Posted: Monday December 26, 2011 11:42AM ; Updated: Tuesday December 27, 2011 11:40AM
Joe Lemire
Joe Lemire>INSIDE BASEBALL

Biggest baseball stories of 2011

Story Highlights

The Cardinals won an unforgettable World Series but then lost Albert Pujols

Game 162 saw amazing comebacks and collapses during a thrilling night of drama

Yankees icons Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera both reached major milestones

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1. Cardinals win and Pujols leaves. To celebrate or to mourn? The Cardinals won a thrilling seven-game World Series -- baseball's first Fall Classic to go the distance since 2002 -- for the franchise's 11th title but just six weeks later saw future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols split for Anaheim with a 10-year, $254 million contract. Pujols provided one last thrilling moment for Cardinals fans when he tied a record by crushing three home runs as part of a five-hit effort in Game 3 of the World Series. Though his departure may have cost him a statue outside Busch Stadium, he left behind a new World Series banner as a parting gift.

2. Game 162. The final day of the season bore witness to baseball's most thrilling night, especially the 129 minutes from 9:56 p.m. to 12:05 a.m. East Coast time that featured spellbinding drama and unforgettable moments. In that time, both the Braves and Red Sox choked away ninth-inning leads to help cement two of the biggest collapses in baseball history.

Atlanta's loss coupled with a shutout by St. Louis' Chris Carpenter snared the NL wild card for the eventual champion Cardinals. Over in the AL, the Rays, who trailed the Yankees 7-0 in the eighth inning, tied the game with one dramatic home run (Dan Johnson's two-out laser) in the bottom of the ninth and won it on another (from Evan Longoria) in the 12th. Longoria's home run completed Tampa Bay's epic comeback to win the wild card and came three minutes after the Orioles scored two in the ninth to stun the Red Sox in Baltimore. Boston became the first team to blow a nine-game lead in September, while the Braves blew a 10 1/2 game lead they held on Aug. 25.

3. World Series Game 6. Twice the Rangers were a strike away from their first World Series title, and twice the Cardinals stormed back in one of the greatest games in the sport's storied history. St. Louis native David Freese was crowned the hero after hitting a two-strike, two-out triple to tie the game in the ninth and a walk-off home run to win it in the 11th. His jersey, torn to shreds by exuberant teammates at home plate, required the Hall of Fame to build a new mount for display. There was also a goat: Texas rightfielder Nelson Cruz, who so badly misplayed Freese's triple that some compared his gaffe to that of Bill Buckner in 1986.

Freese could have been the goat for a dropped pop-up early in the game, and the Rangers' Josh Hamilton was very nearly the hero. Hamilton, whose inspirational story in returning to baseball after battling drug addiction has been well chronicled, was hindered by a groin injury that he conceded would have sidelined him during the regular season, yet he hit his first homer of the postseason in the top of the 10th to give the Rangers their second lead -- a lead that was erased when veteran Lance Berkman, down to his last strike, tied the game in the bottom half of the inning.

4. The sport's new CBA. The NFL and NBA endured lockouts in 2011 but baseball ratified a new collective bargaining agreement with little fuss, extending labor peace through the 2016 season, at which point the sport will have played 21 uninterrupted seasons. That in itself is notable, but so too are some of the changes in the new deal: 1) A second wild card is being added to the postseason format, with each league's two wild cards playing one game to determine who advances to the divisional series; 2) Baseball will undergo realignment to even each league at 15 teams for the 2013 season, and though only one team is moving (the Astros from the NL Central to the AL West), it's notable that interleague play will no longer be cordoned off as a special event and will become a daily occurrence; 3) New caps on amateur spending -- in the domestic draft and international free agency -- could have radical influence on the way clubs build their rosters.

5. The Year of the Pitcher, Part Deux. The Tigers' Justin Verlander became the first starting pitcher to win both the Cy Young and a league MVP award since 1986. He won the pitcher's Triple Crown in the AL -- leading the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts -- while the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw did the same in the NL. The Phillies' star-studded starters had a collective 2.86 ERA, the best of any rotation since 1985 and the first sub-3.00 season since 1992.

