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For one night, at least, amid the excitement of a pennant chase, John Curtis showed the Cardinals a flash of the high-caliber talent they had expected when they acquired him as the key player in a trade with the Red Sox.

john_curtisForty years ago, on Aug. 29, 1974, Curtis delivered the best performance of his Cardinals career, pitching a one-hitter in St. Louis’ 3-1 victory over the Padres at San Diego.

The win moved the Cardinals within a half-game of the first-place Pirates in the National League East with a month remaining and raised hopes St. Louis would earn its first postseason berth in six years.

Seeking a southpaw

Curtis, 26, a left-hander, was projected to join Bob Gibson in anchoring the Cardinals’ rotation in 1974. He had earned 13 wins with the 1973 Red Sox. That impressed the Cardinals, whose 1973 rotation consisted of right-handers Gibson, Rick Wise, Reggie Cleveland, Alan Foster and Tom Murphy.

Figuring they needed a left-handed starter to compete in a division whose most recent champions possessed premium left-handed hitters _ Pirates (Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Al Oliver) and Mets (Rusty Staub and John Milner) _ the Cardinals pursued Curtis.

In December 1973, St. Louis acquired Curtis and right-handers Lynn McGlothen and Mike Garman from the Red Sox for right-handers Reggie Cleveland and Diego Segui and infielder Terry Hughes.

“We needed a left-hander badly,” Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst said to the Associated Press. “I think we’ve got him now.”

Said St. Louis general manager Bing Devine: “A left-hander was of prime importance.”

The Cardinals entered 1974 with a rotation of Gibson, Curtis, Foster, McGlothen and Sonny Siebert. Curtis was the lone left-hander.

He got off to a terrible start, losing five of his first seven decisions as his ERA swelled to 5.83.

Still, Schoendienst kept Curtis in the rotation.

Almost perfect

On Aug. 29, a Thursday night, before 6,042 spectators, Curtis got the start against the hapless Padres, who had the worst record in the National League and would finish with 102 losses.

The Padres did have a couple of sluggers who batted right-handed _ Nate Colbert and Dave Winfield, who was in his second season of what would become a Hall of Fame career.

Curtis retired the first 21 batters in a row. Seven perfect innings. Ted Simmons, catching Curtis, hit a home run in the seventh, breaking a scoreless tie.

Winfield led off the Padres eighth. Two months earlier, Winfield had hit a home run off Curtis for the lone run in a 1-0 Padres victory. Boxscore

Now, Curtis was recalling that blast as he faced Winfield while trying to protect a one-run lead and the perfect game.

Winfield watched the first three pitches sail out of the strike zone.

“He’s a pretty free swinger,” Curtis said. “Maybe I was a little too careful.”

Winfield walked. “But that didn’t concern me too much,” Curtis said.

Cito Gaston bunted, moving Winfield to second. Derrel Thomas walked and Dave Hilton flied out to right, advancing Winfield to third.

Fred Kendall was up next. Batting eighth in the order, he had a .237 average and hadn’t gotten a hit in a week.

Kendall singled to left, breaking up the no-hitter and scoring Winfield with the tying run.

Win first

“When Kendall got his hit, I wasn’t too let down,” Curtis said. “It was a sort of purpose pitch inside. I was trying to make him swing at a bad pitch.”

Curtis’ work wasn’t done. With Thomas on second and Kendall on first, left-handed slugger Willie McCovey was sent to pinch-hit for pitcher Randy Jones. McCovey, 36, a future Hall of Famer, would hit 22 home runs that season.

This time, he flied out to center.

In the ninth, Padres reliever Larry Hardy retired the first two batters. Then, the Cardinals got four consecutive singles from Bake McBride, Ken Reitz, Jim Dwyer and Mike Tyson _ the latter two driving in a run apiece.

With a 3-1 lead, Curtis set down the Padres in order, clinching the win and a one-hitter. Boxscore

“I had a ballgame to win, not a no-hitter to pitch,” Curtis said. “The way the season has been going for me, you can’t be too selective of your victories. It’s quite a thrill for me. And it comes late in a year when we’re battling for something. That’s an added thrill.”

The Cardinals would finish in second place, 1.5 games behind the Pirates. Curtis was 10-14 in his first year with the Cardinals and led the club in losses. He posted records of 8-9 in 1975 and 6-11 in 1976 before the Cardinals traded him to the Giants.

In 109 games, including 62 starts, Curtis was 24-34 with a 3.88 ERA for the Cardinals.

