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The Games that Defined the Decade

The 2010s are nearly over. Which games best represent the baseball decade in St. Louis?

2011 World Series - Game 6

We’re approaching the end of the decade, which means its time for retrospective after retrospective about the last ten years. We can do so for the Cardinals, who were undeniably one of the most successful teams in the league over the last decade. Former VEB writer Alex Crisafulli proved it with math and everything. The first half of the decade was filled with champagne baths, pennants, and division titles. The second half of the decade was a little rockier. Now that we’re at the end of the 2010s, we can use hindsight to identify the games that best exemplified Cardinals baseball this decade.

Before proceeding, I have to clarify that most- but not all- of these were positive moments. When people think of the 2010s Cardinals a decade from now, they’re likely to think of a handful of aspects. It’s these aspects that influenced my choice of these games:

  • Cardinal Devil Magic
  • Performances in big moments by franchise icons
  • The three year detour to mediocrity

It’s obviously subjective, and these are listed in reverse order- the games least emblematic of the 2010s Cardinals to the most. That’s also why you’ll see the less decorated games listed first. Ultimately, this franchise is far more likely to be remembered for its 2011-2015 success than its 2016-2018 failure to reach the playoffs. With that in mind, here are the ten games that defined the 2010s for Cardinal baseball.

NL Division Series - St. Louis Cardinals v. Chicago Cubs - Game Four

10. 10/13/2015: Siegrist Helps Decorate the Wrigley Scoreboard

It’s impossible to tell the story of the Cardinals decade without referencing the Cubs usurping the throne in the NL Central. If you want to know the exact moment it happened, look no further than Kyle Schwarber’s seventh inning blast against Kevin Siegrist. It pushed the Cubs lead from 5-4 to 6-4 in an NLDS elimination game for the Cardinals. The blast was so prodigious that it landed on top of the scorebard at Wrigley Field, and the team encased it in plexiglass to commemorate the moment. It was fun for Cubs fans, to be sure, though I personally prefer the top of the Busch Stadium scoreboard. I digress.

The longball by Schwarber served notice, as Will Leitch notably claimed while referencing Captain Phillips (2013), that the Cubs were “the captain now.” They had signed Cardinals right fielder Jason Heyward by Christmas of the same year, and they won the World Series during the next season. They won the division in 2016, 2017, and almost in 2018, all while the Cardinals missed out. Baseball’s model franchise from 2011-2015 had been surpassed by a divisional rival trying to overcome more than a century of futility.

This game also stands as the representative of the 2016-2018 absence from the playoffs. Those teams don’t have any one game that exemplifies the shroud of malaise, but a demoralizing playoff loss to a rival served as the opening of three more very frustrating seasons.

9. 9/30/2016: The Punctuation on Matt Holliday’s Cardinal Career

Matt Holliday had an impressive Cardinal career. His wRC+ is third on the franchise in the 21st century (min. 1000 PAs). His fWAR is eighth, just barely behind other 21st century Cardinal heroes like Scott Rolen and the two Carpenters (Matt and Chris). In the eight seasons he was a Cardinal (2009-2016), Holliday had the 11th best wRC+ in baseball. All of the on-field production happened while he was building quite a legacy around the city for generous off-field conduct. Few Cardinals have represented St. Louis as well as number 7 did.

You can’t talk about Cardinals baseball from 2010 through 2016 without mentioning the accomplishments of Holliday. Despite all of that, he didn’t have many defining moments, or at least defining moments that didn’t involve a flyball bouncing off of his groin or a moth flying into his ear. Time was running out on his Cardinal career at the end of the 2016 season. He was slated for free agency and he had been shelved on the injured list from August 12th through September 29th. On the 30th, with the Cardinals beating the Pirates 5-0 in the 7th inning of a meaningless game between two eliminated teams, skipper Mike Matheny called on Holliday to pinch-hit. It was potentially his final Cardinal at-bat. Holliday delivered in what became a tearful and bittersweet goodbye from the St. Louis faithful to their generous superstar:

8. 10/12/2014: The Oscar Taveras NLCS Homerun

Speaking of bittersweet memories of power-hitting corner outfielders, the tragedy of Oscar Taveras’ career served as a pivotal moment for the franchise in the 2010s and never was his immense talent on display more than on October 12, 2014.

Trailing 3-2 in the seventh inning of game 2 in the National League Championship Series, Matheny summoned Taveras to pinch hit against Giants reliever Jean Machi. On a 2-1 pitch, Taveras unleashed his powerful helicopter swing to plant Machi’s offering over the right field fence.

