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How David Freese changed the narrative of the post-2000 Cardinals

Right or wrong, the Cardinals needed that second World Series in 2011 for their post-2000 era to be judged by history correctly.

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David Freese mercifully signed a one-year-$3 million contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates last week - a potentially sizable pay cut considering the Los Angeles Angels reportedly flirted with the idea of extending him a qualifying offer before allowing him to walk.  He'll now be playing against the Cardinals 19 times in 2016.  Any current news surrounding Freese always feels secondary to his legacy, for his heroics in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series made it possible for the Cardinals to win their 11th World Series title and, in the larger scope, alter how history will likely remember this Cardinals' era.

The Atlanta Braves had arguably the most dominant run in the modern era.  From 1991 to 2005, they won their division every year.  That's 14 in a row - an MLB record.  (At the time of the strike in 1994, the Braves were 68-46 which was the third best record in all of baseball but six games behind their division-mate Montreal Expos.)  Even with expanded playoffs for most of that run, making the postseason 14 straight years is a remarkable feat - winning the division every time is mind boggling.  It could be looked at as an indictment on the rest of their division but seven times in those 14 years they fought off a team with 90+ wins.  From 1991-2005 the Braves finished with the best record in the NL nine times, but perhaps more impressive their worst season ended with 88 wins.  That's three more wins than the Tigers' best season between 1991 and 2005, and four games better than any season turned in by the Royals.

The 1991-2005 Braves had a better regular season winning percentage than the 1995-2012 New York Yankees - who likely first come to mind as the modern day dynasty - and well ahead of the Cardinals winning rate from 2000 to the present which has been an incredible run in its own right.

























The 1991-2005 Braves won five pennants but whether this was a "dynasty" is likely debated deep in the bowels of internet comment sections because they only won one World Series when they beat the Cleveland Indians in six games during the 1995 strike-shortened year.  (For what it's worth, I grant them the perhaps meaningless title of dynasty.)  They came close several other times, most notably in 1991 when they lost in seven games to the Minnesota Twins in what some consider the greatest World Series ever, but slowly their reputation developed as a team who was defined by their playoff failures as well as their success.  Meanwhile, the 1995-2012 Yankees won five World Series titles and seven pennants.  That's how most of us recognize a dynasty.  Even more, the 1998 Yankees were simply dominant (114 regular season wins) and went 11-2 in the postseason to cruise to another World Series.

The Braves didn't even win the most titles during this span within their own division.  The Miami Marlins (né Florida Marlins) - the silly, inept Marlins - somehow won two.  In fact, that franchise has never lost a playoff series.  They're the anti-Braves.

The Cardinals were on the Braves path of seemingly annual disappointing postseasons until David Freese changed everything.  I was lucky to be at Game 6 in 2011 and even after Allen Craig's solo home run in the bottom of the 8th brought the Cards to just a two run deficit at 7-5, I was already resigned to the fact that it was over.  It was an ugly game up to that point and it wasn't the Cardinals' night.  That happens.  I met a lifelong Texas Rangers fan earlier that day who had driven up the previous morning straight from Dallas to catch the game and he was a nice enough guy and I had found a part of me that was happy for him.  (To that guy, wherever he is: I'm sorry.)

But then Freese happened in the bottom on the 9th, a lot of things happened in the 10th inning, and then Freeze happened again in the bottom of the 11th and all of a sudden somehow the Cardinals won.  (This game has been hashed out enough that I feel comfortable saying things "happened" and posting a video in place of actual analysis.)

The following night the Cardinals secured their second World Series in six years and for the first time the organization's reputation with a majority of baseball fans resembled what it is today which is possibly the most successful franchise since 2000.  Almost like a second World Series was needed before they'd receive true credibility, and only the most fickle of fans would look back and call these years a waste.

Given that the Cardinals have exited their last four postseasons by losing three straight games, which I assume is unprecedented - and it would now be six straight postseasons had they lost Game 6 - their post-2000 narrative without that seemingly improbable comeback would likely be that of a team who rarely won the important postseason game.  The Cardinals would be the new Braves.  Devil magic wouldn't exist (although to be fair, it doesn't really exist).

That wouldn't be fair and that's certainly not how I view those old Braves teams.  I value the regular season.  But unfortunately, the regular season seems frustratingly unimportant once the postseason begins.  Look no further than the NL Playoffs last year.  The Cardinals had the best record in baseball and lost to the Cubs, who finished third in the NL Central (albeit just three games behind the Cardinals), in the NLDS.  The Dodgers had the better record and lost to the Mets.  The Cubs were seven games better in the regular season than the Mets but when they met in the NLCS the Mets smoked them.

As Dayn Perry noted in the Baseball Prospectus 2016 Annual, only four teams in the post-wild card era have finished with the best record in baseball and won the World Series.  To no one's surprise the Cardinals are not one of the four.  Their two World Series titles since 2000 came from an 83 and 90-win team.  In the last 16 years those two seasons for the Cardinals in terms of regulars season wins rate as follows: 15th and tied for 9th.

If the Cardinals had lost Game 6 not even Tony La Russa's light would shine as bright.  He'd still be in the Hall of Fame, he'd still be known as an innovative manager, but the last significant image of him would be Game 5's dreadful bullpen phone-gate.  (I can't imagine watching that game again - what a nightmare that was.)  But because of Freese he got to go out on the highest of notes with a solid 3-3 record in the World Series for his storied career which will look much better in history books than 2-4.  La Russa should have ensured that the Diamondbacks signed Freese for $20 million this offseason just to show his gratitude.

While Freese was the MVP of the 2011 NLCS and World Series he was hardly the only key contributor.   Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter, Allen Craig, Lance Berkman, amongst many all helped change the course of the post-2000 Cardinals.  Nelson Cruz probably helped some too, although acknowledging that seems sort of cruel.  But when Freese comes back to town he'll get a large standing ovation and he'll deserve it.  He was front and center for the transcendent moment of the Cardinals' golden age and he ensured that history will judge it appropriately so.