Previously: Randy Jones held Cardinals to a single in 10 innings

A risky decision by Giants manager Al Dark backfired against the 1964 Cardinals, helping them rally for a key victory and keeping alive their longshot pennant hopes. In retrospect, the Cardinals might not have won the National League pennant and advanced to a World Series championship if Dark hadn’t made his controversial move.

alvin_darkFifty years ago, on Aug. 21, 1964, the Giants had a 5-3 lead against the Cardinals with two outs in the ninth when Dark ordered an intentional walk to Bill White, putting the potential tying run on base. The Cardinals took advantage, scoring three runs and winning, 6-5.

On the morning of Aug. 16, the Giants had been in second place in the National League, four behind the Phillies. Then they lost five in a row. As the Cardinals opened a three-game series at San Francisco, the Giants were 7.5 behind the Phillies and St. Louis was 10 back.

A win in the series opener was essential for the Cardinals to keep alive their slim pennant hopes.

The Giants, though, scored five runs in the first three innings against Curt Simmons and Bob Humphreys.

Jim Duffalo, a right-hander, relieved starter Bob Hendley with one out in the sixth and held the Cardinals scoreless for 2.2 innings. He entered the ninth with the 5-3 lead.

Lou Brock led off with a single to left. Dick Groat grounded out, with Brock moving to second. Then, Ken Boyer also grounded out, with Brock staying put.

Dark and White

White, a left-handed batter, was up next. He was hitless in the game, but he had hit a couple of foul balls over the right-field fence.

On four previous occasions that season, Dark had put the potential winning run on base intentionally. Each time, the Giants won.

Concerned about White’s power and preferring Duffalo face a right-handed batter, Dark ordered an intentional walk to White, putting runners on second and first.

In his book “When in Doubt, Fire the Manager” (1980, Dutton), Dark wrote, “You can do everything by the book day after day, but there’ll come a time when you feel a need to try something unorthodox, and if it fails you’re sure to be criticized … Never put the winning run on base? I’ve done it when I thought the batter was a greater threat to beat us than the man on deck.”

The next batter was light-hitting Dal Maxvill.

Maxvill hit a soft liner to left for a single, scoring Brock and reducing the Giants lead to 5-4. White advanced to second.

Mike Shannon came to the plate. He hit a ground ball that eluded Duffalo and rolled toward second base. As second baseman Hal Lanier fielded the ball on the grass, White rounded third and steamed toward home.

Lanier hurried an off-balance throw toward the plate, but the ball went up the third-base line and eluded catcher Tom Haller as White, unchallenged, scored the tying run.

Duffalo, backing up the play, couldn’t field the errant throw. As the ball bounced away from him and toward the wall, Maxvill, who never stopped running, scored, giving the Cardinals a 6-5 lead.

The intentional walk had opened the door to a pair of singles and an error, resulting in three runs.

Dark lifted Duffalo for left-hander Billy Pierce, who got Jerry Buchek to fly out to center.

Save for Schultz

The Giants, though, still had a chance.

Cardinals manager Johnny Keane brought in knuckleball specialist Barney Schultz to face a formidable trio of Harvey Kuenn, one-time American League batting champion, and future Hall of Famers Duke Snider and Willie Mays.

Schultz, 38, who had been called up from the minor leagues three weeks earlier, was up to the challenge. Kuenn and Snider grounded out; Mays popped out to shortstop.

The Associated Press wrote, “Al Dark pulled the trigger once too often in his gambling game of Russian roulette.”

The Oakland Tribune wrote, “When you’re going bad, nothing seems to work.”

Undaunted, Dark, a former Cardinals shortstop, shrugged and said,  “You gotta lose some.” Boxscore

The Cardinals went on to win the pennant, finishing a game ahead of both the Reds and Phillies.

The Giants finished fourth, three behind the Cardinals. After the season, Dark was fired and replaced by Herman Franks.

Previously: 1956 Cardinals groomed nine managers

With his combination of aggressiveness and power potential, rookie Wally Moon reminded the 1954 Cardinals of Enos Slaughter, the dynamo who would earn election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

wally_moon2Sixty years later, rookie Kolten Wong of the 2014 Cardinals is displaying similar skills.

Moon was the first Cardinals rookie to reach double figures in home runs (12) and stolen bases (18) in a season. Since then, two other Cardinals rookies _ Ken Boyer (18 home runs, 22 stolen bases in 1955) and J.D. Drew (13 home runs, 19 stolen bases in 1999) _ have achieved the feat.