It tied the game and set the stage for Kolten Wong’s walkoff homerun in the ninth. It ultimately meant nothing, as the Cardinals would lose the next three games in San Francisco. What happened next is why this game and that moment appears on our list. Taveras and his girlfriend tragically passed away in a drunk driving accident just days after the season, cutting short the life of an immensely talented top prospect before his full potential could be reached.

It set off a chain reaction in the outfield for the Cardinals. First, they traded for Heyward with one year remaining on his contract to occupy the outfield slot vacated by Taveras, giving up Shelby Miller in the process. A year later, Heyward exited to the rival Cubs and the Cardinals began an outfield by committee process that has seen regular playing time for Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, Tommy Pham, free agent acquisition Dexter Fowler, Jose Martinez, trade acquisition Marcell Ozuna, and partial playing time for countless others. It also led to several trades of the aforementioned group, frequently for less value than the traded player has provided for their new teams.

Obviously, the real loss is the future of a talented young man and his girlfriend. That must be said. Moving beyond those far more important consequences, it’s a situation that has seen the Cardinals frantically trying to find a solution to the loss of Taveras ever since.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

7. 6/21/2019: Pujols Returns to St. Louis

As important as Albert Pujols was to the franchise in his eleven years in St. Louis, he was only a Cardinal for two seasons in the 2010s. Those two years were enough to place him fifth in position player fWAR, and then he was gone to the Angels in an acrimonious divorce. That he switched leagues to an infrequent Cardinal opponent meant that he wouldn’t play another game in St. Louis until 2019. Time heals all wounds and the seven and a half seasons since he had left allowed for the bitterness to subside.

He received thunderous applause in all three games in June 2019 when he finally returned. The Busch Stadium faithful even gave him a curtain call when he homered. Before his return and the three day show of affection, it was almost easy to forget how big a role Pujols had in the franchise’s fortunes for the first few seasons of the decade. He was an MVP candidate in 2010 and 2011, his pending free agency lingered over 2011, he anchored a World Series winner in 2011, he was stitched into the city through his charitable efforts, and then his departure opened up so many questions about how the franchise would react. They somehow seamlessly continued their run as one of baseball’s top teams despite losing a future Hall of Famer. In fact, the compensatory draft picks they received for Pujols ended up providing significant value in their own right (see #6 on this list).

They also had money to spend that they may not have had if Pujols had stayed. Arguably, either the Yadier Molina or Adam Wainwright extensions- or even both- may not have happened had Pujols remained a Cardinal. It’s impossible to discuss Cardinal baseball in the 2010s without mentioning Pujols and the ripple effects of his departure. Including his 2019 return on this list is the best way to acknowledge all of it- his greatness in St. Louis, the acrimony of his free agent signing with the Angels, and the healed relationship between an all-time great and the fans who had once adored him.

NLCS - Los Angeles Dodgers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

6. 10/18/2013: Michael Wacha Punches the Ticket to the World Series

One of the defining storylines of the decade was the Cardinals’ ability to create a pitching pipeline through draft and development. Very few teams received as much under-25 production from pitchers. Their efforts especially started to bear fruit in 2012. Their staffs were anchored to varying degrees by Lance Lynn, Carlos Martinez, Jack Flaherty, Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller, Jaime Garcia, Michael Wacha, Jordan Hicks, Jason Motte on down to smaller contributors Joe Kelly, Dakota Hudson, Jordan Hicks, and Luke Weaver.

That pipeline was on full display in the 2013 playoffs, with Wacha serving as the totem for their efforts. He burst onto the scene in May for a few spot starts, revisited AAA, and landed in the rotation for good in early September. The final month of the regular season saw Wacha limit the playoff-bound Pirates to two hits in seven innings, an effort he followed up by almost twirling a no-hitter in his final start against the Nationals. It was enough for the Cardinals to give him pivotal starting assignments once the playoffs began.

He rewarded their faith by dominating the Pirates once in the NLDS and the Dodgers twice in the NLCS. In his three starts in those two rounds, he allowed just eight hits while fanning 22 and walking four in 21 innings. He was particularly dominant in game 6 of the NLCS, wiping out the Dodgers to send the Cardinals and their young, firebreathing dragons to the World Series.

