1993 St. Louis Cardinals: Another Year Of Coming Up Short

The early 1990s St. Louis Cardinals were looking to regain the mojo of the 1980s, when they won three National League pennants and the World Series in 1982. After a decline at the end of the decade, the great Whitey Herzog retired as manager and Joe Torre took over. Torre turned out winning teams in 1991 and 1992, but came up short in the old NL East. The 1993 St. Louis Cardinals were more of the same—they were pretty good, but not quite good enough.

St. Louis had the fourth-best offense in the National League. Greg Jefferies, once an enemy with the New York Mets in the great pennant race battles of the previous decade, was now playing first base in Busch Stadium. Jefferies batted .342 and posted a stat line of .408 on-base percentage/.485 slugging percentage. On the other side of the infield, Todd Zeile drove in 105 runs.

The Cardinal outfield was also productive at the corner spots. Bernard Gilkey played left and his stat line was. .370/.481. Mark Whiten was in right and he popped 25 home runs.

Up the middle, St. Louis got a .362 OBP out of second baseman Luis Alicea. Franchise legend Ozzie Smith was still patrolling shortstop at the age of 38 and his OBP was a respectable .337. Centerfielder Ray Lankford helped spark the lineup with a .366 OBP.

Finding pitching was a dicier proposition for Torre. Bob Tewksbury was the ace and he was reliable—making 32 starts and winning 17 games. But a 3.83 ERA is high for a #1 starter. No one else went to the post as many as 30 times. Rene Orocha and Donovan Osborne came the closest, combining to make 55 starts and each finished with ERAs in the high 3s. The Cards’ rotation didn’t have a clear stopper and they were weak on the back end.

Another legend in Lee Smith was handling closer duties. The 43 saves look impressive. The 4.50 ERA a little less so. Torre was able to get some decent work from Mike Perez and Les Lancaster, but otherwise the bullpen was stacked with mediocre performers. The Cardinal staff ended up 8th in a 14-team National League for ERA.

Major league baseball was in the final year of a divisional alignment and playoff format that had been in place since 1969. Each league was split into just two divisions, an East and a West. Only the first-place team went to the postseason, advancing directly into the League Championship Series.

With the Central Division’s existence still a year off, the Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates were all in the NL East. They were joined by the division’s current members, the Mets, Phillies, Expos (today’s Washington Nationals) and the Marlins. The Braves were still in the NL West, a placement that tormented geography teachers for a quarter-century.

Pittsburgh had won this division each of the last three years, but free agency had been gradually taking attrition and then struck a fatal blow in the previous offseason when Barry Bonds went to San Francisco. The NL East was seen as wide open and St. Louis a natural choice to ascend to the throne.

The Cardinals won seven of their first nine, although the Phillies went 8-1 in that same stretch. St. Louis paid a visit to Philadelphia for a weekend series in early May.

Whiten hit a three-run blast in Friday night’s opener at the old Vet in Philly, but that was all the offense the Cardinals got in a tough 4-3 loss. Whiten had three more hits on Saturday…but he was all the offense the Cardinals got in a tough 2-1 loss. The rightfielder was a lonely warrior. On Sunday, the rest of the bats started to emerge. Alicea had three hits and Jefferies hit a three-run homer off Curt Schilling. Tewksbury took a 5-2 lead into the eighth. But when the starter showed cracks, Smith couldn’t finish the job, giving up a grand slam. St. Louis lost 6-5 and concluded an aggravating weekend of three straight one-run defeats.

The Cardinals had a tough time getting off the mat and on Memorial Day, the record stood at 25-23. They were in fourth place, staring at a nine-game deficit against the frontrunning Phils, with the Expos and Cubs nestled in between.

In June, St. Louis heated up along with the summer weather. They took three of four at home against Montreal to start their move up the standings. They swept Pittsburgh at home. And the Cardinals got some revenge when the Phillies paid a return visit to Busch.

Rheal Cormier, a young lefthander, delivered a sharp 3-1 win in the opener of the four-game set. After a wild 13-10 loss in the second game, St. Louis got an easy 9-3 win behind Whiten’s three-run home run. In the finale, a Brian Jordan grand slam helped the Cardinals build an early two-touchdown lead—that’s right, they led 14-0 after three innings. The final was 14-5.

With three wins in four games, St. Louis was getting back in the race. By the All-Star break, they were 51-36 and within five games of Philadelphia. The Cardinals had the third-best record in all of baseball.

Pennant race drama seemed ahead for the great baseball fans of St. Louis. But that’s not what happened. A stretch of games against mediocre teams in the Dodgers and Padres resulted in a 2-7 record. That set the tone for the late summer and by the time Labor Day rolled around, the Cardinals were in an 11-game hole. Even though they would close the season with a series against the Phillies, it was too big of a hole to make up.

St. Louis still played a significant role in the National League’s other pennant race. The Braves and Giants were having an epic fight to the death, both on their way to 100-plus wins and in the last great race major league baseball would see before the advent of the wild-card. In retrospect, the biggest September moment of that race was when San Francisco came into St. Louis for four games on September 9.

Zeile led the way in Thursday night’s opener, a grand slam keying the 9-4 win. Gilkey sparked the lineup on Friday night, with two hits, two runs and two RBI in a 6-2 win. Tewksbury was brilliant on Saturday afternoon, with a 3-1 win. And Cormier delivered another gem on Sunday, capping the sweep with a 4-2 win. San Francisco lost their pennant race by a single game.

But playing spoiler wasn’t what St. Louis had in mind for this season. Their final record of 87-75 was good and at fifth-best in the National League and ninth-best overall, it was a playoff season by the more generous standards of today’s two-wild card format. It was the best record of any team that was going into the new NL Central Division next season.

Again though, that wasn’t what St. Louis had in mind. The team slipped under. 500 in the strike-shortened year of 1994 and when they started slowly again in 1995, Torre was fired.

All’s well that ends well though. Torre’s firing opened the door for him to go the Yankees and win four World Series titles. St. Louis hired Tony LaRussa and by the second half of the 1990s were back into the playoffs and eventually the World Series. Both the franchise and the manager got over the hump that seemed so imposing in 1993.