Taking a page from the 1973 Cardinals, the 2011 Red Sox became the fifth team in big-league history to reach first place after having lost at least 10 of its opening 12 games.
The others to do it, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, are the 1951 Giants, the 1974 Pirates and the 1982 Orioles.
Manager Red Schoendienst’s Cardinals lost 12 of their first 13 in 1973 and were in last place in the National League East, 8.5 games behind the division-leading Pirates on April 22.
The Cardinals’ record dropped to 1-12 when they lost both games of a doubleheader against the Phillies. Rookie Mike Schmidt’s home run off Bob Gibson with two outs in the bottom of the ninth in Game 2 broke a 1-1 tie and gave Philadelphia the sweep. “I never remember being this excited about anything,” Schmidt told the Associated Press after the game. Boxscore
St. Louis’ slow start attracted national attention. An editorial in The Sporting News opined:
There was the Card record _ won 1, lost 12, pct. .077 _ jumping out from the standings like a stink weed at a flower show. Not surprisingly, the critics were in full cry. Their blasts flooded a nightly sports talk show on a St. Louis radio station.
Noting that the 1951 Giants started 2-12 and recovered to win the NL pennant, the editorial concluded:
All of which indicates it may be a little early to consign the Redbirds to the wait-til-next-year category.
Cardinals general manager Bing Devine asked for patience. “This is a young club that will make mistakes,” he told reporters.
St. Louis correspondent Neal Russo wrote:
There were concerns because of the early leaks in the defense, especially the outfield. In three different losses, an outfield failure proved costly. There was concern because the pitching … was porous in the early going. And there was concern because of the lack of timely hitting.
By the end of May, the Cardinals had climbed ahead of the Phillies and into fifth place at 19-25, eight games behind the first-place Cubs. The Cardinals won eight of their final nine games in May.
They began June by winning their first five. By June 30, the Cardinals had reached . 500 (37-37) and moved into second place, seven games behind the Cubs. Bob Gibson and Reggie Cleveland each went 4-1 in June. Ted Simmons batted .333 with five home runs during the month; Joe Torre also slugged five homers and hit .302 in June.
On July 22, a Sunday afternoon, the Cardinals erased a 4-2 deficit by scoring three runs in the bottom of the eighth against Dodgers reliever Jim Brewer (Ted Simmons tied the score with a two-run single and Bernie Carbo’s RBI-double was the game-winner). The 5-4 victory moved St. Louis (51-45) into first place, a half-game ahead of the Cubs. Boxscore
Neal Russo wrote in The Sporting News:
Excellent pitching and brilliant defense were the keys to the rebounding by a club that had been booed and vilified for the first five weeks of the season.
Shortstop Mike Tyson, second baseman Ted Sizemore, center fielder Luis Melendez and right fielder Jose Cruz were singled out for steadying the defense.
Said Schoendienst: “Defense makes pitching.”
It appeared the Cardinals, Cubs and Pirates would battle the rest of the season for the division title. On the day the Cardinals moved into first place, the Mets (42-51) were in last place, 7.5 games behind St. Louis.
The Cardinals (56-48) ended July with a two-game lead over the second-place Cubs.
But on Aug. 4, at New York’s Shea Stadium, Bob Gibson injured his right knee while running the bases. He required surgery and didn’t pitch again until Sept. 29, when he beat the Phillies.
Without their ace, the Cardinals stumbled, losing 11 of 12 from Aug. 6 to Aug. 18. Yet, on Sept. 11, the Cardinals (72-72) still clung to first place by a half game over the Pirates.
The Mets, however, surged, winning 20 of their final 28. The Cardinals went 13-15 over the same period. A seven-game losing streak (during which they scored a total of 14 runs) from Sept. 7 to Sept. 15 was the Cardinals’ undoing.
Even though St. Louis finished the season with a five-game winning streak, the Mets, who took over first place Sept. 21, won the division championship with an 82-79 mark, 1.5 games ahead of the runner-up Cardinals (81-81).
Neal Russo spoke for many when he wrote:
You could spend all fall and winter replaying those nightmarish giveaways, the games that made the difference between winning and finishing second.