Congratulations to the Cardinals

“[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. “

A. Bartlett Giamatti

So the baseball season is over, and the Cardinals have prevailed. Volumes will be written in the next 24 hours about how “improbable” it was, and all of it will be true. There was no way to foresee this happening.

I counted at least three games that the Cubs just gave away to the Cardinals this year (on June 4, June 5, and September 24), and I’m sure there are several other games that the Cardinals won when they should have lost. But they found a way, and now they’re the champions, again.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but the decision to push Game 6 back by a day was a tremendous boon for the Cardinals, since it allowed Chris Carpenter to get the rest he needed to come back for Game 7. I would be surprised if Nolan Ryan and the Rangers organization don’t say something to Major League Baseball about this. What good can come from this I don’t know, but the Cardinals certainly did reap the benefits of this decision. But they won’t be giving the trophy back, either.

So we’ve reached the end of an outstanding season. And now is the time when we have to settle in to the offseason, which we haven’t seen for the past seven months. The 2011 season sure was a lot of fun while it lasted, though.

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Get ready for a huge number

At the start of this season, when it became clear that Albert Pujols and the Cardinals were not going to agree on a contract before the season, the thought of number 5 in a contract year was absolutely horrifying. The best player of his generation–and maybe of any generation–trying to put up numbers to show what his value might be? And if you were watching the World Series tonight, you saw that on full display.

Exactly how much will Albert Pujols be able to command on the open market this offseason? Do you think he settles for less to resign with the Cardinals, knowing how badly they have been underpaying him for a decade? That won’t happen, and it shouldn’t.

Think about it this way: Albert isn’t even the highest-paid player on his own team. That title goes to Matt Holliday, and has for a couple of seasons now. Albert and Chris Carpenter are on about the same pay scale, but Carpenter pitches every fifth day, while Albert plays every day at first base. Do you think that’s the way it should be? I sure don’t.

Let’s say that Albert is worth twice what he’s getting now. Can the Cardinals still afford Carpenter, or Holliday, or even Lance Berkman or Yadier Molina if they’re paying him that much? The answer is of course not. St. Louis can put other pieces around him, and they have, because he’s  so dramatically underpaid. And now it’s time to pay the man what he’s worth.

The presence of Prince Fielder on the free agent market might complicate things a bit.  Why pay Albert $25 million, when I can get Prince for $20 million and fill another roster spot with some good talent with the savings? I understand that thinking, and I think there will be a race to be the winner of the second-best first baseman derby. But there is no mistaking who the biggest prize of all will be, as soon as this World Series is over.

The game without any drama

When history looks back on the baseball games of last Wednesday night, the Red Sox/Orioles game in Baltimore and the Yankees/Rays game in Tampa will receive the lion’s share of the attention. The endings of the games were weirdly synchronized with each other, in a way that Hollywood would never be able to script.

But it does go beyond that, too. The sports establishment–and by that I mean ESPN–seems to have a vested interest in keeping the focus on the Red Sox and the Yankees as much as they can. Fans of those teams will deny it, of course, or perhaps they’ll just tell you they’re the two best teams, anyway.

The baseball media world was praying for the Yankees and Red Sox to meet in the playoffs, so they could bandy the word “epic” around a few hundred more times than they already have over the years.  But fate intervened, between Papelbon’s meltdown, Longoria’s bat, and an inexplicable quirk in the left field wall at the Trop. So no heaping dish of Yankees/Red Sox epicness this year. Sorry.

Then, as an afterthought, the Braves’ loss to the Phillies may get some discussion, especially since the game went into extra innings. They’ll mention the Braves collapse (but quickly point out that Boston’s was bigger), and probably leave it at that.

The game that will be largely ignored, though, is the one that was played in Houston that same night. And as much drama as the other three games, the fourth one was devoid of any drama at all, thanks to a five-run first by the Cardinals and the pitching brilliance of Chris Carpenter. And the Astros being the worst team in baseball, of course.

I’m not sure why Carpenter even took the mound to begin with. A big lead over an inferior opponent, what could go wrong? Injuries, that’s what. Why not just give him the night off, or let him throw five token innings to pad his 2011 win total? Saving him for the one-game playoff against the Braves–if necessary–also made a lot of sense. But it was Carpenter’s turn to pitch, and he went out and threw a two-hit complete game shutout. Unbelievable.

It was great for my fantasy team, which features Carpenter as one of the starters (Jon Lester, Johnny Cueto, and an ever-changing cast of characters are the others). A complete game shutout was the next best thing to a no-hitter in my league, and that’s probably why I paid any attention to it at all.

But Carpenter’s gem put the pressure squarely on the Braves. They already had the collapse on their minds, and seeing that the Cardinals were cruising to an easy win only made it worse. The Braves took it down to the wire, and beyond, even, but one great collapse deserves another, doesn’t it?