Wong likely will join them. The second baseman has 17 stolen bases and nine home runs for the 2014 Cardinals.

Like Slaughter and Moon, Wong bats left-handed.

Slaughter set standard

As a rookie for the 1938 Cardinals, Slaughter couldn’t achieve what Moon, Boyer and Drew did. Slaughter produced eight home runs and one stolen base in his rookie season. But he soon established himself as an aggressive force who hustled on the base paths and consistently produced runs.

In 13 seasons (1938-42 and 1946-53) with the Cardinals (he missed three prime years while serving in the military), Slaughter had a .305 batting average, with 2,064 hits in 1,820 games, and an on-base percentage of .384.

The Cardinals, confident in Moon’s talent, traded Slaughter to the Yankees two days before the start of the 1954 season.

In a YouTube video interview, Moon recalled that the trade of Slaughter “really shocked the whole team; it shocked the city of St. Louis.”

On the eve of the 1954 season, The Sporting News wrote of Moon, “The 24-year-old Texas A&M graduate can run, throw, field and _ presumably _ hit with the kind of balanced ability and hungry attitude the Cardinals used to have, the kind of combination of skills that gave rise to an old expression: a Cardinals-type ballplayer.”

Moon had an excellent rookie season. He hit .304 and had an on-base percentage of .371. His totals of 193 hits, 106 runs, 29 doubles and 18 steals would be his single-season highs in a 12-year major-league career. Moon ranked fifth in the National League that season in hits, two behind both Stan Musial and Willie Mays. He was named the NL Rookie of the Year Award winner, receiving 17 of 24 votes and outdistancing Ernie Banks (4 votes), Gene Conley (2) and Hank Aaron (1).

Moon’s 1954 home run and stolen base totals were highlighted by a pair of noteworthy single-game performances.

Moon shot

In his first major-league at-bat, in the first inning of the Cardinals’ opener against the Cubs at St. Louis on April 13, 1954, Moon got a rude welcome.

“I’m coming to bat in the bottom half of the first,” Moon recalled in the You Tube video, “and they announce my name and the crowd starts chanting, ‘We want Eno. We want Eno.’ They were unhappy and I certainly could hear that.”

The first two pitches to Moon from Paul Minner were balls. The next pitch from the left-hander was a fastball “down the heart of the plate,” Moon said.

“I hit it and I hit it hard and I hit it high and I hit it long,” Moon said. “I hit it out of the ballpark, over the pavilion roof and onto Grand Avenue. I think somewhere I got a shot of adrenaline, a great surge of power. It’s probably one of the longest home runs I ever hit.

“About the time I got to second base with my home run trot _ it was more than a trot; I was running those bases _ those boos and chants had changed to a great roar of applause. It lifted a burden off my shoulders. I thank the Lord for giving me the strength on that particular day. It was exhilarating.” Boxscore

Moon became the second Cardinals player to hit a home run in his first time at-bat in the big leagues. The other was Eddie Morgan in 1936.

Running wild

About a month later, on May 25, again against the Cubs at St. Louis, Moon had four steals, one short of the NL single-game record established by Dan McGann of the 1904 Giants.

All four stolen bases came against catcher Walker Cooper, 39, the former Cardinal.

Wrote The Sporting News: “Moon gave Walker Cooper one of the most miserable days of the veteran catcher’s 15 seasons in the majors.”

Moon swiped second base in the first inning with Johnny Klippstein pitching and he stole second again in the fourth with Jim Brosnan pitching.

In the fifth, after Moon singled off Brosnan, the Cubs brought in Jim Willis to pitch to Alex Grammas.

Moon stole second.

Then he stole third.

Rattled, Willis threw a wild pitch and Moon scored.

Angry, Willis plunked Grammas with his next delivery.

A Cardinals publicist sent word to manager Eddie Stanky that Moon needed one more steal to tie the record. Moon, though, flied out to left in his last at-bat.

“I would have given Moon every chance to get that fifth steal,” Stanky said. “He’s a nervy youngster.” Boxscore

Moon said he’d “take another crack one of these days” at the stolen base record. Said Stanky: “When he says he’ll have another go at it, I’m sure he will.”

But Moon never again challenged the record. He had two steals in a game in July 1954 and never had more than one in a game the remainder of his career.

