Commentary

In victory and defeat

Cardinals discover talent, toughness; Rangers should not overreact to crushing loss

Originally Published: October 29, 2011
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- At any point over the next days or several years, whenever the St. Louis Cardinals players or their legions of fans raise the glass that was the 2011 season to their noses, absorbing the bouquet, they will each day discover and appreciate a new scent, a new championship aroma that will not soon grow tired.

The championship characteristics, year after year, are all so similar, yet each club reserves the right to claim its uniqueness. St. Louis may one day savor as defining the moments during the late summer when the despair of being out of the race turned into the goal of making a lost season respectable, which then turned to cautious hope and then to the bold realization that the playoffs were a possibility. Or maybe it was Game 2 of the division series, trailing by a game after being destroyed 11-6 in the opener against Philadelphia and 4-0 in the second against the great Cliff Lee and the supposedly unstoppable Phillies -- but finding a way to win that game, and then the series. Or maybe it will be the obvious headliner, the stunning Game 6 of the World Series, when the season was over, and all hope a memory and the Texas Rangers were, for all pieces of the conversation, World Series champions -- until, alas, they weren't.

[+] EnlargeAllen Craig
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesAllen Craig hit three home runs and drove in five runs in the World Series for the Cardinals.

Or maybe it will be a discovery anticipated but not yet realized, that this sudden and historic and deserving World Series champion has created an unexpected foundation of talent and toughness that will serve the organization well in the coming years.

After seven raucous and stirring games -- when, as the end drew near, it became clear that there was no amount of runs, no dearth of outs that this club could not overcome, so much so that even a quick 2-0, top-of-the-first-inning deficit in Game 7 did not appear disconcerting -- the St. Louis Cardinals are World Series champions, not only resurrected from the crypt to shock the devastated and disheartened Rangers and themselves, but also in spirit. The business of the sport will take over once the champagne dries, and while the name Albert Pujols will dominate the Cardinals' offseason agenda, the heroics of Chris Carpenter, Allen Craig, Jason Motte, Lance Berkman and the NLCS and World Series MVP, David Freese, suggest that while a Pujols departure would leave the enormous hole left by an icon, it would not rob this team of an identity it had lost for much of the first 100 games but regained during a spirited September and triumphant October.

"I keep thinking about mid-August and the mood of the team and the disappointment about what was going down," Freese said, perhaps referring to the revival of the Cardinals from a 50-46 team to a contender. "And Carp got us together and said, 'The fans deserve us to make a run at this. … They deserve this as much as anyone else.'"

For what the Cardinals truly discovered, or rediscovered during this title run -- when Freese broke Neftali Feliz a strike from winter Wednesday night, and then the Rangers for good two innings later -- was the importance of toughness and chemistry and, most importantly, of pride. In a game of millionaires, all supposedly detached, the Cardinals regrouped by rededicating themselves to liking what they saw in the mirror.

On July 19, the Cardinals lost to the Mets 6-5 in 10 innings and then meandered to the trade deadline. Colby Rasmus was dealt. Octavio Dotel, Corey Patterson, Marc Rzepczynski and Edwin Jackson arrived.

"We have more talent than people think, but this team has great guts," manager Tony La Russa said.

The meeting -- and there is always one on a winning team, yet without the accompanying talent and dedication lends itself to tired cliché -- was led by Carpenter. "It wasn't just me. There were a few of us that felt that something had to be said, and it wasn't about, 'We need to clean up and start playing better to win the World Series,'" Carpenter said. "It was, "We need to start playing like the St. Louis Cardinals play baseball.' So we sat down, and a few of us spoke. Albert spoke. I spoke. Lance spoke, and I think Gerald Laird spoke, because he was on that team that fought back to be able to play that 163rd game that year against the Twins.

"It was about not embarrassing ourselves. It was continuing to play hard, to give something to our fans, no matter if we won or didn't win."

The Cardinals found something more than a championship Friday night; they found an identity that was forged in the defeat of Lee, then Roy Halladay, then the nemesis, upstart Brewers, and finally here on the big stage, when the tank was empty, save for a drop. They rediscovered, earlier in the season, their professionalism.

"You've got to practice what you preach, especially if you think you have a legitimate chance to compete," La Russa said. "It's a long season. If you watch the history of baseball, teams come back, and sometimes they could have come back but they give in or give up. And I knew the character on our team, the coaches knew the character. We just challenged them to don't give up, to win some games so we can gain some respect, and then it got better. They just grabbed that and played every game like it was the last. They were relentless until the end."

Devastating losses have devastating consequences, and the Texas Rangers, each and every one of them, from Nolan Ryan to Jon Daniels, Neftali Feliz to Alexi Ogando to Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli to Ron Washington will feel this series tomorrow, next year and every day into old age. Being a strike away from a championship in consecutive innings is a hurt that will never go away. It can only be managed. Failing to reach a goal so close to the fingertips can change lives, change careers, change the direction and history of a franchise.

