More than a decade ago, the talented triumvirate of Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright helped power the St. Louis Cardinals past the Philadelphia Phillies in the divisional round of the playoffs, and ultimately to a World Series title.
A lot has happened since, and not a lot of it good around Philadelphia, where the Phillies have had more losing seasons than winning ones and secured a wild-card spot earlier this week for their first return to the postseason.
The two clubs will meet again, 11 years after their last thrilling playoff showdown, set to play a best-of-three National League wild-card series at Busch Stadium. And wouldn’t you know it? Pujols, Molina, and Wainwright are still around, and each could have a starring role when the series begins Friday afternoon.
“I’ve thought about it a lot, right? It literally became like a fork in the road — one went right, one went left,” John Mozeliak, the Cardinals’ president of baseball operations, said Thursday in recalling the decisive Game 5 of the 2011 series. St. Louis won 1-0 behind Chris Carpenter’s three-hit gem against Hall of Famer Roy Halladay.
“It was such an epic game, probably one of the greatest games any of us got to watch,” Mozeliak said. “For us it became more of a springboard, and in the Phillies’ case, it became a turning point for their franchise, too.”
The Cardinals continued to challenge for championships over the next decade, losing three times in the NL Championship Series and once in the World Series.
The team they’re taking into this postseason might be the best one yet: Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt will be getting plenty of MVP votes. The starting rotation, buoyed by the trade-deadline arrival of Game 1 starter Jose Quintana, has been solid. And the bullpen has been among the best in baseball.
Molina will be back behind the plate, Wainwright is available out of the bullpen and Pujols, after soaring past the 700-mark for career home runs and topping Babe Ruth in career RBIs, will attempt to continue his torrid second half.
“We’ve had a lot of different contributors throughout the year,” first-year manager Oliver Marmol said. “What our corner guys have done in Nolan and Goldy is unbelievable. They answer the bell every day, and without them we’re not here. You can go down the list. But what Albert has done has been remarkable.”
The Phillies are pretty remarkable, too.
They were going nowhere when team president Dave Dombrowski fired manager Joe Girardi in June, replacing him with Rob Thomson. They were 23-29 and 5 1/2 games out of the playoffs, despite a payroll pushing $237 million.
But with Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber and JT Realmuto leading the offense, and a rotation featuring Aaron Nola and Game 1 starter Zack Wheeler shutting down hitters, Thomson led one of the biggest turnarounds in baseball. Only the Dodgers and Braves have better records in the NL since the soft-spoken Canadian took over.
“I feel a sense of pride for these players,” Thomson said. “We’re glad to be here but we’ve got more to go.”
Harper has largely lived up to his $330 million contract in Philadelphia, winning his second MVP last season and putting together another strong year despite a series of injuries — a small tear in his elbow ligament that turned the right fielder into a designated hitter, and a broken thumb that cost him most of the summer.
The one thing Harper hasn’t done is win a postseason series, losing all four in the divisional round when with the Washington Nationals.
“I’m so excited to be back here with an organization that I absolutely love,” said Harper, who hit .286 with 18 homers and 65 RBIs this season. “This is the plan, right? This is the goal, to do this. But this is Step 1, as well.”
In the wheelhouse
Wheeler (12-7, 2.92 ERA) got the nod in Game 1 in part because of his two outings against the Cardinals this season. He tossed seven innings in each, allowing a combined nine hits while striking out 10 and walking two. The Phillies won both.
“You just try to stay within yourself. Be yourself,” Wheeler said. “Attack hitters, work ahead and get outs.”
Q’s and answers
Quintana was 3-5 with a 3.50 ERA with Pittsburgh when the Cardinals called at the trade deadline, hoping the veteran pitcher could solidify their starting rotation.
In St. Louis, he’s gone 3-2 with a 2.01 ERA in 12 starts, including three innings of one-hit ball in a final tune-up Monday in Pittsburgh.
“As soon as I got traded and starting pitching for the Cardinals,” Quintana said, “I could feel the energy. It was so exciting.”
Both teams could have question marks when it comes to holding the lead in the ninth.
The Phillies’ Seranthony Dominguez and David Robertson have scuffled of late, meaning former rotation stalwart Zach Eflin could be called upon to close out games. He’s allowed one earned run over seven appearances out of the bullpen.
Ryan Helsley will get the call for the Cardinals, assuming the middle finger he jammed Tuesday against the Pirates doesn’t cause him problems. Helsley threw during Thursday’s workout and Marmol was optimistic about his availability.
Nola (11-13, 3.25) will start Game 2 for Philadelphia on Saturday with Ranger Suarez (10-7, 3.65) getting the nod Sunday if the series goes to a decisive third game. The Cardinals will send Miles Mikolas (12-13, 3.29) out in Game 2, but Marmol was coy with his plans for a potential decider, saying: “When we get to Game 3, I’ll announce it then.”
Saturdays just got more interesting.