Previously: Oscar Taveras, Eddie Morgan: Flashy starts to Cardinals careers

Previously: Trade caused Enos Slaughter, Stan Musial to burst into tears

Previously: Cardinals steals leader Jon Jay plays similar to Wally Moon

Blinded by his impatience, insecurity and inability to quell internal politics, Cardinals owner August “Gussie” Busch ousted the general manager who built the team that two months later would win the franchise’s first World Series championship in 18 years.

bing_devineFifty years ago, Aug. 17, 1964, Busch fired general manager Bing Devine.

“It was a travesty,” longtime St. Louis journalist Bob Broeg wrote in recalling the firing 40 years later. “And a lot of the players on the team felt the same way.”

Trades engineered by Devine had brought to the Cardinals core players on the championship club. They included outfielders Lou Brock and Curt Flood, infielders Bill White, Julian Javier and Dick Groat and pitchers Curt Simmons, Roger Craig, Ron Taylor and Barney Schultz.

Under Devine’s leadership, the minor-league system also had developed essential Cardinals such as pitchers Bob Gibson, Ray Sadecki and Ray Washburn as well as outfielder Mike Shannon and catcher Tim McCarver. In the pipeline were prospects such as pitchers Steve Carlton and Nelson Briles.

Still, Busch became convinced in August 1964 that the Cardinals needed to dump Devine (and replace manager Johnny Keane with Leo Durocher after the regular season) in order to produce a champion.

The Cardinals were 62-55 and in fifth place, nine behind the first-place Phillies, in the National League when Busch fired Devine. From there, the Cardinals went 31-14, finishing in first place at 93-69, one game ahead of both the Reds and Phillies.

In his book “October 1964″ (1994, Villard), author David Halberstam wrote, “Devine went quietly. It was something he had always expected. He had been dealing for the last seven years from a position of limited strength and the pressure to produce a winner had grown every year. Life under as volatile a man as Gussie Busch was like living on a precipice, he thought.”

(Departing along with Devine were business manager Art Routzong and player personnel director Eddie Stanky.)

The three key reasons why Busch fired Devine:

Impatience

The Cardinals hadn’t won a pennant since Busch took control of the club in February 1953. Devine had been general manager for much of that time, replacing Frank Lane in November 1957.

After the Cardinals placed second in 1963, Busch had high expectations for the following year. His frustration reached a boiling point in August 1964.

“I have been worried about the Cardinals for a long time,” Busch said to The Sporting News after firing Devine. “The club has not been making any progress.”

In his book “The Memoirs of Bing Devine” (2004, Sports Publishing), Devine wrote, “There’s no question in my mind that I got fired because Mr. Busch was frustrated. He’d always had success with Anheuser-Busch. He’d owned the Cardinals for 10 years and he was tired of not succeeding in this other business.”

Insecurity

A mid-season incident involving Groat hurt Devine’s relationship with Busch.

Keane had given Groat approval to call for the hit-and-run play when he saw an opportunity to execute it. Groat handled the bat well. But, in Keane’s view, Groat abused the privilege.

When Keane banned Groat from calling the hit-and-run, Groat groused openly and often. Devine learned of Groat’s unhappiness. The general manager informed Keane to address the issue by conducting a team meeting and confronting Groat. Keane did and the matter was resolved when Groat apologized to Keane and the team and stopped his complaining.

Devine didn’t inform Busch of the incident because he viewed such squabbles as commonplace in clubhouses. Besides, the problem wasn’t lingering.

Braves third baseman Eddie Mathews, though, was friendly with Groat and heard of Groat’s initial unhappiness. Mathews was dating Busch’s daughter, Elizabeth. Mathews told her of the conflict and she, in turn, told her father.

Busch was angry that Devine hadn’t informed him. He became suspicious, wondering what else Devine wasn’t telling him.

“Busch was upset,” Devine wrote. “And that may have affected his thinking about me.”

Halberstam wrote of Busch, “He was more than a little paranoid anyway; it seemed to go with the territory with a man who had so much power in, but knew so little about, the high-profile business of baseball.”

Internal politics

Busch had hired Branch Rickey, the former longtime Cardinals general manager, as a special consultant. Rickey, 82, and Devine clashed. Rickey meddled. He criticized Devine in talks with Busch.

Rickey had built the Cardinals minor-league system in the 1920s. His influence was evident in remarks Busch made after Devine was fired.

“I am concerned that we cannot trade our way to a pennant,” Busch said to The Sporting News in August 1964. “We must depend on production out of our own system and I have been disappointed with the operation of our farm department. There just seems to be a gap someplace between the signing of players, their development and their progress to the Cardinals as men ready to do a major-league job.”

