St. Louis won 16 of its last 21 games and was battling the Atlanta Braves for the final playoff berth in the National League. The Braves' monumental collapse concluded with Wednesday's extra-inning loss to the Phillies soon after the Cardinals took care of their own business in Houston.
The Cardinals then watched the Phillies, owners of the best record in baseball at 102-60, eliminate the Braves from postseason contention and a celebration ensued. The festivities lasted for only a short while since the Cardinals now have bigger fish to fry with a postseason showdown against the Phillies. It wasn't easy for St. Louis to reach the playoffs for the eighth time since the turn of the century and aspirations weren't looking so good towards the end of August.
An 18-8 ledger in the month of September turned things around and erased a 10 1/2-game deficit in the NL Wild Card standings since the Milwaukee Brewers ran away with the National League Central title. Instead of dreaming of vacations and relaxing by the pool, the Cardinals remained focused.
"Everybody thought you were crazy if you were the one who said we could do it, but we had to keep believing," said Cardinals starter Kyle Lohse, who gets the nod for Game 1 Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park. "Otherwise, it wasn't going to happen."
St. Louis overcame many obstacles to get where it's at today, dealing with injuries to starting pitcher Adam Wainwright, sluggers Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Skip Schumaker and David Freese to name a few. But the Cards kept battling and a lot of help from veteran slugger Lance Berkman, starters Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia and Jake Westbrook opened the doors to the playoffs. Even Pujols' contract talks subsided on his request when the season commenced and left several wondering if this could be Pujols' last hurrah in St. Louis.
Whether this is Pujols' final year in the Gateway City or not, the Cardinals have the three-time NL MVP ready to go for another postseason run.
Philadelphia, meanwhile, probably knew it would be in this position when Cliff Lee decided to join aces Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt in the City of Brotherly Love for his second stint in red pinstripes. Lee and Halladay finished the regular season as NL Cy Young Award candidates and cemented the Phillies' rotation as one of the best in baseball.
It almost seemed as if the regular season were just an appetizer to the Phillies, who experienced their own ups and downs before capturing their fifth straight National League East title. The Phillies won a franchise-record 102 games this season, something they haven't done since winning 101 games in 1976-77, and manager Charlie Manuel registered his team-record 646th regular- season victory.
"We've had a big season, but at the same time, we still have a lot of work to do," Manuel said. "Our ultimate goal is to go to the World Series and win, and I think we're sitting in a pretty good position. It's up to us to go get it."
The Phils went after it following a season-high eight-game losing streak a week ago and Wednesday's series finale in Atlanta had a playoff atmosphere to it. One would argue Philadelphia wanted the Braves out of the postseason no matter what and much like the Cardinals, it got the job done and will face the NL Central inhabitants for the first time in postseason play.
Besides their vaunted rotation, the Phillies made a huge splash before the trade deadline by acquiring right-handed hitter Hunter Pence from the Astros for a few minor leaguers. Pence fit in with the ballclub right away and knows he's just one piece to the puzzle of Philadelphia's success. Pence fought off an inside pitch to put the Phils ahead on Wednesday against the Braves.
"My main goal was to stay inside the ball and if you do get jammed, hope it finds a hole or something," Pence said. "It was definitely one of those lucky hits, but sometimes miracles can happen."
Although it wouldn't seem like a miracle to win the World Series for the heavily-favored Phillies, a little bit of luck can go a long way too.
The Phillies and Cardinals both possess productive lineups, and Philadelphia's addition of Pence gives it the slight edge in this matchup. The Phillies needed a strong right-handed bat in front of slugging first baseman and lefty Ryan Howard, who cracked 33 homers and drove in 116 runs. Outfielder Ben Francisco was expected to fill that right-handed void when Jayson Werth signed a contract large enough to feed a small country in Washington. Francisco never panned out and even rookie Domonic Brown got a few looks. The Pence deal certainly put the Phillies over the top.
Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Pence are expected to occupy the first three spots in the batting order, followed by Howard, Shane Victorino, Raul Ibanez, Placido Polanco and Carlos Ruiz. Utley was moved up from his usual No. 3 spot and said the switch doesn't alter his approach at the plate. Utley appears to be at full strength after dealing with knee and hip injuries. Victorino has been bothered by a sore back and doesn't expect to miss any time this postseason, while Polanco and Ibanez have been clutch at the plate lately. Polanco had his fair share of ailments this season and is ready to go against his former Cardinals club.
St. Louis has plenty of pop in its lineup too thanks to a trio of veteran sluggers in Pujols, Holliday and Berkman. Pujols led the offense as usual with 37 homers, 99 RBI and 105 runs, and it will be difficult for the fans to watch their hero possibly suit up for the final few times in St. Louis. Pujols will bat third in the lineup in front of possibly Rafael Furcal or John Jay and Allen Craig. Holliday missed two weeks in the middle of the season with a quadriceps injury and was hampered near the end of the regular season because of a damaged tendon in his right middle finger. He will bat cleanup.
Holliday had 22 homers and 75 runs batted in to go along with a .296 batting average, his lowest since hitting .286 through 93 games with Oakland back in 2009. The right-handed Holliday did not play in Wednesday's series finale against the Astros, but Berkman did and drove in a run. Berkman batted .301 with 31 homers, 94 RBI and a .412 on-base percentage, earning himself a one- year contract extension with the club. Berkman and Carpenter both re-upped with the organization and give the Cardinals some stability if Pujols signs elsewhere. The switch-hitting Berkman will make $12 million in 2012, a 50 percent raise over the one-year, $8 million deal that he inked in December. Freese, batting average leader Yadier Molina and Schumaker round out the rest of the St. Louis lineup.