Washington walked the long walk from the field to the clubhouse after the season was over, himself and his team proud but diminished, a little smaller, as beaten teams are when the battle ends. The pressure that will descend upon the Rangers over the next 72 hours will be enormous, when the wound of defeat is at its freshest, and the desire to vent, to blame, to explain will do its best to suffocate the organization. As the winter progresses, each decision of the postseason, each championship point will be reviewed and dissected. From Washington's use of Esteban German in Game 1 to a lineup that was always bottom-heavy, more dangerous from hitters five through eight in the postseason than it was in the top four spots.

Washington will feel the pain of the losing, and the secondary pain of being eternally questioned, which losing leads to. If not by his answer, he will be haunted by the questions of why, with a two-run lead in the 10th inning, did he remove Feliz facing the bottom two hitters and the pitcher when La Russa was out of players? Though he blew a save, Feliz had thrown only 22 pitches in the ninth and seemed to have the advantage to overpower Daniel Descalso and Jon Jay. Washington went with Darren Oliver.

Why was Cruz in the game with a bad groin with a two-run lead with a better defensive player, Endy Chavez, on the bench? Perhaps Chavez catches the Freese's long fly ball and Washington and Texas are champions.

Or why didn't Derek Holland start Game 7 instead of Matt Harrison, for whom the moment seemed too large, especially when the majority of the Cardinals' runs in the deciding game came from Texas charity -- walks, hit batsmen, fear -- than from the superior acumen of the other side.

The Rangers will suffer these wrenching replays all winter, for the next 20 years or until they eventually win a championship, the same way Boston Red Sox fans for years agonized that Darrell Johnson removed Jim Willoughby in 1975 or that Don Zimmer let Mike Torrez pitch to Bucky Dent in '78, the same way Cardinals fans loathe Don Denkinger and (until last year) San Francisco Giants fans loved but couldn't forgive Dusty Baker for handing Russ Ortiz the ball in Game 6 of 2002.

These agonies are the unfortunate coin of the realm for the losing team, the human desire to assess blame, to find a reason for the unacceptable outcome, when the truth is the Rangers had everything they wanted in exactly the situation they wanted to win a world championship. Regardless of Washington's lineup, his use of the bullpen, his route to the finish line, the truth of the Texas Rangers in 2011 is that they were a strike away with a two-run lead and their pitcher of choice on the mound. They had, as Washington said after the Game 6 KO, everything they wanted.

The Rangers, Daniels, Ryan and the baseball inner circle, in particular, also must deny themselves the urge to overreact while being cognizant of whatever core personnel reasons they believe might account for why the Rangers did not win the World Series. Washington is a growing, emerging leader. Throughout the postseason he deferred to his more seasoned opponents, La Russa and Jim Leyland, humble that he might one day have their managerial experience and résumé. The Rangers over the course of the season and playoffs won and lost with Washington, the victories far outweighing the mistakes. Washington has changed the culture in Texas from losing to winning, and he too must continue to grow and be allowed to grow, just as players such as Feliz and Ogando must. For all the discussion of the Cardinals' heart and toughness and togetherness, the Rangers must also live with the fact that they had overcome St. Louis, overpowered the Cardinals, but in the key championship moments were just slightly leaky, just slightly unnerved, just sloppy enough to leave open doors that should have been slammed shut.

"This is a championship-caliber team," Michael Young said following Game 7. "What else can we do to get better? Make Nellie two feet taller so he catches that ball? We just have to come back, rededicate, work harder. We don't need to make any changes on this ballclub."

It is also true that the Rangers are enjoying the most successful period in their history, and losing the World Series does not change that.

[+] EnlargeAlexi Ogando
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireAfter being dominant in the ALCS, Alexi Ogando struggled mightily in the World Series for the Rangers.

Since 1920, six teams have lost consecutive World Series: the 1921-22 Yankees, the 1923-24 Giants, the 1952-53 Dodgers, the 1963-64 Yankees, the 1977-78 Dodgers and the 1991-92 Braves, and all of those teams within a five-year period won championships, either before the losses or within three years after. The Rangers, should they avoid the panic impulse, are knocking on the door.

For a cue, Daniels should look to Bobby Cox and the Braves, who lost a difficult Game 6 and ultimately the 1991 World Series only to win a thrilling NLCS the next year and lose at home to the Toronto Blue Jays in the World Series in six games. Three years later, the Braves would win the World Series over Cleveland and continue a reign of excellence that is still the envy of executives throughout the game. They did not change managers, or general managers, but instead believed in their personnel and ultimately became a championship team.

"When opportunity is in your presence, you certainly can't let it get away, because sometimes it takes a while before it comes back," Washington said. "If there's one thing that happened in this World Series that I'll look back on it is being so close, just having one pitch to be made and one out to be gotten, and it could have been a different story.

"We're going to walk proud," Washington said. "The Texas Rangers organization has a lot to look forward to, and we are certainly willing and able and have deep plans to meet that challenge."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" He can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42 or reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com.