September 29, 2011
They pushed and they pushed and then, in the end, retired to a clubhouse in Houston and watched as the Braves hurled their own selves over the cliff. The result: The Cardinals are headed to their first playoffs since 2009 as the National League's fourth team while the Braves are going home to determine how they gave up a lead that measured a whopping 10 1/2 games on Aug. 26.
The beautiful part — for this non-partisan, anyway — is that the situation required extraordinary efforts by both teams. It wasn't a case of just one team getting really hot or one team being allergic to September. It was both. It had to be both.
St. Louis' 8-0 win over Houston — the only smooth climb on baseball's wildest night — was the Cardinals' 23rd in their final 31 games. Veteran pitcher Chris Carpenter never even let the Astros get a chance, striking out 11 and allowing only two hits in a complete-game shutout.
"We had nothing to lose. We were already out of it," Carpenter said of the Cards' unbelievable September. "People were telling us we were done. We decided to go out and play and not embarrass ourselves and do what we can. We played ourselves back into it."
The Braves, meanwhile, played themselves out of it. Their 4-3 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies in 13 innings was a microcosm of the season. Early success (Dan Uggla's(notes) two-run homer and Tim Hudson's(notes) fantastic pitching) creating a presumed destination (a Thursday tiebreaker in St. Louis) but eventually getting derailed by a late bullpen meltdown (an overworked Craig Kimbrel(notes) blowing a save in the ninth).
How else to end a month that saw the Braves go 9-18 and a five-game losing streak to end the season? Apologies to my Braves fans brothers, but it was poetic.
Left unsaid in this whole thing was that St. Louis' prize is not really a prize at all. After hosing off the champagne, they have to head to Philadelphia to face the Phillies in an NLDS that starts on Saturday. Surely there must be better ways to celebrate than to get ready for Roy Halladay(notes) and Cliff Lee(notes).
But then again, it beats the alternative. Plus, considering this late run really gained momentum when the Cards took three of four games in Philly from Sept. 16-19, you have to believe them when they say that anything can happen.
It sure did over the wild last month.