Coming into the 2009 season,
expectations for the St. Louis Cardinals were relatively low. All eyes were on
the defending National Central Division champion Chicago Cubs, installed as
prohibitive favorites to repeat. The Cardinals were commonly projected to finish
between second and fourth, depending on the prognosticator.
The club had a decent spring,
19-12 (.613), with the biggest surprise undoubtedly being opening day cleanup
hitter Khalil Greene, who batted .408 in Florida before heading into personal
oblivion. Perhaps the biggest question coming into the spring, the identity of
the closer, was still unresolved as the season got underway. Jason Motte blew a
save opportunity on opening day.
Just as Ryan Franklin then quietly
settled into the ninth-inning job, the Cardinals settled into a regular pattern
of winning games. Despite Chris Carpenter being forced onto the disabled list
due to an oblique tear, the club ended April at 16-7 and most importantly, with
a 3-½ game lead in the standings.
Early on, offense came from some
likely sources, such as April National League Player of the Month Albert Pujols
and some unlikely ones, such as the third-base platoon. Given the opportunity due
to injuries to Troy Glaus, David Freese and Joe Mather, unheralded Brian Barden
enjoyed his 30 days of fame, earning the NL Rookie of the Month
Four of the ten first-year players
to appear with the club made their MLB debuts in April, including Freese, Colby Rasmus, P.J. Walters and Tyler Greene.
Of all the rookies, Rasmus was the
most heralded. He struggled with a hiatal hernia that led to a 30-pound weight
loss and an ongoing ankle issue. Over the season, the 22-year-old would still
contribute 16 home runs and 52 RBI and lead MLB first-year players by appearing
in 147 games.
By Carpenter’s mid-May return, the
club had slid into what would be a season-worst three games out of first place,
spending their only three days of the season in third.
Joel Pineiro’s complete-game
shutout over the Cubs on May 19 broke a 2-7 spell and started the club on a
five-game winning streak that enabled them to reclaim a share of the top spot.
Pujols added one more chapter to his growing legend by breaking the letter “I”
in the Big Mac Land sign in left field with a May 21 home
June marked the club’s worst month
of the season despite Pujols having taken his second NL Player of the Month
Award in three months. The Cardinals’ 12-17 June record on top of their 13-14
mark in May meant they were living off their first-month cushion. Still, they
were only in second place, two games out, entering July.
Mark DeRosa had been acquired on
June 27 from Cleveland for two relievers having seen major
league duty, Chris Perez and Jess Todd. By July 1, DeRosa was on the disabled
list with a wrist problem, a torn tendon sheath that would require post-season
surgery. Despite slamming eight home runs in his first 22 games with the club,
DeRosa batted a career-low .228 in his first partial season and perhaps only one
with St. Louis.
After a modest 7-4 stretch to
begin July, the Cardinals entered the All-Star break with a 2 1/2-game lead and
a 49-42 record. Hometown hero Albert Pujols was the leading vote-getter and was
joined by Franklin and catcher Yadier Molina on the losing NL
With his club a middling 3-4 in
the second half, general manager John Mozeliak pulled the trigger on the
defining deal of his relatively brief term in the job to date by acquiring
outfielder Matt Holliday from Oakland on July 24.
Holliday immediately sparked the
offense, as he hit safely and reached base at least twice in each of his first
nine games in the uniform. Perhaps also partially due to an August schedule that
included just one opponent with a winning record, the Holliday-led Cardinals
posted an NL-best .600 record (39-26) after his arrival.
On the mound, Pineiro continued to
surprise, piling up 15 wins and a career-best 214 innings. Kyle Lohse struggled
with various injuries while Todd Wellemeyer pitched himself out of the rotation.
Future Hall-of-Famer John Smoltz, signing on August 19 after having been waived
by the Boston Red Sox, pitched in with seven starts. Despite getting just one
win, the 42-year-old threw well, registering a 4.26 ERA.
The horses were Adam Wainwright
and Chris Carpenter, both leading Cy Young Award candidates. Wainwright led the
NL with 19 wins and 233 innings pitched, making a career-high 34 starts.
Carpenter was the first Cardinal to take the league ERA title in 21 years (2.24)
and had an 11-game winning streak that helped sustain the club from July 5
through September 7.
On September 9, behind a 5-1
Wainwright win and a series sweep in Milwaukee, the Cardinals reached their
season high water marks of 27 games over .500 and an 11 ½ game divisional lead.