Busch insisted Rickey didn’t trigger his decision to fire Devine. “Rickey had nothing to do with it,” he said. “I did not consult him until I’d made up my mind.”

Few bought that explanation. “He (Rickey) was undercutting Bing,” wrote Broeg. “We all knew that.”

Wrote Halberstam, “Rickey gradually increased the tempo of his drive against Devine … The veteran players, who liked Devine, and who did not think the team needed two general managers, were not amused. They knew that the more senior they were, the more likely Rickey was to get rid of them at the end of the season.”

In his book “Stranger to the Game” (1994, Viking), Gibson wrote, “The players were hurt by Devine’s firing, but we decided that instead of packing it in for the year, we would dedicate ourselves to redeeming Devine with a strong finish.”

According to the book “The Spirit of St. Louis” (2000, Avon), Busch asked broadcaster Harry Caray to become general manager. Caray declined and suggested Busch hire former St. Louis Browns owner Bill Veeck. But Veeck demanded a controlling interest of the stock in the Cardinals.

On Rickey’s suggestion, Bob Howsam, who had joined Rickey in a failed attempt to start a third major league, the Continental League, was named general manager.

“Howsam did nothing to win the pennant after he became GM,” Broeg wrote. “He led the league in cheers.”

After the Cardinals won the World Series title against the Yankees, Keane resigned, rather than accept a contract extension, in protest of Devine’s dismissal. Keane then accepted an offer to manage the Yankees.

Humiliated, Busch ordered Howsam to fire Rickey. He did so.

Devine joined the Mets front office.

Howsam lasted with the Cardinals for two years, then went to the Reds. Stan Musial replaced him.

When Musial resigned in triumph after the Cardinals won the 1967 World Series title, Devine was rehired by Busch to be the Cardinals general manager.

Previously: How Bing Devine helped Stan Musial plan retirement

Previously: How Bing Devine was forced to fire Fred Hutchinson

In the season that produced his highest hits total, Cardinals center fielder Curt Flood had his best day as a hitter.

curt_flood6Fifty years ago, on Aug. 16, 1964, Flood got hits in eight consecutive at-bats in a doubleheader against the Dodgers at Los Angeles. Four of those hits came against Sandy Koufax.

Flood had a chance to tie the big-league record for consecutive hits in a doubleheader, but he made his only out of the day in his final at-bat.

“I’m mighty happy to have gotten eight hits, even though I couldn’t get that last one,” Flood said to United Press International.

Flood became the first National League player with eight hits in a doubleheader since Pirates shortstop Stan Rojek did it against the Dodgers at Pittsburgh in 1948.

Joe Kelley, a left fielder for the Orioles, established the record of nine consecutive hits in a doubleheader on Sept. 3, 1894, against Cleveland.

Entering the day with a .291 batting average, Flood was at .302 after his 8-for-9 performance. He would finish the season with a .311 batting average and a career-best 211 hits, tying him with Roberto Clemente of the Pirates as the 1964 National League hits leader.

With his wife, four children and parents in attendance, Flood batted leadoff in each game of the doubleheader.

Dandy vs. Sandy

In the opener, the Dodgers started Koufax, who that season would lead the National League in ERA (1.74) and winning percentage (.792 with a 19-5 record).

Koufax was dominant against everyone except Flood that day. The left-hander struck out 13 and shut out the Cardinals on seven hits. Flood, though, went 4-for-4 against him. Flood, a right-handed batter, hit .296 (32-for-108) in his career against Koufax.

Here’s what Flood did in Game 1:

_ First inning. Flood led off the game with a double down the left-field line. He was stranded at second when Koufax struck out Lou Brock, then got Dick Groat on a fly out and Ken Boyer on a pop out.

_ Third inning. With two outs and none on, Flood doubled to left, a shot just inside the third-base line. Koufax then struck out Brock.

_ Fifth inning. Flood looped a single to right with two outs and none on.

_ Seventh inning. With Julian Javier on first and two outs, Flood lined a single to center, sending Javier to third. Koufax then struck out Brock for the third time, ending the threat.

The Dodgers won, 3-0. Boxscore

Igniting the offense

In Game 2, Flood sparked the Cardinals against Larry Miller, a rookie left-hander. Here’s what Flood did in that game:

_ First inning. Flood laced a triple into the right-field corner and scored on Groat’s sacrifice fly.

_ Third inning. With one out and none on, Flood lined a single to center.

