By now, you are probably aware that the Yankees and Red Sox, baseball’s highest held rivalry, are meeting in the the ALDS. You may not realize — considering the success of both franchises over the last 14 years — that this is their first postseason match-up since the historic 2004 ALCS. That was the series in which the Red Sox rallied to win after being down 3 games to 0, before moving on to sweep the Cardinals and break the Curse of the Bambino. That Championship Series is undoubtedly one of the greatest in the games history.
However, during the same week, another incredible series took place. A series that, had it not been for the massive shadow of New York/Boston, would have easily garnered consideration for the best postseason series of the decade.
It was the NLCS between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Houston Astros.
I got to thinking about this series after seeing the following exchange on Twitter:
Upon reading that, I couldn’t help but agree wholeheartedly with Jayson Stark. He was 100% spot on, on a couple levels.
- It was, in fact, a great postseason series.
- Many folks lost awareness of the NLCS as soon as the Red Sox began their push. It dominated the headlines. Perfect evidence of how little the general public knew/knows about this series came in the replies to Stark’s tweet. Among the first 5 responses, 4 directly referenced the Lidge/Pujols HR from 2005.
- A huge portion of the population wasn’t even able to see the Cardinals and Astros play. At the time, Fox was broadcasting both series, with game times staggered. With the Yankees and Red Sox playing extremely long games, the network in most markets stayed on that series, whereas the NLCS was limited — for the most part — to the St. Louis and Houston viewing areas.
It’s crazy to think that baseball was willing to not have all postseason games available nationally at that time, considering how prominent TV deals are in the sports landscape a decade and a half later.
Anyway, let’s expand on the first point. The one about it being a great postseason series. With the Yankees/BoSox redux beginning tonight, we might as well take a trip down memory lane and explore the “other” series from 2004.
Starting in 1996, the Cardinals and Astros were the NL Central. During the 9 season span from ’96-’04, the two teams accounted for 8 of the 9 division championships. With the Cardinals winning the Wild Card in ’01 and Houston doing the same in ’04, they totaled 10 playoff berths in the years leading up to this series.
While the Cubs were the traditional rival, the Cardinals and Astros were contemporary. The two teams constantly battled back and forth during the regular season. In my mind, this fiery rivalry of the early Oughts was better — from a baseball standpoint — than the Cubs rivalry has been in my life. Bagwell, Biggio, Berkman, Beltran, and Kent vs. Pujols, Edmonds, Rolen, Renteria, and Walker. This thing was stacked with talent. It was knock-down, drag-out between two teams that did not like each other whatsoever.
It didn’t help when the teams finished with identical records in 2001 — Houston winning the head-to-head tiebreaker to be the division champions — and the Wild Card Cardinals elected to raise a “NL Central Co-Champions” banner at Busch Stadium, on full display when the Astros came to town 12 days into the 2002 season.
It was salty, to say the least.
To add to the intrigue of the the 2004 NLCS, Carlos Beltran was in the midst of his postseason-for-the-ages, hitting .455 with 4 HR’s in the NLDS.
Score: Cardinals – 10, Astros – 7
This game started exactly as anticipated. Craig Biggio reached base and then Carlos Beltran hit a 2-run HR. The tone was set.
Or was it?
The Cardinals responded immediately with Albert Pujols launching a 2-run shot of his own in the bottom of the 1st. A 2-2 tie, and the back and forth that would define the series was established. Now, the tone was set.
In the 4th, Jeff Kent would add another 2-run HR to put Houston ahead.
After an intense 5 innings, the Cardinals pulled away with a 6-run 6th, capped by a 2-out, bases clearing, 3-run double by Jim Edmonds.
Score: Cardinals – 6, Astros – 4
The pitching match-up was Matt Morris vs. Pete Munro.
Once again, Carlos Beltran tried to set the tone with a 1st inning HR.
Seriously, this guy was absolutely out of his mind.
A 4th inning HR by Morgan Ensberg and a 5th inning RBI Single by Berkman put the Astros up 3-0 as the Cardinals scattered just 4 hits in the first 4 innings against Munro.
Finally, they broke through in the 5th. Much like in Game 1, the Cardinals did serious damage with 2 outs. After Tony Womack used his speed to out run a double play and keep the inning alive, should-be-Hall-of-Famer Larry Walker cracked a 2-out, 2-run HR to put the Cardinals on the board. Pujols followed with a single, chasing Munro. Scott Rolen greeted Chad Harville with a 2-out, 2-run HR of his own to put the Cardinals ahead.
Houston would tie the game at 4 in the 7th against Kiko Calero.
