2016 was not a great year for the St. Louis Cardinals. To be fair, it was hardly the worst year for the team—they still won 86 games and Game 162, a 10-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates (the winning pitcher, naturally, was Jonathan Broxton), had playoff implications until late, when the San Francisco Giants defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers, thus rendering the Cardinals’ victory moot.
But when the arch-rival Chicago Cubs dominate the season, winning the National League Central by 17.5 games and then win the World Series, it can be easy to lose sight of what went well for the Cardinals. And more times than not, the St. Louis Cardinals emerged victorious on a given day.
The statistic Leverage Index indicates how much win probability hinges on a given moment in a baseball game, and Average Leverage Index (abbreviated aLI) is a good proxy for how competitive a baseball game is. And as it turns out, of the 15 Cardinals games this season with the highest aLI, only four of them were Cardinals victories.
But almost every Year in Review in almost every context revolves around commenting on how bleak 2016 was (sorry), and it’s a bit exhausting, so rather than rehash (again) what didn’t go right for the Cardinals, here are the games that the Cardinals won which were, statistically speaking, the most dramatic.
#5: June 10 vs. Pittsburgh Pirates—A quick glance at the final score, a 9-3 Cardinals victory, does not seemingly suggest a tightly-contested game. And following the game’s final two runs, via a Brandon Moss home run, the Cardinals had, per Baseball Reference, a 100% chance of winning the game. They rounded up and it was technically “only” 99.5% or higher, but still.
A critical detail, however: this was in the 12th inning.
How the Cardinals got to the 12th inning was through a close game—the largest deficit either team faced until the 12th was two, a deficit faced by the Cardinals until Matt Carpenter hit a three-run dinger which scored Eric Fryer and Greg Garcia (and, of course, himself). However, this was one of those notorious 2016 Trevor Rosenthal games—in the ninth inning, following a leadoff triple by Starling Marte and a walk to Chris Stewart, after inducing one fly out, Rosenthal surrendered a single to Jordy Mercer which tied the game. While Rosenthal did recover enough so as to not lose the game in the ninth, the game continued.
Anyway, even if you watched the game (I did), you may not have remembered the Brandon Moss 12th inning home run (I didn’t), but you probably do remember the go-ahead RBI. Adam Wainwright double? Adam Wainwright double.
#4: August 19 vs. Philadelphia Phillies—Adam Wainwright pitched fairly well. Adam Morgan pitched better, somewhat inexplicably, and the Cardinals had a two-run deficit following back-to-back Phillies home runs in the bottom of the 6th inning from Odubel Herrera and Freddy Galvis. The Cardinals reserved their comeback heroics for the top of the ninth inning, when Jedd Gyorko hit a two-run dinger which tied the game at three runs apiece.
The scoring stopped, and the game entered extra innings. Gyorko was unable to be the hero a second time in the 11th, but the next batter, Randal Grichuk, hit a double which brought Jhonny Peralta, who had opened the inning with a double of his own, to home plate for what would eventually be the winning run. While Alex Reyes ran into some trouble in the bottom of the 11th, with Emmanuel Burriss and Tyler Goeddel hitting two-out singles, he induced an Odubel Herrera grounder to first base to give the Cardinals the victory.
#3: September 17 vs. San Francisco Giants—This game was right in the heart of the portion of the season where every game felt like a must-win (as it turns out, with a one game deficit for the second Wild Card spot, this was the case), and it was a battle of Cardinals off-season acquisition Mike Leake and Jeff Samardzija, who replaced Leake in the Giants rotation via free agency. Each pitched fairly productively—Samardzija’s lone blemish was a first-inning solo home run from Brandon Moss, and Leake surrendered two runs, one on a 2nd inning Brandon Belt double and another via a Samardzija sacrifice fly in the 5th.
The narrow Giants lead held until the top of the ninth, when their notoriously vulnerable bullpen broke. With runners on first and second, Randal Grichuk singled to center field, scoring Tommy Pham, pinch-running for Jedd Gyorko, and advancing Jose Martinez, pinch-running for Yadier Molina (God bless expanded rosters), to third base, bringing the Cardinals’ win probability from 28% to 69%. The next batter, Kolten Wong, drove Martinez home on a sacrifice fly.
