 with 22 homers in 119 games The now-28-year-old has found a home as the Cards' regular first baseman, but is dealing with a bit of a power outage, hitting .310/.351/.449 with just six homers.

Nelson Cruz

Cruz homered twice in the World Series, but his misplay on Freese's Game 6 triple has etched him into October lore. He's off to a solid start this year, hitting .265/.329/.519 with 18 homers (fifth in the league), but this time his performance is overshadowed by his connection to the Biogenesis scandal. He's one of the players named in the clinic's records, and could face a 50-game suspension for PED usage if the league can make its case stick.

Neftali Feliz

It's been a bumpy ride for Feliz since blowing the save in Game 6. The Rangers attempted to move him back to the rotation last year, but he made just seven starts before going on the disabled list with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in mid-May, and further discomfort during his rehab assignment led to August Tommy John surgery. He just began throwing bullpen sessions again, and while he could be back with the Rangers later this summer, he faces uncertainty about both his role and his durability.

David Freese

Freese was the Series MVP for his .348/.464/.696 performance and his clutch hits, which included his Game 6-tying two-run triple in the ninth as well as his walkoff homer, and then a two-run double in his first plate appearance in Game 7. After hitting a career-high 20 homers and earning All-Star honors last year — the only season in which he's topped 100 games — he's had a bit of a rough go this year due to lower back woes. Despite a 20-game hitting streak that ended on June 11, he's batting just .280/.353/.389 with four homers.

Josh Hamilton

Despite hitting 43 homers last year, Hamilton ran hot and cold at times, and ultimately bore the brunt of the blame for Texas' failure to at least get back to the World Series. He left for the Angels via a five-year, $125 million deal, and so far, it's been a great deal — for the Rangers, that is. Hamilton is swinging at just about everything west of the Rockies, and hitting only .207/.262/.378 with 10 homers, a performance that's been 0.4 wins below replacement level, and was recently dropped to seventh in the batting order.

Tony La Russa

After putting on a clinic in bullpen management during the National League Championship Series, La Russa botched Game 5 by failing to have Jason Motte warmed up to face Mike Napoli with the bases loaded in the eighth inning; instead he was left with lefty Mark Rzepczynski, who surrendered a tiebreaking two-run double to Napoli, digging the Cardinals a 3-2 hole in the series. They pulled it out, of course, and three days after winning, the cantankerous 67-year-old manager announced his retirement. With his three world championships and the third-highest managerial win total in history (2,728, behind Connie Mack and John McGraw), Cooperstown awaits; in the meantime, La Russa is working for the commissioner's office as a special advisor, most notably as part of MLB's competition committee, which is exploring instant replay options.

Mike Napoli

Traded from the Angels to the Rangers by way of Toronto — a move that saddled Anaheim with Vernon Wells — Napoli was an AL-West difference-maker with his .320/.414/.631 performance in 2011. He continued that torrid showing by hitting .350/.464/.700 in the World Series, powering the Rangers with a three-run homer in Game 4 and the winning hit in Game 5. Hampered by a quad injury, he sank to .227/.343/.469 last year, and was set to sign a three-year, $39 million deal with the Red Sox when they discovered a hip issue in his pre-signing physical. The contract was eventually revised to an incentive-based one-year, $5 million deal, and so far, Napoli's lived up to his end, hitting .259/.343/.455 with nine homers in 69 games.

Albert Pujols

After 11 years, three MVP awards and two world championships with the Cardinals, Pujols signed a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Angels following their World Series triumph, then proceeded to set across-the-board career lows with 30 home runs and a .285/.343/.516 line in 2012. Hampered by plantar fasciitis, he's been even worse this year (.265/.335/.452), though his .319/.386/.556 June suggests he may have turned the corner. Still, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak looks pretty smart for not breaking the bank to retain him.
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