The 2000s were an incredible decade for the St. Louis Cardinals. They made the postseason seven times from 2000-09, reaching the National League Championship Series five times and winning 100 games or more twice. Jose Pujols won three NL MVP Awards, 14 Cardinals made the All-Star team and the club had an attendance of more than three million fans every season but one. The Cardinals just had a great team year after year. Except for one year.
The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals were not a good baseball team. They only won 83 games that season, nearly collapsing with a seven-game losing streak down the stretch, which couldn't have been unfamiliar territory; they had already lost eight games in a row twice previously that season. Their second-best hitter might have been Chris Duncan. That 2006 season was when it all started to fall apart, with the Cards' 105-game-win team decaying and atrophying into a team that was too old and too thin to do much of anything. Except! The rest of the NL Central was lousy, too, so the Cardinals ended up winning the division and -- most importantly -- getting hot in the playoffs, flying past the Padres in the NL Division Series, outlasting the Mets in an epic NLCS and beating an error-prone Tigers team in the World Series, earning Pujols and Tony La Russa and the gang their long-awaited title. The 2000, '01, '02, '04 and '05 Cardinals were all good enough to deserve a World Series win, but they didn't get one. Turned out, the 2006 team was the one that did. It works out that way sometimes.
Which brings us, inevitably, to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who beat the Atlanta Braves 6-2 on Monday night to reach the NLCS for the third consecutive season, where they will face the Milwaukee Brewers, who are only playing in their second-ever NLCS. The Dodgers have won the NL West six straight years and are coming off a 104-win season in 2017, the most that franchise has won since moving to Los Angeles. They came within one game of a championship last season, within two games of a World Series in 2013 and '16. They have been so close, but never quite broken through.
:: NLCS schedule and results ::
Which is why it would be truly astounding if it turned out to be this year, of all years, that the Dodgers finally win that championship. Because of all the Dodgers' six consecutive NL West-winning seasons, this one has been by far the most tumultuous. If the Dodgers win the World Series this year -- if this Dodgers team is the one that finally does it -- it will have been as unlikely as that insane 2006 Cardinals team. Because this Dodgers season has been nuts. Here's a month-by-month look at the roller coaster ride that has been the 2018 Los Angeles Dodgers season.
The Dodgers, already concerned about their offense after a Spring Training pitch fractured Justin Turner's left wrist, opened up the season by being shut out by the rival Giants twice. (The first game was the first opener the Dodgers had ever lost with Clayton Kershaw on the mound.) They then went to Arizona and were swept, with one loss coming on a Kenley Jansen blown save and another in which the bullpen walked four batters in the seventh inning. The Dodgers continued to stumble, particularly getting knocked around by the D-backs, and a loss on April 29 dropped them to 12-15. But it got worse the next day, when it was revealed that Corey Seager, the heart and soul of the team, would undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the rest of the season. The Dodgers were seven games behind the D-backs at this point. It would be eight after they lost to Arizona the last night of April.
It kept getting worse for the Dodgers to start the month, with another loss to the D-back and then a series loss in Mexico against the lowly Padres. After splitting two more games with Arizona, the Dodgers hoped to get well with seven games against Cincinnati and Miami, two of the worst teams in baseball. It was at this point I wrote a "Don't worry about the Dodgers, they'll be fine!" piece. The Dodgers responded by losing six in a row, dropping to a staggering 16-24, eight games back of those D-backs and their worst start since 1958. It was around this time that Player Page for Max Muncy's power took off, and the Dodgers actually rebounded in the second half of the month, getting to 26-30, only four games back from Arizona, which was starting to fade itself.
At last, a winning month. The month began with a sweep of the Rockies at Coors Field and built up to an 11-2 start to June, with an offense -- led by Muncy, Matt Kemp, Joc Pederson and Cody Bellinger -- that was hitting home runs like crazy. The pitching got wobbly as it went along -- this was Walker Buehler's worst month, with a 7.94 ERA, that led some to wonder whether he was being pushed too hard too fast -- but a June 10 win pushed the Dodgers over the .500 mark, finally, and they'd never be under it again. They still weren't gaining on the D-backs, though, who stabilized in June and held a 3 1/2-game lead at the end of the month.
Wins in the first four games of July put the Dodgers on the brink of first place for the first time all season, but they wouldn't actually get there until July 12 with a win over the Padres. Then came the All-Star break -- which, lest you forget, featured Kemp being voted in by the fans, maybe the weirdest thing to happen all season -- and the All-Star Game, in which the primary subplot involved Manny Machado openly flirting with the Dodgers. The Dodgers made their trade with the Orioles official the next day, and Machado made his debut, against NLCS opponent Milwaukee, by reaching base four times in a 6-4 win. The Dodgers appeared to have turned a corner … but then, just when you thought they were about to take off and play like the 104-win 2017 team, they went out and lost their final three games of the month and fell out of first place again. They also traded for James Dozier and John Axford, neither one of whom would make much of a difference.
The month began with 11 games against teams that would end up making the 2018 postseason, and the Dodgers would go 5-6, including three losses in a row at Coors Field against the surging Rockies. The agita about a collapsing bullpen reached a fever pitch when Jansen returned from the disabled list after suffering an irregular heartbeat just in time to blow two saves against the Cardinals in a series sweep at Dodger Stadium. This was the extreme freakout moment for Dodgers fans. They were 4 1/2 games out of first and in third place. Just to keep everybody on their toes, the Dodgers went on to win six of their last seven the rest of the month.
Just in time for the postseason-eligibility deadline, the Dodgers acquired October hero David Freese from the Pirates. As you might have noticed Monday, he would come in handy. September ended up being the Dodgers' best month -- the month when they finally played like the team the numbers argued they were all along. Unfortunately, the Rockies were just as good, and they spent most of the month toggling around each other atop the division. After a sweep of the Rockies on Sept. 17-19, the Dodgers had a 2 1/2-game lead, but Colorado just refused to stop losing, and two critical losses in Arizona on Sept. 26-28 ended up with the two teams tied when neither lost the rest of the way. The Dodgers would need one more win to grab that sixth straight division title.
The Dodgers got it, 5-2 at Dodger Stadium, and then they blitzed past the Braves in the NLDS and now they are here, four wins away from their second consecutive World Series appearance. With Turner back and everybody healthy (other than Seager, obviously), the Dodgers now look like the team they were supposed to be all along … except now they have Machado. Kershaw is dominant again, the bullpen is gathering steam, they have platoon options at every position and they even have Freese, the ultimate October bat off the bench. It took a long, winding road to get here. But now that they're here … it might just be this particular Dodgers team that's the one that does it after all.