Then in the bottom of the 8th, Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen tagged Dan Miceli for back-to-back solo HR’s to put the Cardinals ahead for good.
No small feat, Isringhausen navigated his way through Beltran, Bagwell, Berkman, Kent, and Ensberg to lock down the save in the 9th.
Score: Astros – 5, Cardinals – 2
With the series heading to Houston, the Cardinals finally had to go through the teeth of the Astros pitching staff. Clemens and Oswalt awaited them at Minute Maid Park. Clemens was up first.
The Cardinals opened this game with a Larry Walker HR.
The Astros clapped back with a Berkman RBI single (scoring Beltran, who was on base, of course) and a 2-run Jeff Kent HR.
The Cardinals pulled the game within a run when Jim Edmonds hit a solo HR to open the Top of the 2nd.
And that is where the game stayed for a while as the Starters settled in.
After allowing 3 hits and a walk in the 1st, Suppan allowed just 3 more base runners over his next 5 innings.
Clemens bested him by allowing just 1 hit and 2 walks over his final 5 frames.
Brad Lidge entered in the 8th for a 2-inning save in a 1-run game. The Astros provided him with insurance, hitting solo HR’s off of Dan Haren to put the game away in the 8th.
Score: Astros – 6, Cardinals – 5
WP: Dan Wheeler – LP: Julian Tavarez – SV: Lidge
Jason Marquis could not keep Houston off the board as Beltran scored on a Bagwell double in the bottom half.
Edmonds added a sacrifice fly in the 3rd to push the lead to 4-1, but the Astros pulled with 1 on a Berkman double in the bottom of that inning.
Pujols put the Cardinals ahead 5-3 in the 4th with a single. Jason Marquis then finished off 5 innings, handing a 2-run lead to the bullpen, giving the Cardinals a chance to go up 3-1 in the series.
Unfortunately, Berkman greeted Calero with a solo HR in the 6th and a Raul Chavez single tied the game at 5 later in the inning.
Then came the bottom of the 8th.
After a fly out to open the inning, Julian Tavarez gave up the game breaking HR to Carlos Beltran. Chaos ensued as he walked Bagwell, threw a wild pitch to Berkman, subsequently walked Berkman intentionally, hit Jeff Kent, and — by some miracle — got a double play off the bat of Ensberg.
Upon returning to the dugout, Tavarez picked a fight the the bullpen phone…and lost.
The ‘Stros hung on behind Lidge to even the series at 2 games each.
Score: Astros – 3, Cardinals – 0
WP: Brad Lidge – LP: Isringhausen
After the back (and hand) breaking loss in Game 4, the Cardinals offense just couldn’t get off the mat in Game 5. Brandon Backe — tagged for 4 runs in Game 1 — would hold the Cardinals to just 1 hit and 2 walks over 8 shutout innings.
Woody Williams was there to match him, as the Houston native dealt 7 shutout innings, also allowing just 1 hit and 2 walks.
This was a duel.
With the series edge hanging in the balance, just imagine the anxiety being experienced by fans on both sides throughout the entirety of this game. At any moment, in a series chock full of big hits and timely HR’s, someone was going to break through and win the game.
It finally happened in the bottom of the 9th.
Isringhausen had followed Williams with a 1-2-3 8th inning. Trying to force extra innings with their closer on the mound, Izzy and the Cardinals would find no quarter in the final frame. After a single by Beltran, a fly out by Bagwell, and steal by Beltran, the Birds elected to intentionally pass Lance Berkman to keep the double-play in play with Jeff Kent at the plate.
A ground ball would have sent it to the 10th at 0-0.
Kent instead pounded a line drive into the Crawford Boxes for a walk-off HR.
Astros lead the series 3-2. Oh how the tables have turned.
Score: Cardinals – 6, Astros – 4
WP: Tavarez – LP: Miceli
The Cardinals had their backs against the wall as the series returned to Busch. By this time, the series in the Northeast had reached a fever pitch, and this one, though growing more intense by the inning, was an also-ran.
The Cardinals turned to their “Ace” in Matt Morris, while the Astros elected to pitch Pete Munro again instead of using Clemens on short rest. With a 3-2 series lead, they rolled the dice knowing that the Rocket was looming for Game 7.
After a 1st inning Sac Fly (scoring Beltran) put the Astros up, Albert Pujols flipped the scored with a 2-run shot for the Cardinals.
Houston evened the score in the 3rd on a Bagwell double (Beltran scored, again). Finally getting in on the action, Edgar Renteria put St. Louis up 4-2 with a 2-run single.