_ Fourth inning. With two outs, the bases loaded and Flood at the plate, Dodgers manager Walter Alston replaced Larry Miller with Bob Miller, a former Cardinals right-hander. Flood singled to right, driving in two runs and giving the Cardinals a 4-0 lead.

_ Sixth inning. Flood stroked his eighth consecutive hit, a two-out single to left off right-hander Phil Ortega.

_ Ninth inning. With the Dodger Stadium crowd cheering for him, Flood faced left-hander Ron Perranoski with one out and none on. Flood hit .286 (10-for-35) against Perranoski in his career. This time, though, he struck out.

“Perranoski threw me some sinkers and I missed them,” Flood said to The Sporting News.

Still, the Cardinals won, 4-0, behind the 4-for-5 effort by Flood and the pitching of Curt Simmons. Boxscore

When reporters gathered around Flood’s locker after the game, catcher Tim McCarver, Flood’s friend and teammate, put on an ape mask, grabbed a pencil and pad and joined the throng.

McCarver: “How do you explain how you make monkeys out of the Dodgers pitchers?”

Flood laughed, then replied: “I am sore and tired. I should have saved that triple in the first inning of the second game. That ruined me.”

Previously: Sandy Koufax: ‘I still don’t know how to pitch to Curt Flood’

Larry Walker wasn’t looking to leave Colorado. In 2004, he generally was considered the best to have played for the Rockies. At 37, he was comfortable. Then, the Cardinals came calling.

larry_walker2Ten years ago, on Aug. 6, 2004, Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty performed a heist, acquiring Walker from the Rockies for three prospects.

Walker, a three-time National League batting champion and seven-time Gold Glove Award winner, joined an outfield of Jim Edmonds and Reggie Sanders and helped the Cardinals win their first pennant in 17 years.

The Rockies had approached Walker about trading him either to the Rangers or the Marlins. Because Walker was a 10-year veteran who had spent five of those years with the same team, his approval was needed before a deal could be made. He rejected the proposed trades to Texas and Florida.

Players make pitch

The Cardinals, though, appealed to his competitive spirit. In a bid to seal the deal, Cardinals players Edmonds and Scott Rolen called Walker, urging him to help them get to the World Series by accepting a trade to St. Louis.

Rolen offered to drop a spot in the batting order in case manager Tony La Russa wanted to bat Walker in the cleanup position Rolen had held.

Inspired, Walker gave his OK to the Rockies to complete a trade with the Cardinals.

“I think there were some people in Colorado who weren’t certain he would come,” Jocketty said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “He weighed everything and it didn’t take him long. I think he’ll be energized to come here and play with us and I think he’ll energize our club.”

The Rockies, looking to free payroll in order to rebuild a team around players such as their rookie outfielder, Matt Holliday, agreed to a package of minor leaguers: pitchers Jason Burch, Luis Martinez and Chris Narveson. None would ever appear in a big-league game for the Rockies.

MVP caliber

Walker joined Edmonds, Rolen, Edgar Renteria and Mike Matheny in giving the 2004 Cardinals Gold Glove winners at five of the nine fielding positions.

“We put an MVP in the lineup … This was a real impact move,” Rolen said of the deal for Walker.

Said Sanders: “You look at this lineup and you wonder, ‘How can it get any better?’ And it did.”

The Cardinals were in first place in the National League Central, 10.5 games ahead of the Cubs, on the day of the trade.

La Russa said, “I love the message that the people on top are sending to the players. I think they recognize how hard we’ve been playing and we have the chance to do something really special.”

What a welcome

Walker arrived in St. Louis during the Cardinals’ game with the Mets on Aug. 7. In the seventh, with two runners on base, one out and the score tied at 1-1, La Russa sent Walker to pinch-hit for Matheny against Mets starter Kris Benson. Cardinals fans welcomed Walker with a standing ovation.

“One of the most nervous at-bats I’ve had in my career was today,” Walker said.

He struck out.

As he returned to the dugout, Walker received another standing ovation.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Walker said. “I thought maybe I should go back and ask if I could have another strike.” Boxscore

Walker would hit .280 with 11 home runs and 27 RBI in 44 games for the 2004 Cardinals, who won the division title by 13 games over the runner-up Astros.

In the postseason, Walker hit six home runs _ two each in the Division Series, League Championship Series and World Series.

Walker returned to the Cardinals in 2005, his final big-league season, and hit .289 with 15 home runs and 52 RBI in 100 games.

Previously: Cardinals Canadian club: Tom Burgess to Larry Walker

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