The drama continued into the 9th, however. Seung Hwan Oh retired the first two Giants batters, but Eduardo Nunez and Denard Span each singled, giving Conor Gillaspie a chance to capitalize. However, the game ended on a sky-high pop-up to second base, giving the Cardinals a huge victory in their pursuit of a Wild Card spot.
#2: July 22 vs. Los Angeles Dodgers—For my money, the most underrated postseason game of the recent Cardinals’ run of success was Game 1 of the 2013 NLCS. You know, this one.
The July 22 game against the Dodgers shared a few of that game’s hallmarks. It was the same opponent in the same stadium. Both were on Friday nights. Both went deep into extra innings. And both ended in exhilarating walk-off fashion.
Both Brandon McCarthy and Michael Wacha pitched well, and the game remained close throughout, with neither team ever holding more than a one-run lead. The teams were tied at two entering the top of the ninth, when Seung Hwan Oh allowed a solo home run to Justin Turner. The Cardinals’ odds of winning plummeted from 56% to 18%. But with two outs in the bottom frame, Jedd Gyorko hit his own solo shot, in which the Cardinals’ win probability went from 5% to 53%.
The Cardinals bullpen held form in extra innings, and they needed every bit of it. Matt Bowman pitched well, Tyler Lyons pitched what was essentially a short start in relief (4 2⁄3 innings, 53 pitches), and Seth Maness threw a perfect top of the 16th. Somebody was eventually going to score. Enter Matt Adams and his glorious bat flip against notorious Cardinal killer and fun hater Bud Norris.
#1: May 4 vs. Philadelphia Phillies—The Cardinals, coming off a 100 win season (perhaps a lucky 100 wins, but it’s not like teams typically win 100 games by complete accident), entered this game with a worse record than the Phillies, who surprisingly had a winning record early in the 2016 season. On the surface, this didn’t seem like an exceptional game—the Phillies were tossing Adam Morgan (yes, Adam Morgan started two of the five most dramatic wins for a team other than his own; no, I do not know how much it would cost to keep Morgan on retainer); Mike Leake went for the Cardinals. But after a fairly nondescript first three innings, with a lone Jedd Gyorko single to break up otherwise perfect innings, the action picked up.
A three-run 4th inning home run from Ryan Howard, the local product who has feasted on Cardinals pitching throughout his career, scored Freddy Galvis and Mikael Franco, and the next inning, Odubel Herrera hit a solo shot to make the lead 4-0. But in the bottom of the fifth, Aledmys Diaz, entering his okay maaaaaybe this guy is really really for real stage of his breakthrough 2016, drove in Ruben Tejada and Eric Fryer (yes, this game happened less than eight months ago), and a subsequent Stephen Piscotty single brought Brandon Moss home, giving the Cardinals a one-run deficit.
Scoring slowed over the next few innings, though with a one-run game, every at-bat is critical. Even entering the bottom of the ninth, Phillies closer Jeanmar Gomez had a razor-thin margin with which to work, with the Cardinals needing just one run to force extra innings. The needed rally had a good start, with the first batter, Kolten Wong, walking, bringing the team’s win probability to 33%, and following a Matt Carpenter fly out, Matt Adams nearly hit a walk-off home run, doubling to center field and advancing Wong to third. Despite still trailing, the Cardinals were now slight favorites to win, at 54%.
Aledmys Diaz was intentionally walked (again, the respect was building), and Stephen Piscotty hit a single which scored Wong. Carlos Martinez, who had pinch-run for Adams, was thrown out at home plate and in the meantime, Diaz made his way to third base, and the game was tied with two outs for Matt Holliday. And following Piscotty making it to second base on defensive indifference, this happened.
2016 was an often-frustrating year for Cardinals fans, but in a season in which the Cardinals lost more high aLI games than they won, they did win the highest aLI game they played. And this, paired with the several other dramatic games mentioned above, assured that even in a season which was relatively lean by Cardinals standards, there would be highlights worth remembering fondly.