Mike Lamb added a solo HR in the 4th to make it 4-3. However, Morris and the Cardinals bullpen made that lead stand up over the next 4 innings.
With the availability of Julian Tavarez in question, LaRussa turned to Izzy for a 2-inning save just 2 days after his inning-plus outing had gone awry in Game 5. The 8th was no problem, but a 2-out RBI single from Jeff Bagwell would tie the game at 4 in the 9th inning.
Heroically, Izzy would pitch the 10th inning as well, setting the Astros down in order.
Then entered the boxer, Tavarez, looking to avenge his Game 4 loss. He retired all 6 batters he faced, pushing the game to the bottom of the 12th, still tied at 4.
Then, with 1 out and Pujols on 1st, Thom Brennaman had the call…
“Edmonds hit 42 home runs during the regular season (CRACK) AND WE ARE GOING TO GAME NUMBER 7 IN THE NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES!!!”
Jimmy Ballgame, with a double fist-pump, deposited a Dan Miceli fastball into the Cardinals’ bullpen. With the 2nd walk-off HR in as many games, the series was even at 3.
Score: Cardinals – 5, Astros – 2
WP: Jeff Suppan – LP: Roger Clemens – SV: Isringhausen
A day after the Red Sox had completed their epic comeback — therefore owning the news reel on October 21st and turning the Jim Edmonds walk-off into a low-priority talking point — the Cardinals were set to face the Astros in their own winner-take-all game.
Roger Clemens, 2004’s NL Cy Young award winner was on the mound against Jeff “Word of the Day” Suppan.
Though the game opened poorly with a Biggio HR, Soup held the Astros to 2 runs (1 earned) on just 3 hits over 6 innings, going toe-to-toe with his former Boston teammate.
He was helped out by his CF in the 2nd inning.
With runners on 1st and 2nd with just 1 out, Brad Ausmus ripped a line drive into the left-center field gap. Racing back and going into an all-out dive with his back to 2B, Jim Edmonds made as dramatic of a catch as we will ever see. The brilliant play robbed Ausmus of what would have surely been a 2-run double, putting the Cardinals down 3-0 while facing Clemens. Jimmy didn’t let that happen.
Clemens was dominant early on, allowing just 1 hit with no walks across the first 4 frames, and just 3 hits over the first 5. The lone run allowed during that time came on a squeeze play, with Jeff Suppan laying down a bunt to score Womack from 3B.
But despite his best efforts on the mound, Suppan sent the Cardinals to the bottom of the 6th down 2-1.
Leading off the 6th, pinch hitter Roger Cedeño singled. A bunt and groundout would put him on 3B with 2 outs.
Albert Pujols stepped in.
He lined a 2-strike double into LF, scoring Cedeño and tying the game at 2.
Then, before Clemens could process the situation, with the Last great Cookie Cutter reaching Metallica-like decibel levels, should-be-Hall-of-Famer Scott Rolen ripped the first pitch he saw off the left edge of the McBride & Sons Homes sign in the LF corner, breaking the tie and sending St. Louis into a frenzy.
Personally, I leapt off my couch — seemingly 5 feet into the air — and took off running out the front door, sprinting around my yard with fist raised, until the excitement of the moment could subside.
Calero, Tavarez, and Isringhausen would combine to retire 9 of the final 10 Astros’ batters to finish off the game and send the Cardinals to their first World Series since 1987.
Yes, the Cardinals lost in the World Series. Yes, it was a disappointing end to a 105-win campaign. They put up a fight in Game 1 at Fenway, but they appeared exhausted after the Astros had pushed them to their limits. They were effectively steamrolled in games 2-4.
But let’s not lose appreciation for an NLCS that saw the Cardinals win despite a .417/.563/.958 4 HR, 4 SB, 12 Run Scored performance by Carlos Beltran.
Let’s not overlook that, although Beltran was the one heralded for his feats in the ’04 playoffs, Albert Pujols bested him with a .500/.563/1.000 line and 4 HR’s of his own in the NLCS.
Let’s not forget that Rolen hit 3 HR’s in the series, with Walker and Edmonds both hitting 2 of their own.
Let’s not under-appreciate that this series was won with our best pitcher, Chris Carpenter, out with injury, and Jeff Suppan stepping up to out duel the Cy Young winner in Game 7.
Let’s not forget the back-to-back walk-off HR victories in Games 5 & 6. Or the, combined, 24 lead changes that occurred in the series along with 14 (FOURTEEN!!!) home runs that either tied the game or gave a team the lead.
Are you freaking kidding me?!
This was a remarkable series, the stuff of Cardinals legend.
I wish more people had been able to see it.
Thanks for Reading!