Cardinals vs Astros, The End of an Era

With the final chapter of the Cardinals/Astros National League rivalry over, I thought it a good idea to look back on the history (and eventual bloodfeud) of the two teams.

While the Astros joined the National League in 1962, they were not relevant until the 1980s. The very creation of the Houston National League club was actually a result of the St. Louis Cardinals. Two businessmen, who had tried to buy the Cardinals in 1952, set out to force Major League Baseball's hand and eventually earned an expansion franchise in Houston. The Cardinals were a key factor in the National League during the 1960's but like the Astros, were a middling product throughout the 1970s. However, in the 1980s, the Astros and Cardinals turned out two exciting, albeit different products. Through sheer happenstance, the Cardinals (East) and Astros (West) never met in the postseason during the 1980s. From 1980 until 1987, either the Astros or Cardinals played in 5 of the 7 LCS. The Cardinals played in the NLCS in 1982, 1985 and 1987 while the Astros were in the LCS in 1980 and 1986.

It wasn't until the two found themselves in the same division that the rivalry began.

Since the inception of the National League Central, the Cardinals and Houston Astros loomed as large figures in the division. From the period of 1996 through 2000, the division championship went as follows:

1996 - Cardinals

1997 - Astros

1998 - Astros

1999 - Astros

2000 - Cardinals

In 2001, we got our first taste of the Astros/Cardinals bloodfeud that would dominate the first half of the decade. The Astros and Cardinals met for a 3 game set to finish the season. Having split the first two games, the Cardinals stood 1 game ahead of the Astros for the NL Central crown and a season series record of 7-8. A victory on the final day would ensure the Cardinals a trip to Atlanta for their 3rd postseason meeting with the Braves in 6 years. The Cardinals sent former Astros DKile57 to the mound but unfortunately fell to the Astros, losing the season series 7-9 and pushing the Cardinals to the Wild Card. This was the first time in the history of baseball, two division teams finished with the same record and the division was not decided by a playoff game or series.

In 2002, the Cardinals won the division by 11.5 games over the Astros and I only write about this because in late September, I did just about the most karma crippling thing ever and was overjoyed when Luis Gonzalez appeared to end his season with an injury vs the Cardinals. I knew that losing him would hurt the DBacks chances against the Cardinals in the NLDS but little did I know that karma would repay that debt and ruin Scott Rolen's career in that very same NLDS. I'm sorry.

Actually, there is more to the story. In 2002, the Cardinals put up the 2001 number as part of their Championship years. According to the Cardinals, they recieved a certificate from MLB stating that they were the 'Co-Champs' of the division. The Astros claimed, because of the tie-breaker, they were the champions.

In September of 2003, the Cardinals, Cubs and Astros were locked in a tight race for the Central. The Cardinals went into Houston and were swept in a 3 game set, taking the Cardinals from to 2.5 GB to 5.5 GB. The Cardinals would finish the season 3 GB of the Cubs. The Cardinals returned the favor to the Astros in the 3rd to last series of the season, taking 2 of 3 at Busch, reducing Houston's lead to a half game over the Cubs with 7 to go. The Astros would finish a full game back of the Cubs for the NLC.

The 2004 season finished with the Cardinals division champs and the Astros the Wild Card winner. In the first of what would be back to back playoff meetings, the Cardinals and Astros locked up in an LCS that was so great and so drama filled that it would take the two biggest teams in the sport coughing up/earning the greatest comeback in the sport to overshadow it. Carlos Beltran and Albert Pujols put on an absolute display of hitting in a series that saw the hometeam win every game of the series. Starting with Game 4, the outcomes were decided late and in dramatic fashion. Beltran's bomb in the 7th inning of Game 4. Jeff Kent walking off in Game 5. Izzy's meltdown in the 9th inning followed by Jimmy Ballgame's 'AND WE ARE GOING TO GAME 7 IN THE NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES' walkoff in the 12th inning of Game 6. Finally, the Cardinals finished off the Astros by besting Roger Clemens through the help of Jim Edmonds defense and Scott Rolen's linedrive blast.

The 2005 Cardinals cruised to a division crown, despite losing Scott Rolen midway through the season. The Astros began their trend of 2nd half surges, securing the Wild Card spot yet again. Once again, these two giants of the NL Central locked up for what looked to be a great League Championship Series. Unfortunately, no one told Roy Oswalt that. The Cardinals, without Scott Rolen, would be done in by poor defense, losing Games 3 and 4 in Houston by 1 run. Facing elimination in Game 5, Chris Carpenter gave up a soul crushing blast to future Cardinals hero Lance Berkman only to have the season saved by Pujols/Lidge I. The Cardinals would eventually fall in Game 6 to the Bulldozing Roy Oswalt.

The 2006 Cardinals were a team that started the season as a team that had won over 200 games in the previous 2 seasons should. Then injuries began to decimate the team. Mark Mulder and his 55 mph curveball finally gave out. In the same game, Jim Edmonds tried to save a blowout drubbing of Mark Mulder vs the White Sox by diving headfirst into a wall. Albert Pujols record setting pace eventually popped his oblique. Scott Rolen's sore shoulder couldn't hit a fastball anymore. Jason Isringhausen cutter was going over the fence and his hip was going out of place. The Cardinals were heading in the wrong direction just as the Astros were putting things together headed in the right direction. The inverse paths led the two teams into the final weekend of the season. Staring down one of the largest collapses in baseball history, Scott Spiezio tripled and Atlanta Brave John Smoltz dominated the Astros to limp the St. Louis Cardinals into the playoffs and the World Championship they had been so close to the previous 5 seasons.

It is at this point that the rivalry died down a bit. From 2007 to 2012, the Astros didn't win very much of anything. The Cardinals would win the division in 2009, win the WC and WS in 2011 and seem headed for a 2012 WC berth. However, these aren't devoid of Astros importance. In 2009, the Bud Norris curse was born. Norris would effectively shutout the Cardinals for the 2009 season. In 2010, the Cardinals were swept by Houston on their way out of 1st place in September. In 2011, the Cardinals and Chris Carpenter would finish off their march past the Braves by beating the Astros on the final day of the season. This season, the Cardinals WC hopes are bouyed by a 10 game winning streak vs the Astros.

While the Cardinals/Astros rivalry limped to a finish, it shouldn't go without noting that even in their terrible current state, Major League Baseball took either the best or second best franchise (historically) out of the National League Central. While the Cubs have long been a natural rival and the Astros spent most of their existence in the National League West, their rivalry with the Cardinals in the late 90's/early 00's was the best the National League had to offer.

And now that's over.