Cardinals have chance to repeat if La Russa and Pujols stick around
ST. LOUIS -- In the corner of the champagne-soaked clubhouse, Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina -- half of the old guard of the Cardinals -- embraced. They pulled their heads together so their foreheads and goggles touched and reveled in the moment of their second World Series title.
Starter Chris Carpenter -- the winning pitcher in Game 7 after allowing just two runs on six hits to beat the Rangers 6-2 while throwing on short rest -- wasn't far away, the third holdover since 2004, when the franchise won their first of three National League pennants.
Those three have been the on-field identity of the Cardinals for the better part of a decade -- Pujols, the game's best player and three-time MVP; Molina, the starting catcher with a good bat and great glove; and Carpenter, the former Cy Young-winning ace -- and who were joined in recent years by veteran outfielders Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman.
"There's a lot of tough times that we went through this year and a lot of sweet moments," Pujols said. "And the way that we did it is incredible. You know, there's not too many teams in the game that have done it like that."
Those five veterans set the tone -- through words and examples, pitches and swings -- for a club that made a near-impossible comeback from 10½ games out of the playoffs in late August to claim a wild-card berth on the season's frenetic final night and lead the club through the thickets of a three-round playoff tournament.
But the story of this 2011 title team may also be remembered as the grand debut of a new guard of young Cardinals, deftly mixed and matched by manager Tony La Russa.
"The list is long," said outfielder Allen Craig, who hit three home runs in the World Series, including an eighth-inning blast in Game 6 and a third-inning shot in Game 7 that proved to be the game-winning run. "To be in the outfield in the ninth inning with Daniel [Descalso] at third and [Jon] Jay in center and me in left -- Daniel made a play [for the first out], Jon caught the second out and I made the last out. I got to run in with Jon and celebrate. You couldn't have written anything better than that."
That grouping didn't even include relievers such as Marc Rzepcynski, Lance Lynn, Fernando Salas and Eduardo Sanchez or the postseason's No. 1 breakout star, third baseman David Freese, who had exited at the start of the inning. He received the World Series MVP trophy after batting .348 with five extra-base hits including the dramatic tying double and winning homer in Game 6 and a two-run double to start the Cardinals' scoring in the first inning of Game 7; in all, he drove in a postseason record 21 runs.
"He's a stud," Berkman said of Freese. "He's a superstar who had his coming-out party. He won this World Series for us."
Look around the diamond at those players, and it was hard not to imagine a nucleus to complement the veteran stars. Where this club goes next could hinge on the future of Pujols, who enters free agency not without having already received a sales pitch from a teammate.
"Just come back," Berkman said he told Pujols. "Let's try to do this again. We're positioned to make a couple more runs at it."
While Pujols naturally (and rightfully) deflected such questions after the game, it's hard to understate the impact he's had on this franchise and on the city of St. Louis, which has been spoiled by such one-uniform treasures as Hall of Famers Stan Musial and Bob Gibson.
With him back in the fold -- not to mention the return of ace Adam Wainwright, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery -- and a return from La Russa, whose contract has also expired, the Cardinals are indeed poised to be contenders for the next few years. Quantifying a manager's contributions may be impossible, but it's clear how valuable La Russa was this year.
"He did a great job of blending it all once we got to the postseason and really before that too," owner Bill DeWitt said. "I think the job he did in the postseason was masterful. We certainly couldn't have won without all of the moves that he made and how he managed the team through the process."
This World Series between two evenly matched teams was framed as a battle of managers -- motivator versus tactician -- even though both men, La Russa and the Rangers' Ron Washington, pegged in those roles agreed that the former trumped the latter.
In this postseason of the pitching change, La Russa may be best remembered for making his well-worn walk from the dugout to the mound, the same purposeful pace expression no matter the situation -- before the game he even joked that his in-game stoicism resembled a cigar-store Indian -- which he made a playoff-record 77 times.
He made bullpen work into a jigsaw puzzle. Though his decisions didn't always work -- especially in Game 5 when a misunderstanding over the bullpen phone led to unexpected matchups -- La Russa succeeded more often than when he walked to the mound to summon or retrieve a reliever.
But perhaps more important was La Russa's work with the emerging core and assembling a working unit after a series of deals at the trade deadline.
The franchise traded an apparent center fielder of the future, Colby Rasmus, in exchange for starter Edwin Jackson and relievers Rzepcysnki and Octavio Dotel. In another trade the Cardinals acquired shortstop Rafael Furcal. General manager John Mozeliak acknowledged that there was uncertainty around the team in mid-summer. But this was before Berkman and Carpenter signed contract extensions and the status of Pujols was then, as now, unresolved, making it "worth the risk of the trade," one that Mozeliak characterized as "win now."
"When we made those moves back in July, we made so many it took time to sort itself out," Mozeliak said. "Once they did, they went from a liability to an asset.
"That's why he's such a successful manager. He always has the ability to touch the right buttons."
La Russa was already Hall of Fame-bound, but the 2011 season surely ranks high among his career achievements and adds another line or two to the bronze plaque that will one day hang at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
"That guy deserves all the credit," Freese said. "You know, he rallies the troops. He's got a plan with every thought, with everything he says. He's got a great idea of what it takes to not only win a game but to get to this point, and for me to come to the big leagues and play under him right out of the gate, I couldn't ask for anything more."
For a few days or even a few weeks, this historic run that culminated in a World Series title will be more than enough for St. Louis and for the Cardinals, until their eyes turn, as they always do, toward next year when all the pieces -- except for a manager and the franchise first baseman -- are already in place for a repeat run.