The St. Louis Cardinals are playing in their 12th National League Championship Series, more than any other team. (The Los Angeles Dodgers are appearing in their 10th. Somehow the two franchises have only met for the National League pennant once before.) The NLCS and I were both born in 1969, so consider this a fully authorized countdown of nine (actually ten) unforgettable Cardinal moments.
9) 2006, Game 2
It’s easy to forget what prohibitive favorites the New York Mets were in this series. They had won 97 games (to the Cardinals’ 83). Their lineup was centered around sluggers David Wright, Carlos Delgado, and Cardinal-killer Carlos Beltran. Having won Game 1, New York aimed to put a stranglehold on the series at Shea Stadium and led 6-4 after six innings. But St. Louis scratched back with two runs in the seventh, setting up So Taguchi’s heroics in the ninth. Playing in his first major-league postseason (after relearning the craft of baseball as a Memphis Redbird), Taguchi yanked a Billy Wagner pitch over the leftfield wall. And a series turned.
8) 2011, Game 2
The Cardinals (wild cards) were again the underdog, facing the division-champion Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park. The Brewers had slugged their way to a 9-6 win in Game 1, and St. Louis was staring at a series in which they’d have to out-flex Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, and friends. They did so in Game 2, Albert Pujols delivering a home run and three doubles, and David Freese his second homer in as many days (on his way to MVP honors) in a 12-3 victory. Two weeks later, the entire baseball world knew the name David Freese for good.
7) 1987, Game 7 If the Cardinals have seen a less-likely NLCS hero than So Taguchi, it may have been their “secret weapon” (for his multiple positions) of the late Eighties, Jose Oquendo. This series with the San Francisco Giants was heated, emotional. Jeffrey “One Flap Down” Leonard would earn MVP honors despite his team losing the series. Will Clark and Ozzie Smith developed a loathing for one another that would last another decade. So when Oquendo drilled a three-run homer off Atlee Hammaker to give the Cards a 4-0 second-inning lead, Busch Stadium roared with a rare dose of fury.
6) 2006, Game 7
Yadier Molina was known solely for his skills as a catcher in 2006. He’d hit .216 with six homers in 461 plate appearances that season. But with the pennant on the line in an excruciatingly tight (1-1) game at Shea Stadium, Molina rose to the occasion in the ninth inning and drilled a two-run home run off Aaron Heilman. (This after the Mets’ Endy Chavez had pulled a Scott Rolen dinger back into play three innings earlier.) In the bottom of the inning, rookie closer Adam Wainwright struck out Carlos Beltran with the winning runs on base to clinch the pennant.
5) 1985, Game 6
Leading 5-4 at home, the Dodgers were three outs away from forcing Game 7. Dodger closer Tom Niedenfuer struck out Cesar Cedeno, but then allowed a single to Willie McGee and walked Ozzie Smith. Tommy Herr grounded out, leaving Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda with a decision: pitch to the Cardinals’ only real home-run threat (Jack Clark), or face Any Van Slyke. The Dodgers pitched to Clark, and Jack the Ripper deposited Niedenfuer’s first delivery in the leftfield bleachers. Remarkably, it was the second biggest home run of that NLCS.
4) 2004, Games 6 and 7
These two memories blur into one, as the same Cardinal hero is central. Facing elimination at home in Game 6, the Cardinals battled Houston into extra innings. With one out and a man on in the 12th, Jim Edmonds — one for five with a pair of strikeouts to that point — crushed a Dan Miceli pitch into the right-centerfield stands, flexing both arms before he made it out of the batter’s box. The Cardinals had life, and their first walk-off homer in the NLCS in 19 years. In Game 7, with Houston leading 1-0 in the second inning and two men on, Edmonds made a diving catch in left-center to rob Astro catcher Brad Ausmus of at least one RBI. The Cardinals clawed their way back against Roger Clemens to win their first pennant in 17 years.
3) 2005, Game 5
Albert Pujols won a pair of World Series and three MVP awards, but the home run he hit in a series his Cardinals would lose will forever play in the minds of St. Louis baseball fans. With two outs in the top of the ninth in Houston — the Cards trailing three games to one and 4-2 on the scoreboard — David Eckstein singled and Jim Edmonds drew a walk, bringing up Pujols for a confrontation with Astros closer Brad Lidge. After swinging and missing Lidge’s first pitch, the Cardinal slugger launched the next one into the stratosphere (well, were it not for Minute Made Park’s roof). Watching the replay isn’t complete without seeing Astro pitcher Andy Pettitte utter, “Oh my god” as the rocket soared.
2) 1985, Game 5
Every Cardinal fan knows where he or she was at the time. I was at a high school soccer practice, preparing for my own playoff game. I’d rely on replays to capture the moment. And it’s a replay I’ve seen more than any other. The setting: series tied at two games, score tied at two, bottom of the ninth at Busch Stadium. Jack Buck’s most famous call: “Smith corks one down the line ... it may go ... Go crazy folks! Go crazy! The Cardinals have won the game, by a score of 3-2, on a home run by the Wizard!” Ozzie Smith hasn’t paid for a dinner in St. Louis since.
1) 1982, Game 3
The month before, I had moved from Southern California to central Vermont. Couldn’t have felt further from Cardinal Country. But thanks to a family connection in Atlanta — my mom’s Uncle J.C. — I landed a pair of tickets to the three NLCS games scheduled to be played in the Braves’ ballpark. The Cardinals only needed one (having won the first two games in St. Louis when the NLCS was still a best-of-five). Willie McGee homered and tripled. Hall of Fame-bound Bruce Sutter retired the last seven Braves. And a 13-year-old boy flew home with a smile that’s lasted 31 years. n