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The Narrative Of The 2006 MLB Season

The 2006 MLB season was one that effectively paid the St. Louis Cardinals back for previously unrewarded excellence. The Cardinals produced great teams in both 2004 and 2005. But even though they reached the NLCS both years and the World Series in ’04, there was no championship at the end of the journey. In 2006, the Cards were extremely mediocre. But they were good enough to win a weak division. And this time, October fell in their favor. They won the franchise’s first World Series title since 1982.

One man who was decidedly not mediocre was the great Albert Pujols, who batted .331, hit 49 home runs, racked up 137 RBIs and finished second in the MVP voting. Scott Rolen had a good year at third base, with 22 homers and 95 RBIs. Chris Carpenter was steady in the rotation, winning 15 games and placing third in the final Cy Young vote.

But beyond that, St. Louis was average, finishing sixth in the National League for runs scored and ninth in staff ERA.

Even so, there was no great competitor in the NL Central and in mid-September, the Cardinals held a seven-game lead over the Cincinnati Reds. Then, St. Louis started to spiral downward and out of control. If the Reds had been the team who had gotten hot, the Cards may not have lived to see October. But it was the Astros, led by first baseman Lance Berkman, who launched an improbable stretch drive.

In the span of a week, Houston closed to within 3 ½ games. There was still just a week left, but the meltdown continued, and by the final weekend, the margin was down to a mere half-game. St. Louis controlled the half, but that was about all that was going for them.

On the final Friday, they got some breathing room, getting a win, while the Astros lost. The next day, the Cardinals trailed 2-0 against the Milwaukee Brewers. With the race looking ready to extend, St. Louis finally rallied with three in the eighth, got the win and put the race to bed. Even so, with a record of 83-78 and playing their worst baseball in September, no one was watching the Cardinals all that closely in this year’s postseason.

All eyes were on the city of New York. The Yankees and Mets were both soaring coming into the playoffs, each with records of 97-65 and each holding homefield advantage.

The Yankees had the most potent offense in baseball. Derek Jeter hit .343 and finished second in the MVP voting. Alex Rodriguez hit 35 home runs and drove in 121 runs. Robinson Cano, at the tender age of 23, hit .342. Jorge Posada had a big year behind the plate, with a .374 on-base percentage/.492 slugging percentage. And New York had scored a coup in free agency when they got centerfielder Johnny Damon away from their archrivals in Boston. Damon had a .359 OBP/.482 slugging.

Yankee pitching wasn’t dominant. But they had Chien-Ming Wang, the Cy Young runner-up winning 19 games. Mike Mussina won 15 more. Randy Johnson had a 5.00 ERA, but with this offense, he still won 17 games. And the great Mariano Rivera was closing games and posting a 1.80 ERA.

Right up until mid-August, a vintage Yankees-Red Sox race in the AL East was shaping up. New York went to Fenway Park for an anticipated five-game series. In a stunning development, the Yankees swept all five games. The AL East was effectively blown open and New York kept pulling away, to an easy division title.

Across the city in Queens, the Mets had an even easier division run. They were led by Carlos Beltran, who hit 41 homers and drove in 116 runs. Jose Reyes was at shortstop and batted .300 while stealing 64 bases. Carlos Delgado had a big year at first base, with 38 homers and 114 ribbies. On the other side of the infield at third, David Wright batted .311, popped 26 homers and drove in 116 runs.

Even though the Philadelphia Phillies had the eventual NL MVP in first baseman Ryan Howard, and even though the Atlanta Braves had won this division every year going back to 1991, no one could touch the Mets. They blew it open in early summer, were up twelve games by the All-Star break and were never challenged thereafter.

What happens if you stage a pennant race, and no one shows up? That was the fate of the AL Central and NL West. Both divisions saw their races go to the final day of the season. But the playoff format of the time—one wild-card, along with the three division winners—meant there was no discernible difference in how you got in, just so long as you got in. And the contenders in each division had their spots sewed up by the final weekend.

The AL Central playoff teams were the Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers. The Twins had the American League’s major award winners. First baseman Justin Morneau captured the MVP, with a .321 batting average, 34 home runs and 130 RBIs. Johan Santana took home the Cy Young Award with a 19-6 record, 2.77 ERA and 233 innings pitched. The stars got support from Tori Hunter and Michael Cuddyer in the outfield, who combined for 55 homers and 207 RBIs. Joe Mauer emerged as the league’s best catcher. And in the bullpen, Joe Nathan saved 36 games with a 1.58 ERA.

Detroit’s everyday lineup was balanced. Carlos Guillen hit .320 at shortstop and four players—third baseman Brandon Inge, leftfielder Craig Monroe, rightfielder Magglio Ordonez and DH Marcus Thames all hit 20-plus home runs. The pitching staff had a pair of 17-game winners at opposite ends of the career spectrum—Kenny Rogers was 41, and a precocious Justin Verlander was 23. Jeremy Bonderman added 14 victories of his own.

The Twins took a while to get started, and for at least half the season, the team the Tigers did battle with was the defending World Series champion Chicago White Sox. The White Sox could hit. Jermaine Dye and Paul Konerko had great all-around years. Jim Thome ripped 42 bombs and Joe Crede added 30 more. But pitching, the strength of the championship run, fell off badly.

