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 Award.
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"
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
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 squad.
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
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
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
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 grand slams.
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 position.
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 games.
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
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 July.
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
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
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.
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