JSF Power Rankings: Elimination Games in the LaRussa Era

06
Oct
2011

I’ve always had a theory that, if you took a completely random non-sports fan off the street and had them walk into the stadium for an elimination game between two teams they’d never heard of, that person would still probably be able to sense the heightened atmosphere. There is an unmistakable buzz that is present for a game where the winner moves on and the loser goes home, that can be recognized even if there is no real basis for comparison.

That buzz tends to become even more intense for sports that feature a multi-game series like baseball and hockey.  By the end, the experience for fans has been enhanced by seeing the two teams trade punches for a week straight and the inevitable hate/respect combination that results.

Not much matches up with a baseball elimination game like the one we’ll watch on Friday in Philly.  So today we break out the Power Rankings, not to determine the best game – but to see which one was entered with the highest stakes and the most acute sense of anticipation for Cardinals fans during Tony LaRussa’s 15 year tenure in St. Louis:

5.) 2001 NLDS

The one limitation that the Divisional Series has when it comes to emotional fan investment is that… well, it’s a Divisional Series.  It has the same stakes if your team loses, but it never quite has the same stakes if your team wins since they’re still a few large steps away from the true prize.

That doesn’t mean it can’t carve out a pretty significant spot in your sports memory vault.  In the case of the 2001 NLDS against the Diamondbacks, it’s in the “kick in the balls” wing of said vault.

Not many games can feature two great pitching performances, a clutch homerun by JD Drew, a blown squeeze in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game and a two out, walk off single by Tony Womack in the same inning.

Result: Diamondbacks 2, Cardinals 1 

4.) 2011 NLDS
Given the freakish rally by the Cardinals and equally freakish tank by the Braves it took just to get into the playoffs, some fans were slow to get back on the bandwagon.  Many justifiably checked out in late August and were wary to get back on the bus for fear of being disappointed again.

But taking their opening series against the league’s best team to a Game 5 battle between two aces is tough to ignore. The Cardinals have done enough over the past month and a half to leave standing room only tickets on the bandwagon.

Result: TBD

3.) 1996 NLCS

In addition to the much-needed cosmetic overhaul slapped on old Busch Stadium, the signing of several notable free agents and bringing back Willie freaking McGee, the Cardinals built up more buzz in 1996 by snatching Tony LaRussa to manage.  The whole season was used as a coronation for the team’s return to competitive baseball after finishing third or worse in all but one season since 1987.

So when they steamrolled the Padres in the NLDS and jumped out to an unexpected 3-1 lead on the pitching-loaded Braves, the World Series seemed imminent and the hype that accompanied it hadn’t been experienced since the late 80′s.

Just don’t look at the scorebook for that Game 7.  It wasn’t pretty.

Result: Braves 15, Cardinals 0

2.) 2006 NLCS

If there was one game on this list that feels a lot like tomorrow’s, it’s Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS. They’re on the road against one of the best teams in the Majors, in a season where the Cardinals entered the playoffs with limited expectations.

One side of your brain is pushing the “it’s okay if we lose, we’re just lucky to be here” agenda while the other side is all-in with a “it’s just one game, there is no reason they can’t win” mindset.

The hype in 2006 was about as significant as it could get for a road game.  And even despite Endy Chavez’s jaw dropping catch to rob Scott Rolen of a late inning homerun, they squeaked out a victory en route to a World Series thrashing of the Tigers.

Result: Cardinals 3, Mets 1

1.) 2004 NLCS

This puppy had it all:

Expectations?  Check.  This was arguably the best team the franchise had fielded in my 33 years so the World Series wasn’t just something we hoped for, it was expected.

Anxiety? Check.  When the Cardinals were up 2-0 in the series and it looked like it was in hand, the Astros came roaring back and put them on the brink of elimination.

Momentum? Check. Jim Edmonds’ extra inning walk off bomb in Game 6 provided that.

Competition? Check. When Roger Clemens is the opposing pitcher taking the mound, there’s certainly no guarantee
of a prosperous offensive performance.

Atmosphere? Check. When a fan base is as obsessed with their team as St. Louis is with the Cardinals and they haven’t seen them make the World Series in nearly two decades, just know that the place will be ready to explode at any moment during Game 7.

Result? Check.  Cardinals 5, Astros 2

Hey, the NL has home field advantage in the World Series this season, so maybe we’ll have a new number one on this list before things are all said and done.  Guarantee that squirrel would have prime seats.

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