5. 10/9/13: Waino Sends the Pirates Home

For all of the production from young pitchers, veteran Adam Wainwright was the rock of the rotation from the beginning to end of the decade. His best moment happened just one day after one of Wacha’s gems in the 2013 NLDS. The Cardinals were locked in a win-or-go-home game 5 against the upstart Pirates and turned to Wainwright. All he did was outpitch Gerrit Cole (maybe you’ve heard of him), tossed a complete game, walked only one, tapdanced around eight hits, and didn’t allow an extra base hit en route to a series clinching 6-1 victory.

It was vintage Waino, a case of an intelligent pitcher using everything at his disposal to suffocate a playoff-caliber offense. I’ve included this particular game on the list but there were several Wainwright games that would have fit. He pitched two brilliant games in high-leverage spots as recently as the 2019 NLDS and NLCS, even if both resulted in losses. Game 5 of the 2013 NLDS arguably wasn’t even his best game of that series, as he had been equally brilliant in game 1. He also threw a gutsy game against the Giants in both the 2012 and 2014 NLCS. That there are so many big moments for a franchise icon justifies his inclusion as a player whose biggest games defined the decade. The choice of any specific game is almost extraneous to that point.

4. 10/7/2019: Yadi Walks them Off

Earlier, Matt Holliday was referenced as a player who was integral to Cardinal baseball over the last ten seasons. That’s doubly true for Yadier Molina, who solidified himself as the face of the franchise in the wake of the Pujols departure. It’s hard to define all of the reasons Molina is beloved in St. Louis. A lot of it is because of all of the smaller events- a snapback throw behind a runner at first for an easy out, lightning fast returns from injuries, a top-shelf ability to put the ball in play, and his fierce loyalty to both his teammates and even the city. It’s those smaller events that make his loud moments so much more thrilling.

Such was the case in this year’s NLDS. The Cardinals entered game 4 facing elimination, and were down to their final six outs trailing the Braves 4-3 when the eighth inning began. A one-out double by Paul Goldschmidt gave the Cardinals life, but it was followed by a strikeout. Now down to four outs, Molina stepped to the plate and slapped a game-tying single just past Freddie Freeman. Two innings later, with Kolten Wong on third base and one out, Yadi hit a flyball deep enough for Wong to tag and score the winning run. He embellished the walk-off sacrifice fly by flinging his bat into the outfield as he pranced jubilantly down the baseline. With the end of the season staring them in the face, the Cardinals turned yet again to their hero. He delivered.

3. 10/12/2012: KozMagic

It’s hard to pinpoint where the notion of “Cardinal Devil Magic” originated. Mike Petriello mentioned it on FanGraphs as far back as October 2013. It surely started in the years before that, either in the post-2011 World Series glow or more likely during the 2012 playoff run. I can’t find a good definition, but it would probably be something like this:

Cardinal Devil Magic [kahr-dn-l dev-uh l maj-ik] : 1 the ability of the St. Louis Cardinals to succeed in improbable situations, frequently with key contributions from lesser-known and less effective players and often to the chagrin of baseball fans who would rather see a different team succeed

That definition primarily refers to the playoffs, but it can also be used to describe pennant races, draft picks, individual games, and especially the accelerated development of prospects held in lower regard. The pervasiveness of Cardinal devil magic will be the first storyline most baseball fans outside of St. Louis think of when asked to describe the Cardinals in the 2010s. Multiple games helped push the phrase into the national baseball lexicon, but none represent it better than game 5 of the 2012 NLDS.

In the decisive game of the series in DC, the Nationals pounced for six runs against Adam Wainwright through 2.1 innings, a rare playoff misstep for Wainwright. The Nats led 6-0 through three innings, but the Cardinals began chipping away. A single run in the fourth and two runs in the fifth shaved the lead to 6-3. Another run in the seventh and eighth innings ratcheted the pressure at 6-5, though the Nats tallied a run in the bottom of the eighth for a 7-5 lead. The Cardinals were down two runs and three outs away from elimination.

That’s when all hell broke loose. Carlos Beltran doubled to lead off the top of the 9th. Nats reliever Drew Storen retired Matt Holliday and Allen Craig, which trimmed the Cardinals win probability to a scant 4%. Then Molina and David Freese each walked, loading the bases with Adron Chambers pinch running for Molina on second base. There was a pulse.

Daniel Descalso stepped in and hit a groundball just to the left of Nats shortsop Ian Desmond, which Desmond misplayed into two game-tying runs. Shortstop Pete Kozma strolled to the plate next and slapped a single to the opposite field to put the Cardinals on top 9-7. Jason Motte retired the Nats in the 9th without incident and the Cardinals buried the silly #Natitude hashtag six feet under, where it belonged.

