At the deepest point of the pit they dug themselves in August, the Cardinals gathered a team meeting, not so much for a Hollywood-style pep talk but for an airing of opinions, a moment to refocus, and a reminder, as several Cardinals later said, that they were once a contender about to be "embarrassed" by a .500 record.
That's the thing about team meetings in baseball. They lack drama. They don't provide a rallying cry as much as a reset button.
Meetings aren't always the beginning of something right.
They are often the end what's gone wrong.
"There isn't this pinnacle of energy that you reach and then sustain it. That old 'Win one for the Gipper!' isn't as effective in baseball," Cardinals outfielder and club compass Lance Berkman said. "A team meeting has more of a regrouping effect than anything else. That's how I would characterize a good team meeting. Let's regroup. Let's think. Then it's an encouragement for each individual to examine his role in this thing."
This "thing" became historic.
The day after being swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers at Busch Stadium inspired the meeting, the Cardinals began one of the most improbable and impressive monthlong comebacks in baseball history. The Cardinals trailed the Atlanta Braves by 10 1/2 games in the wild-card standings when they woke up on Aug. 25, and in the next six weeks went 23-9 to overtake Atlanta and claim the 2011 National League wild card. The deficit the Cardinals erased with a September surge is the largest in NL history.
On the ride, the Cardinals introduced us to "The Shredder" (Nick Punto's shirt-ripping alter ego), "Torty" (Allen Craig's pet tortoise and team mascot), rocker Carlos Santana's lucky necklace (which hangs around Tony La Russa's neck), and the getaway-day chant, "Happy flight!"
The first time this season they were alone atop the wild-card standings was Wednesday night after their victory. They pulled off this historic heist by becoming the team they imagined they were, not the team they had been.
"This team has always been good enough," Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said. "It's always had this potential to do what it's doing now. And now we have found this confidence building. There's no reason this can't happen for us."
How did the impossible happen?
Follow the pitching.
The Cardinals' 87 quality starts this season were the lowest total in the NL of any team with a winning record. But 20 of those came in the last six weeks of the season. The Cardinals' rotation went 14-3 with a 3.09 ERA in their last 32 games and 10-2 with a 2.86 ERA in September. Kyle Lohse, Edwin Jackson and Jaime Garcia all went 3-0 after the 10 1/2-game deficit. Combined, that trio and ace Chris Carpenter did not lose a game in September, going 9-0 with a 2.47 ERA in their final 20 starts of the regular season.
Carpenter's shutout in Houston was the emphatic exclamation point at the end of the best stretch of pitching by the Cardinals' rotation this season.
"Everybody wants to know, 'What happened?' 'How did this happen?'" Berkman said. "Well, that's how it happened. Our starting pitching has been outstanding. Really and truly. I would bet that our offense hasn't changed all that much. But we've won games."
The Cardinals finished the regular season with the most productive lineup in the league, scoring 762 runs, 27 more than any other team in the NL. In September, as the Cardinals authored their return to relevance, they scored a league-best 128 runs and hit .294, the only NL team to hit better than .270 in the month. The Cardinals also led the league in on-base percentage (.354) and on-base plus slugging percentage (.807). That meshed with the pitching to generate the momentum the Cardinals lacked in August.
The bullpen brought it all together.
Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak often described the machinations of the team in the past couple weeks — specifically the bullpen — as what they had "envisioned" after the trade deadline. It just took a month to sort out.
The victory Sunday that put the Cardinals back within reach of Atlanta exemplified the pitching staff and how Mozeliak rewired it. Jackson pitched seven innings and allowed two runs for the third consecutive quality start of the weekend before handing a tie game to lefty Marc Rzepczynski and veteran Octavio Dotel. That tandem did not allow a hit and bought time for Rafael Furcal's game-winning homer. All three of the pitchers came from Toronto in the Colby Rasmus trade. Furcal was added a few days later via a swap with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"When you think back to the trading deadline and what we were trying to accomplish in terms was we needed to have our starting pitching get strong and deeper into games," Mozeliak said. "Obviously, the bullpen became more credible and more functional. … I think when you tie all of that together (with the offense) and we've played cleaner (defense) it's all led to more of what we envisioned when this club was being put together.
"This is a credit to all of the players, the pre-trade players as well as the post-trade players," the architect concluded. "It's a collection of success."
With the starting staff augmented by Jackson and the bullpen restocked, it was one of those pre-trade players that fused it at the end. During the September run, Jason Motte emerged as the Cardinals' closer. Perhaps Motte was the first of the 2012 auditions, as all nine of his saves came after the 10 1/2-game low tide. The flamethrower appeared in 14 games this past month, and the Cardinals went 13-1 in those games.
It's the one that nearly cost them.
The Cardinals' ascendance as a wild-card contender did not come without its speed bumps. Fresh from a sweep of Atlanta that got them back in the race, the Cardinals faltered in Pittsburgh on Sept. 12. Three walks that night by the bullpen fueled the Pirates' 6-5 win and left the Cardinals with a 4 1/2-game deficit and 15 games remaining. The math got more daunting 10 days later, when the Cardinals came two outs away from reducing idle Atlanta's lead to a single game.
The Cardinals took a four-run lead into the ninth inning when La Russa, who had pushed his bullpen playoff-style for several weeks, called on Motte for a nonsave situation. Motte walked three, the Cardinals hemorrhaged six runs, and they fell two games back. It was the Mets' largest ninth-inning rally on the road since 1973, when Willie Mays was in their outfield. The Cardinals lost the next night, too, blowing a lead to the Cubs and falling three games behind Atlanta with five to play. That meant the Cardinals were going to have to pull off their biggest rally since 1964, when Lou Brock was in their outfield.
That's because for every hiccup there were multiple heights.
Having committed an error that cost the Cardinals in the loss to the Mets, Furcal gained redemption with his winning homer against the Cubs on Sunday. Subbing for Furcal and Matt Holliday on Tuesday, Punto and Craig combined to go six for eight with four runs scored, two homers and six RBIs as the Cardinals rallied from a 5-0 deficit in Houston. September call-up Adron Chambers had two pinch-hit appearances that spanned a total of 16 pitches and were pivotal to the wild-card chase. He also scored a walk-off run on a wild pitch.
And, on Sept. 9, Albert Pujols caused the first crack in Atlanta's foundation, delivering a two-out, two-run single in the ninth inning off Braves closer Craig Kimbrel. The hotshot rookie had not allowed a run since June 11.
Kimbrel blew two more saves, including Wednesday, as the Braves became cooperative in the Cardinals' comeback.
Pitching was the constant for the Cardinals.
Pujols was the hero one moment, Punto the next.
"A good team meeting forces somebody to analyze their own personal performance," Berkman said. "And then see how they have to maybe concentrate a little better, pay a little better attention to detail, something to help the collective whole."
On Aug. 28, La Russa sat in his office, 10 1/2 back in the division and 10 back in the wild card, and the conversation was split between the past and the future, nothing about the present. The playing time shortstop Tyler Greene would get as he prepped for 2012 was a topic, as was the possibility September would be the final month La Russa had together with both Pujols and Carpenter.
La Russa rejected nostalgia.
He didn't want his team to find motivation in farewells.
"This is not a movie," La Russa said. "There is no script for this. I think it's more fun and healthier for everybody to think this isn't their last hurrah for as long as you can. You're obligated to take your best shot."