The Cards could not sustain,
finishing the regular season weakly. Their September-October record of 14-16
represented the club’s fifth consecutive season of losing baseball in their
final month. They were 2-8 in their last ten contests, including being swept by
the Brewers at home to close the schedule. Still, their 91-71 record, 7 ½ games
ahead of Chicago, exceeded the predictions of even the
most optimistic back in March.
With Pujols (no home runs since
September 9) and Holliday (one home run since September 8) struggling, the
Cardinals needed to rely on their starting pitchers in the National League
Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Carpenter was not at his best in
Game 1, allowing a two-run home run on his third pitch and the Cardinals never
recovered, falling 5-3. Wainwright was masterful in Game 2, pitching eight
one-run innings. The combination of a Holliday fielding error on what would have
been the 27th out and shaky relief by Franklin turned a 2-1 win into a crushing 3-2
Returning to Busch Stadium for
Game 3 didn’t help. Behind Pineiro, the Cardinals played their worst ball of the
series in the elimination game. They were meekly sent into their winter via a
5-1 loss as the Dodgers swept.
The 2009 club had many
contributors not already noted above.
As he has done for nine seasons,
sure repeat Most Valuable Player Award winner Pujols led the offense. He was
first in the major leagues in runs (124), on-base percentage (.443) and slugging
(.658) and his 47 home runs paced the NL. Despite a sore elbow that required
post-season surgery, the first baseman set an MLB record for assists at the
position with 185.
Perhaps most impressive was
Pujols’ 2009 production with the bases loaded. He batted 10-for-17 (.588) in
that situation, setting team single-season (five) and career (11) records for
Reigning Gold Glove winner Molina
continued his excellence behind the plate with eight pickoffs, most in MLB and
added a .293 average with the bat. The 27-year-old was an ironman, with his 136
games started the most by any catcher in the major leagues.
The most pleasant first-year
surprise had to be pitcher Blake Hawksworth. A career starter, the 27-year-old
was called up as a reliever in early June. The right-hander allowed four runs in
his first game, only to hold his opponents to just five runs more over his final
29 games combined.
Another steady performer who
surprised in a new role was outfielder-turned second baseman Skip Schumaker.
Despite never having played the position before, the 29-year-old reported to
spring training and focused on learning his new job. Through it all, he
registered his third consecutive .300 season with the bat from the leadoff
Schumaker’s keystone partner was a
moving target early on. Khalil Greene’s continued personal problems opened the
door for Brendan Ryan to eventually seize the shortstop job. The 27-year-old
provided exceptional defense and a very respectable .292 batting average in 129
Especially prior to Holliday’s
arrival, the outfield was one of the few unsettled areas of the club. Trying to
return from disc replacement surgery in his neck proved to be too much for Chris
Duncan, who was traded to Boston in late July for middle infielder Julio Lugo.
Fan favorite Rick Ankiel could
never get untracked and struggled even more after an early-May collision with
the outfield wall that put him on the disabled list. Ryan Ludwick led the
outfielders in appearances and had a steady year at the plate. He finished with
22 home runs and 97 RBI after having been named the NL Player of the Month in
The left-handed relief corps of
veterans Trever Miller (70 games) and Dennys Reyes (75 appearances) were solid
pretty much all year and right-handers Kyle McClellan (66 games) and Jason Motte
(69 appearances) were also kept busy the entire season.
Despite a month-long late season
finished with 38 saves, third-best in the league. The 36-year-old placed second
in the NL Rolaids Relief Man of the Year competition in his first full season as
Heading into the off-season, the
biggest free agent of all may have been the manager, but in late October, Tony
La Russa agreed to return for a 15th season with St. Louis. Same for
invaluable pitching coach Dave Duncan, who was critical of the organization,
fans and media earlier in the summer, in part due to perceived poor
treatment of his son while with the team.
Nine players have the right to
seek free agency starting 15 days after the completion of the World Series. They
are Holliday, DeRosa, Smoltz, Pineiro, Wellemeyer, Ankiel, Glaus, Khalil Greene
and Jason LaRue.
Of the group, the club seems most
anxious for Holliday, DeRosa, Smoltz and LaRue to return, but money could be a
make-or-break factor for the first two.
All-in-all, the 2009 Cardinals
exceeded expectations until the disappointing post-season began. With a solid
core returning in 2010, there is no reason to believe the club cannot again be a
serious contender to repeat as NL Central Division champion.
Note: To follow our entire series of
team recaps and Players of the Year at each level of the St. Louis Cardinals
minor league system, check back here at The Cardinal Nation daily. To see the
roster of winners and article schedule, click here.
Brian Walton can be reached via
email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog.
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