Across baseball, runs (4.28 per team per game) and homers (0.94) declined for the second straight year -- the lowest for each since 1992 and '93, respectively -- while strikeouts (7.10) were at an all-time high. Among the reasons: pitchers may be better, thanks to more sophisticated medicine and development programs (think Tommy John surgery and pitch counts); hitters seem to be less juiced (fewer gaudy home-run totals); defense is a priority (more batted balls are caught and more defensive minded players -- read: weaker hitters -- are getting regular playing time); and the newest stadiums aren't bandboxes.

6. Identity changes. The Marlins are lucrative spenders. The Pirates were a first-place team in July. The Twins were cellar dwellers. The Rangers are the new superpower of the American League. The Red Sox and Yankees are trolling the bargain bin. The Blue Jays are everyone's darkhorse. The Angels signed the offseason's biggest free agent. There's hype around the Royals of the future. Parity is every league's dream, and baseball is seeing plenty of rapid role changes.

7. MVP fails a drug test. The appeals process has yet to run its course -- a hearing is scheduled for January -- but Brewers leftfielder Ryan Braun, the winner of the 2011 NL MVP award, failed a random postseason drug test, according to an ESPN report earlier this month. He called the result "BS" and his agent has pledged a full-on fight, and the Baseball Writers Association of America, which presents the awards, has said it will not strip him of his MVP trophy. In the meantime the sport is left reeling from bad publicity stemming from a leak of a supposedly confidential process, and if Braun's appeal is denied, this will be a major black mark for the sport, which seemed to be nearly clear of its performance-enhancement past, with commissioner Bud Selig even singling out Braun as one of the game's clean stars in 2009.

8. Red Sox overhaul. The American League's consensus spring darlings were in disarray by winter. Though "fried chicken and beer" became an overstated, overused catchphrase to summarize Boston's fall from grace, that reported detail of the clubhouse malaise is emblematic of the post facto media leaks that further smeared the reputations of everyone involved in the historic September collapse. Now the manager (Terry Francona) and general manager (Theo Epstein) who helped the Red Sox win the 2004 and 2007 World Series, their first titles since 1918, are both gone. In their places are the polarizing Bobby Valentine and former Epstein understudy Ben Cherington, who inherit a nearly intact roster of talent and baggage and the appearance of meddling ownership in what seemingly had been one of the sport's most stable franchises.

9. Big-money problems for big-market teams. The Dodgers and Mets were in the headlines for all the wrong reasons this season. Despite playing in the nation's two biggest cities, both clubs had to skimp on salaries thanks, in part, to a disastrous divorce (Dodgers owner Frank McCourt) and a billion-dollar lawsuit (the Mets' owners are being sued for alleged fictitious profits through Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff). Hope may be on the horizon for both franchises in 2012: McCourt will be selling the Dodgers, and according to a New York Times report, the Mets have commitments from as many as seven minority investors who have pledged $20 million each (though no money has yet been collected) that will improve their cash-flow problems. Neither change will likely key an overnight turnaround, but every rebuilding process has to start somewhere.

10. Yankees milestones. The Core Four dwindled to three in 2011 as Andy Pettitte opted for retirement in February, but two of three remaining members of the recent Yankee dynasty delivered major milestones. Shortstop Derek Jeter not only reached 3,000 hits but did so in storybook fashion, blasting a home run for the history-making hit and finishing the day with five hits, including the game-winning RBI single in the eighth. To that point of the season, Jeter had been plagued by a calf injury that required DL time and increasing doubts about his ability to continue as a top-of-the-order hitter. Starting with that game, however, he hit .338 for the rest of the season.

Meanwhile, there were never any whispers about the abilities of venerable closer Mariano Rivera, who broke Trevor Hoffman's career saves record and now has 603 to his name following a 44-save, 1.91-ERA season in 2011. It was Rivera's fourth straight year with a sub-2.00 ERA and eighth in the last nine years. With catcher Jorge Posada almost certainly not returning to the Bronx, Jeter and Rivera -- two surefire Hall of Famers -- are left as the last remaining members of the Core Four.

 
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