At the All-Star break, Detroit only led Chicago by two games. By Labor Day, that margin had nudged out to 4 ½, but Minnesota was now in the rearview mirror, just five games off the pace. The White Sox kept fading. The Twins kept surging. Both Minnesota and Detroit made the playoffs, which covered up a bad Tiger slump down the stretch. The Twins stole the AL Central title on the final day.

In the NL West, the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers staged a reprise of 1996, another year where they both fought for first place to the final day but had already clinched their playoff berths.

The Padres did it with the best pitching in the National League. The rotation didn’t have stars, but they also didn’t have weak spots. And their closer, Trevor Hoffman, was one of the all-time greats. With 46 saves and a 2.14 ERA, Hoffman finished second in the Cy Young voting. The offense had problems, but they also had 23-year-old first baseman Adrian Gonzalez batting .304 and hitting 24 home runs. Mike Piazza was nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career at age 37, but he still homered 22 times. And another veteran, Dave Roberts, batted .293 and swiped 49 bases.

The Dodgers had a pair of 16-game winners at the top of their rotation in Derek Lowe and Brad Penny. They had excellent relievers, with Jonathan Broxton in setup and Takashi Saito closing. Offensively, Andre Ethier and Kenny Lofton each hit .300. And J.D. Drew was the most complete offensive threat, with a .393 OBP, .498 slugging percentage and 100 RBIs.

It was Arizona who went to the early lead in the NL West, but even with Cy Young winner Brandon Webb anchoring the rotation, the Diamondbacks had slipped five games out by the All-Star break and never recovered, ultimately finishing ten games under .500. Los Angeles held a three-game lead over San Diego by Labor Day. The wild-card was still far from secure, with Philadelphia leading several challengers to the NL West runner-up.

The Phillies stayed in the race to the final week, with the Dodgers and Padres continuing to joust. On the final Saturday, Los Angeles and San Diego both won, eliminating Philadelphia, and clinching their playoff spots. The Dodgers and Padres were tied for first, but now it was irrelevant. They both won their finales, San Diego got the tiebreaker and with the distinction between division champ and wild-card nearly irrelevant in a four-team bracket, there was no one-game playoff scheduled.

Oakland filled out the playoff bracket in the AL West. The A’s got good pitching, led by Barry Zito winning 16 games in the rotation and Huston Street saving 37 in the pen. The offense was mediocre, but it had signature performers in the legendary Frank Thomas and up-and-coming Nick Swisher. Thomas, at the age of 38, hit 39 home runs and racked up 114 RBIs. Swisher ripped 35 homers of his own.

It took the A’s a while to get started, and they trailed the Texas Rangers early. But Oakland pulled even by the All-Star break and pulled away in late summer, moving to a 7 ½ game edge by Labor Day and coasting home.

The Division Series rounds didn’t provide a lot of drama, but they did have their share of surprises. The Mets-Dodgers series was not one of them. New York scored 19 runs in three games and swept Los Angeles home. But the reversal of fortune elsewhere was noteworthy.

After closing strong, Minnesota’s bats went silent, and they were swept three straight by Oakland. After closing poorly, St. Louis found their pitching—they held San Diego to six runs in four games and took home a 3-1 series win.

And nothing was more shocking than what took place with the Yankees and Tigers. It started off normal enough, with New York registering an 8-4 win at home to get it going, then taking a lead late into Game 2 the following afternoon. At which point, the Yanks completely fell apart. Detroit rallied and won Game 2. Rogers threw a shutout, and the Tigers easily took Game 3 at home. With momentum restored, Detroit routed New York 8-3 in Game 4 and pulled a big series upset.

That momentum carried Detroit right into the ALCS against Oakland. The Tigers went on the road and scored 13 runs to take Games 1 & 2. A shutout win in Game 3 put them on the brink. And in Game 4, in a 3-3 tie, Magglio Ordonez started the celebration with a three-run walkoff blast that put Detroit in the World Series for the first time since their championship year of 1984.

St. Louis now had a little mojo themselves, and they were aided by the fact the Mets’ rotation, save for Glavine, was becoming an injury riddled mess. After losing the opener, the Cardinals scored 14 runs over the next two games to take the series lead. The teams started trading wins and it went to a decisive seventh game.

Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS belongs on any list of classic baseball games and carried the load for a postseason that otherwise lacked dramatic moments. In the top of the ninth, with the game tied 1-1, Yadier Molina hit a two-run blast to give the Cardinals a 3-1 lead. The Mets countered by loading the bases with two outs. Beltran came to the plate against a young Adam Wainwright. A magnificent swooping curveball froze Beltran into a called third strike and St. Louis had the pennant.

St. Louis and Detroit had both recovered from their September skids and were set to met in a Middle America Fall Classic. The Series opened in Detroit, and the Cardinals were able to get a road split. Then they took over back home, winning three straight games and closing it out. It wasn’t a dramatic end to the 2006 baseball season. The Cardinals weren’t going to be regarded as an all-time great champion. But after seeing genuinely great teams come up short the two years prior, this was still absolutely a title that the great baseball city of St. Louis had earned.