The Phillies shocked the world by winning the Lee sweepstakes in the offseason, but they already had a beast on the staff in Halladay. Halladay draws the start for Game 1 and will be looking to duplicate history from last year's NLDS, when he threw a no-hitter in Game 1 against the Cincinnati Reds. Halladay registered only the second no-hitter in postseason play -- the first being Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series. Affectionately known as "Doc", Halladay went 19-6 with a 2.35 earned run average this season. He ranked first in the National League in complete games (8) and strikeout-to- walk ratio (6.29), was second in ERA and innings (223 2/3), third in wins and strikeouts (220) and fourth in WHIP (1.04).
Halladay is also the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner and was an obvious choice to open the postseason for the Phillies. Lee, meanwhile, will handle pitching duties in Game 2 in south Philly and compiled a 17-8 mark with a 2.40 ERA this season. The lefty won all five of his June starts and did the same in August, while winning seven straight starts from July 30 - Sept. 5. Next in line will be Cole Hamels, who takes the ball in St. Louis for Game 3. Hamels, the 2008 World Series MVP, is another left-hander who brings a solid mix pitches to the bump. Mostly known for a nasty changeup, Hamels was 14-9 with a 2.79 ERA this season -- the most wins since going 14-10 in 2008.
Game 4, if necessary, will probably see Oswalt take the hill unless the Phillies decide to go with Halladay again or Vance Worley. Worley will most likely end up in the bullpen but had a fascinating season nonetheless. Oswalt didn't have a standout 2011 campaign, however, going just 9-10 with a 3.69 ERA, in a Phillies rotation that led the majors in wins.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who overcame a bad case of shingles this summer, decided to go with Lohse for Game 1 and the right-hander led the club in wins and earned run average by going 14-8 with a 3.39 ERA. Lohse doesn't have overpowering stuff and won six of seven decisions to close out the regular season. Many thought Carpenter would have squared off with Halladay at Citizens Bank Park, but he's expected to open the series at home in Game 3 against Hamels -- a matchup in which the Cards have a slight edge.
Garcia or Edwin Jackson could follow Lohse in the second installment of this best-of-five series. Garcia was second on the team with a 13-7 record to go along with a 3.56 ERA, while Jackson compiled a 5-2 mark and a 3.58 ERA. Carpenter could take the mound in Game 3 and shook off a rough start to the season by finishing 11-9 with a 3.45 ERA in 34 starts. He was 1-7 with a 4.47 ERA by mid-June and certainly turned things around.
Westbrook could be the odd man out on the staff and tallied a 12-9 ledger with a 4.66 earned run average. Unfortunately for the Cardinals Wainwright's Spring Training setback put a damper on the rotation.
The Phillies unloaded their bullpen in Wednesday's regular-season finale against the Braves, but don't expect them to use that many in the postseason. Ryan Madson was Philadelphia's closer and took over the role from the oft- injured Brad Lidge, who will most likely serve as a setup man and has that mind-boggling slider. Madson made 62 appearances this season and recorded a 4-2 mark to go along with 32 saves and a 2.37 ERA.
Right-hander Fernando Salas led the Cardinals with 24 saves and was second in appearances with 68 behind righty Jason Motte's 78 games. Motte then took back the closer's role at season's end. Arthur Rhodes and Mark Rzepczynski are the only southpaws in the St. Louis bullpen, which is expected to have Mitchell Boggs, Octavio Dotel and Kyle McClellan at its disposal. Rzepczynski and Dotel were acquired in the Colby Rasmus deal that landed Jackson and Corey Patterson.
La Russa will have Craig, Patterson, Punto, Ryan Theriot, Daniel Descalso and Gerald Laird to choose from off of the bench. Craig had 11 home runs and 40 RBI and Patterson contributed six homers and 36 runs batted in for St. Louis, which has depth and versatility coming off of the pine. Craig has the most upside since he's fresh from filling in for an injured Holliday. Punto stepped in for an injured Furcal as well. Furcal should be ready for Saturday's game.
The Phillies match up well with St. Louis' reserves and some may even get a starting nod depending on who is on the mound. John Mayberry could be one of those candidates and cracked 15 homers to go along with 49 RBI this season. Francisco lost his job to Brown and Pence during the season and earned a spot on the bench for Manuel's club. Ross Gload, Wilson Valdez, Brian Schneider and Pete Orr are also at Philadelphia's call. Brown will most likely be sent home for the winter and never panned out as a top prospect this season.
Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee had arguably his easiest 162-game season to date with that dominant rotation made up of aces Halladay, Lee and Hamels. Those three arms carried the Phillies to where they are right now and even more pressure will be put upon their shoulders this postseason. The Phillies' lineup appears healthy and back in the groove after that eight-game slide, and must get hits at a rapid rate to avoid last year's collapse in the NLCS. St. Louis got in by the skin of its teeth and hopes to keep the proverbial gas pedal on the floor. The Cardinals are the underdogs for sure in this matchup with the determined Phillies, but don't tell that to Pujols, Berkman, Holliday or Carpenter. The Cards aren't satisfied with barely making the playoffs and would enjoy nothing more than to shock the world by upending the majors' best team. They have a slight edge by going 6-3 in the regular season series.
Prediction: PHILLIES IN FIVE