Here in the final week of the 2021 baseball season, the St. Louis Cardinals completed the unthinkable. In eliminating the final contender for the second Wild Card spot, the Cincinnati Reds, the Cardinals reached the 2021 baseball playoffs after continuing to make franchise history with their 17th consecutive win, the clincher, on Tuesday.
No one except possibly the most diehard Cardinals fan might have thought that this was a real possibility on August 10th when the team was 56-56. Yet they are playing with the spirit of the 1964 Cardinals, leading some to wonder if this is the greatest playoff run in St. Louis history.
So how does this team compare to that World Champion?
In 1964, St. louis was counted out. Sitting in seventh place on July 24th with a record of 47-47, the Cardinals began their march to the pennant. On October 4th, the comeback was complete as they won 46 of their last 68 games.
On August 10th, the 2021 Cardinals were 8.5 games out of the second wild card spot. Their chances of making the playoffs were assessed to be 1.4% – not exactly hopeful. Since then, they have gone 32-14 with four games to play.
After losing 9-1 at Philadelphia on July 24th to fall a game under .500, the 1964 Cardinals went on a six-game win streak to begin the chase. Ten games back of the National League leading Phillies, St. Louis won 19 of their next 29 to move eight games over .500 a month later. At the end of the season, they had gone 46-21 closing out, including winning eight of the last ten to finishing a game ahead of both the Phillies and the Cincinnati Reds.
If nothing else, the St. Louis Cardinals of 2021 are history makers, winning 17 in a row, which no other Cardinals team had ever done. What makes this more remarkable is the fact that on September 7th, they were 14.5 games out of first, one game over .500 and 3.5 games off the pace of the second wild card playoff spot.
Now on September 29th after a franchise record 17 consecutive wins, the Cardinals have the fourth best record in the National League. Much like the 1964 club, this team has climbed over the Phillies, Reds, Braves and Padres, all of which were ahead of them just 21 days ago.
The 1964 Cardinals, with an average age of 27, included a strong mix of veterans of and youngsters alike. Not only did they make one of the steals of all time in the Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio multi-player deal, but they had a young outfielder named Curt Flood, a young catcher named Tim McCarver and a couple of top veterans in Ken Boyer and Bill White – and that doesn’t even include the pitching staff.
The lineup produced a plus 63 in runs, hitting .281 over the final third of the season. Not a power-laden lineup, they hit just 48 home runs over the last 67 games. These Cardinals played Whiteyball before Whiteyball was a thing.
Don’t believe it? Look at the numbers. They hit .281 as a team over the last 60 plus games, were successful in 66% of their steal attempts, and blasted just 48 home runs in the run to the pennant. They made the most of their hits including a .301 average with runners in scoring position down the stretch.
In 2021, the Cardinals are also a solid collection of veterans and young players coming into their own. Not only do Nolan Arenado, Yadier Molina, and Paul Goldschmidt lead the way, but they have the emerging outfield of Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson and Harrison Bader.
Carlson is the baby of the group and has delivered day in and day out. Offensively, he ranks in the top five in every category from games played to home runs and RBI. Every starter has hit at least 10 home runs this season. Three have hit 30 plus bombs.
One big difference between the Cardinals of 1964 and this 2021 edition is the latter’s use of every player. The 1964 team primarily featured the same lineup every day. Manager Mike Shildt utilizes everyone and young players like Edmundo Sosa and Lars Nootbaar are making the most of opportunities. Everyone is answering the call, especially over the last 17 games.
Pitching is where the 1964 Cardinals shone brightest with three big horses in future Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, the youngster Ray Sadecki and the old warhorse Curt Simmons. Together they went 31-7 from July 24th to October 4th with 10 no decisions and 15 complete games. The bullpen was steady as can be, saving 21 of 26 opportunities, led by Barney Schultz with 12 saves.
Mike Maddux, pitching coach of the 2021 Cardinals, has worked magic with his team’s arms. Losing starters Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson, Maddux has piecemealed a staff led by 40-year-old Adam Wainwright. The ageless right-hander at 17-7 with a 3.05 ERA is in the Cy Young Award discussion.
Trade deadline acquisitions Jon Lester and J.A. Happ who even this writer thought was not much of a pickup have helped steady the staff. Lester has pitched five plus innings in nine of his 10 Cardinals starts. The lefty has allowed two runs or fewer in seven of those starts and the team has won six teams behind him. The first month after the Happ arrived in St. Louis, he had an ERA of 2.22, making Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak look like a trade genius.
The bullpen is where Maddux and Shildt have looked the best. The brain trust has not been afraid to make moves like taking then closer Alex Reyes with 27 saves and moving him to setup and turning over the reins to Giovanny Gallegos. It has worked wonders, much like a young Adam Wainwright did for the 83-win 2006 World Series champions when he moved into the closer role for injured Jason Isringhausen. Could history be about to repeat?
The game changer of the 1964 Cardinals occurred on June 16 when St. Louis general manager Bing Devine traded 18-game winner Ernie Broglio to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Lou Brock. The 25-year-old with one year of minor league season under his belt came to the Cardinals hitting .251. The future Hall of Famer became the catalyst for a Cardinals team that went from 28-31 upon his arrival to 93-69 and World Series champion. Brock credits manager Johnny Keane with giving him the confidence to be himself.
Upon his reporting to St. Louis, Brock says Keane walked him out to left field and said; “It’s a big one and it’s all yours. If you can do what I think you can do, you ought to be able to play out here the rest of your life.”
Brock opened with his new team going 2-for-3 with two walks, a triple and a stolen base, the precursor to him hitting .348 and stealing 33 bases, giving the Cardinals the lift they needed.
If there is a game changer in 2021, it might just be right-handed pitcher Miles Mikolas. In his last two starts, Mikolas has gone 12 2/3 innings, surrendering just two runs on seven hits and two walks. Although those numbers are nice, the righty in his last outing versus Milwaukee got 13 of 21 outs via the grounder. With Mikolas in the playoff rotation, St. Louis’ pitching staff is becoming scarier by the start.
Although I was only eight years old when the 1964 Cardinals team did the unthinkable, it’s the 2021 Cardinals that have now overshadowed that performance. Not only have they become hot offensively at the right time, the makeshift pitching staff stabilized and the bullpen has been lights out.
With Tuesday’s three home runs, the Cardinals have hit 50 (franchise record) dingers in September, two more than the 1964 team hit between July 24th and October 4th. It has been 134 years since the only other team in baseball history won their final 11 road games of the season. Now add the St. Louis Cardinals to that list as they join the 1887 Philadelphia Quakers in reaching that milestone.
It is no coincidence that this team has gone from a 1.4% chance of making the playoffs two months ago to now having a shot of winning their 12th World Series title. Not only are they historic, but they’re also good – very, very good.
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