It’s not hyperbole to say that Kozma was one of the worst regular players for the Cardinals in the decade. For that matter, Descalso- hero from the previous at-bat- wasn’t too far behind. Yet these two had come through when the team needed them most. This was an 88 win team in the regular season dashing the dreams of a 98 win team, and using two of its weakest parts in the process. Devil magic, indeed.

St Louis Cardinals v Philadelphia Phillies - Game 5 Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

2. 10/7/2011: The Pitcher’s Duel

Two of the recurring themes on this list are improbable wins and key performances by franchise icons. Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS had both. That the Cardinals were even playing in the NLDS was a feat in its own right. They were 10.5 games out with 31 games left, 8.5 back with 21 games to play, and three games back with just five games left in the season. They survived against all odds, clinching their playoff berth on the final night of the regular season. The reward for their 90 wins and mad sprint towards October was an appointment in the opening round with the 102-win juggernaut Phillies.

They stole one of the first two games in Philadelphia, dropped game 3 at home, then forced a decisive game 5 with a rally squirrel-infused 5-3 victory. The final game of the series would be back in Philadelphia with Phillies ace Roy Halladay squaring off with Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter. The duo were long-time friends dating back to their days as youngsters in the 90s with the Blue Jays organization, adding an extra dimension of intrigue. It was baseball’s version of the finale in a spaghetti western, with two grizzled gunslingers staring each other down. The duo delivered.

The Cardinals struck first, and last, when Rafael Furcal led off the game with a triple and scored immediately after on Skip Schumaker’s double. Before the first out was recorded, the game witnessed two extra base hits. Only one more would happen over the next 54 outs. Carpenter allowed two runners to reach scoring position and snuffed out the rally both times. Halladay did his part, allowing only one runner to reach scoring position between the 2nd and 7th innings. None of it mattered because enough damage was done in the first inning. Carpenter was gutsy, workmanlike, and never flinched. The Cardinals won 1-0 to advance to the NLCS.

It was notable because of the improbability of it all, one of a few defining moments for the most decorated Cardinal team of the decade. It was also noteworthy as Carpenter’s finest moment in his nine seasons as a Cardinal. He was only on the team for three seasons in the decade and one of those seasons (2012) was limited to three games. That was the season he had a rib removed just so he could pitch a few more games. Despite his limited time, he produced the sixth most fWAR among Cardinal pitchers from 2010 to 2019. He was an integral part of the 2011 run, which would have ended sooner without his game 5 heroics.

1. 10/27/2011: Freese hits it in the air to center... We will see you tomorrow night

Every Cardinal fan will tell future generations about this game for as long as they live. It was as improbable a victory as you’ll find in baseball history. Before 2011, only one team had been down to its final strike in the World Series and gone on to win it all. On a magical night in 2011, the Cardinals did it twice in the same game. Their win expectancy had been below 20% at some point in each of the 7th, 8th, 9th, and even 10th innings. They allowed three homeruns after the 7th inning, any one of which would have been a season-ender for most teams. Every time, they stormed back and eventually won the game and the series. As if that wasn’t enough, the hero of the game was native St. Louisan David Freese. If a screenwriter submitted this script for a movie, a baseball-savvy studio executive would reject it for its lack of realism.

Freese’s heroics are best associated with his walk-off homerun in the bottom of the 11th, but could just as easily be associated with his game-tying two out triple two innings sooner. He was far from the only hero. Lance Berkman went 3-for-5, scored four runs, hit a homerun, and tied the game up with two outs in the 10th on a critical RBI single. Descalso’s single leading off the 10th allowed him to score the run that shaved the lead from 9-7 to 9-8. Marc Rzepczynski supplied a much-needed 1-2-3 inning in the top of the 8th to hold the deficit to three runs at the time. Allen Craig blasted a homerun in the bottom half of the same inning to give the Cardinals life. It wasn’t always easy, but everything came up just right for the Cardinals.

It also embodied so many other aspects of this list. It was a game riddled with devil magic. Franchise icons Pujols and Molina each played a part. It wasn’t the peak of young Cardinals pitching, but homegrown hurlers Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia, and Jason Motte all contributed innings. It was also the second to last game for the heretofore unmentioned Tony LaRussa, whose number is now retired and decorates the Busch Stadium outfield fence. It’s the quintessential game of the decade.