2002. The Cardinals prepared to square off against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the initial game of the National League Division Series. It was the rematch of a hard-fought NLDS the prior year that had concluded with Arizona walking off on a Tony Womack ninth inning single to end a pitcher’s duel that featured the Cards’ Matt Morris and the DBacks Curt Schilling.
The Cardinals were led by their second year left fielder Albert Pujols, who finished as the runner-up in the NL Most Valuable Player balloting. Fellow starters in the outfield were Jim Edmonds and J D Drew. First base was manned by free agent acquisition Tino Martinez while the keystone combination was shortstop Edgar Renteria and Fernando Vina. Placido Polanco held down third base until he was dealt to the Phillies for Scott Rolen in late July. Mike Matheny did the majority of the catching backed up by Mike DiFelice and utilityman Eli Marrero.
The pitching staff was headed up by Matt Morris who made his second consecutive All Star team and started 32 games. Incredibly, eight other hurlers started ten or more games in manager Tony La Russa’s patchwork rotation. Jason Simontacchi (24), Woody Williams (17), Andy Benes (17), midseason acquisition Chuck Finley (14), Travis Smith (10), Bud Smith (10), and Garret Stephenson (10) were joined by Darryl Kile (14), whose tragic death on June 22 nearly derailed, but ultimately inspired, the Redbirds’ season. Jason Isringhausen recorded 32 saves in 37 opportunities while Steve Kline and Dave Veres shared late inning relief roles.
40-31 on the day of Kile’s death, St. Louis won 57 (Kile’s uniform number) games the rest of the way to finish 97-65, good for a substantial 13 game bulge over the Houston Astros in the NL Central Division.
Arizona tallied a league-leading 819 runs (the Cards were second with 787). Their high-octane offense was powered by outfielders Luis Gonzalez and Steve Finley and the speedy keystone duo of Womack and second baseman Junior Spivey. The one-two punch of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling headed up Arizona’s pitching staff while Byung-Hyun Kim secured 36 saves. Johnson earned his fourth consecutive Cy Young award unanimously while leading the NL in wins (24), winning % (.828), ERA (2.32), complete games (8), innings pitched (260), strikeouts (334), ERA + (195), and K/9 (11.6) while amassing a career-high 10.7 bWAR. Arizona held off the wild card-winning San Francisco Giants down the stretch to win the NL West by 2.5 games with a mark one game better than St. Louis at 98-64.
It was the intimidating 6’ 10" Johnson who was matched up with Morris as each team was eager to start the series with a win. Vina grounded to short to lead off the game, but Womack’s wild throw allowed the Redbird second sacker to reach base. Marrero sent a fly out deep enough to left to advance Vina into scoring position to set up Edmonds with an RBI opportunity. The Cards’ center fielder clubbed a 1-2 Johnson offering into the right-center field stands to give the Redbirds an early 2-0 advantage over the stunned DBacks. When Renteria opened the bottom of the first frame with a corresponding error, the stage was set for Finley’s sacrifice fly that halved the lead.
The pitching and defense settled down for a pair of innings until Arizona plated the equalizer in the home half of the third as a Quinton McCracken RBI single was preceded by a pair of walks and a stolen base. St Louis roared back in the fourth as a Rolen homer with Pujols aboard was combined with a Matheny run-scoring single to give the Birds a 5-2 lead. Morris took command as he retired Arizona in order in the fourth and fifth and pitched around a harmless two out single in the sixth. The roof fell in on the Snakes in the seventh as three relievers were torched for three walks and four hits while also committing an error on a Matheny sacrifice to allow six runs and push the Cardinal lead to 12-2. Morris and relievers Jaff Fassero and Mike Crudale throttled Arizona the rest of the way and the final score was unchanged.
The Cardinals had made a statement with a ten run win in the Bank One Ballpark while eviscerating Johnson with ten hits and five earned runs in six innings. It set the tone for a best of five series that would end far too soon for the Diamondbacks.