Two years before the 2006 baseball season, the St. Louis Cardinals had won 105 games during the regular season but were swept in the World Series by the Red Sox. In 2005, the Cardinals won 100 games, once more the best in baseball, but didn't reach the World Series. So when they stumbled to an 83-78 record in 2006, no one expected them to wind up as World Champs.
But they did with impressive National League series wins over San Diego and the New York Mets and a near-sweep of the surprising Detroit Tigers in the World Series. The Cardinals' win total was the lowest ever for a World Championship team.
Jim Leyland's upstart aggregation from Detroit was the classic combination of power and pitching. Every regular but one hit at least 13 homers, and four hit more than 20. Their starting rotation featured two 23-year-old fireballers (Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander) and 41-year-old All-Star Kenny Rogers. Their team ERA and 16 shutouts were tops in the league. The Tigers lost their last five games of the regular season, but they had no trouble knocking over the Yankees in the American League Division Series and blowing past Oakland in four straight in the ALCS.
But after a one-week layoff, the Tigers were rusty in the 2006 World Series, making critical defensive mistakes. They made three errors in the first game, handing the Cards a 7-2 win, and it got worse from there. A throwing error by rookie pitcher Joel Zumaya contributed to a 5-0 St. Louis win in Game Three, and a key Tigers fumble led to a 5-4 Cardinals triumph in Game Four. Another throwing error put the kibosh on the Tigers in Game Five, resulting in a 4-2 loss and St. Louis's first world title in 24 years.
Like the two previous years, the Cardinals' regular-season muscle was provided by familiar names: Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds. But this postseason was different. The big runs in the 2006 World Series were knocked in by pint-sized shortstop David Eckstein, who was named 2006 World Series MVP. So Taguchi had hit just two home runs during the season, but he belted one each in the NLDS and NLCS. Catcher Yadier Molina had batted just .216 in the regular season, but his ninth-inning homer in Game Seven of the NLCS gave the Cardinals the two-run lead that propelled them to the 2006 World Series.
Other big news in 2006 included the return of Barry Bonds for a full season of play. Bonds moved past Babe Ruth into second place in career home runs, but allegations of steroid use continued to plague him.
For the first time in years, the batting champions were not from the familiar pool of usual suspects. Pirates infielder Freddy Sanchez wasn't even a regular when the season started, but he wound up taking the National League title (.344). In the junior circuit, young Twins catcher Joe Mauer (.347) became the first American League catcher to land the crown.
Meanwhile, the Marlins and Yankees proved that spending money is not necessarily the key to success. Florida opened the season with a payroll of just $14,998,500, but the Marlins stayed in the playoff hunt until September 26. Conversely, the Yankees boasted a payroll of $194,663,079. At times, they fielded a lineup with a current or former All-Star at literally every position. Yet they won just one playoff game, at one point going 21 straight postseason innings without scoring.
Such reasoning did not dissuade teams from spending money. After the season, teams guaranteed more than $1.6 billion to newly signed free agents.
They had the worst regular-season record of any World Series team ever, but when the pressure was on, Cardinals players stepped up -- even the unexpected ones. Lesser-known players like So Taguchi and Yadier Molina came up big. Shortstop David Eckstein, who had the fewest RBI of any big-league regular, knocked in big runs in the last two games to land the 2006 World Series MVP Award.
Japan Wins First WBC
Manager Sadaharu Oh receives the full honored toss after his team toppled Cuba to win the championship game on March 20 in the first World Baseball Classic. Although international baseball competitions had been held before, this was the first to use players from the American major leagues. The 16-team field played a total of 39 games in six cities in three countries.
Barry Bonds Passes the Babe
Giants outfielder Barry Bonds clubs his 715th home run on May 18, moving past Babe Ruth into second place on the all-time list. While Hank Aaron's 715th homer in 1974 was one of the greatest moments in baseball history, Bonds's blast was largely ignored by the American public. Allegations that he had abused steroids continued to dog Bonds, who was booed in every National League ballpark.
Ryan Howard Swats 58 Big Flys
Likable Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 2005, then followed it up with an MVP season in 2006. The 6'4", 230-pound slugger rocketed 58 home runs, eclipsing Mike Schmidt's team record by nine. In MVP balloting, he barely nosed out superstar Albert Pujols. He also captured the National League Hank Aaron Award.
George Mitchell Spearheads Investigation
In March 2006, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig hired former Senate majority leader George Mitchell to head an investigation into steroid use by major-league players -- including some of its top sluggers. After decades of ignoring the problem, MLB began drug testing in 2003 and started penalizing those who failed tests the following year. By the end of 2006, Mitchell's investigation was still ongoing.
Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes Spark Mets
Combining muscle and speed, Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes played huge roles in the Mets' return to postseason play in 2006. Beltran had his finest power year, with 41 homers and 116 RBI. He finished fourth in the National League in both slugging and MVP voting. Reyes won his second consecutive stolen base title (64) and added 17 triples to his 19 homers.
Trevor Hoffman Sets Major League Save Mark
Trevor Hoffman gave up two of the Dodgers' four ninth-inning homers in L.A.'s amazing comeback game on September 18. Nevertheless, Hoffman's remarkable consistency (38 saves or more in seven of eight seasons) was a large part of San Diego's second consecutive division title. In the process, Hoffman moved past Lee Smith to become the majors' career save leader. He finished the season with 482.
Alfonso Soriano Joins the 40/40 Club
On September 16, Washington's Alfonso Soriano removed the base that signified his 40th steal of the season. He thus became the fourth player ever to swipe 40 bases (41) and belt 40 homers (46) in the same year. When he laced his 40th double six days later, he became the first-ever 40-40-40 man. After the season, he signed an eight-year, $136 million deal with the Cubs.
L.A. Belts Four Straight Home Runs
It was one of the wildest finishes to a ballgame ever. The Dodgers, locked in a tight race for the National League West lead with the Padres, trailed San Diego by four runs as they batted in the last of the ninth on September 18. They proceeded to swat four consecutive homers – by Jeff Kent, J.D. Drew, Russell Martin, and Marlon Anderson -- to tie the game. The Padres re-took the lead in the 10th, but Nomar Garciaparra belted a two-run homer to give L.A. an 11-10 win.
Yadier Molina's HR Wins NLCS
The 2006 NLCS had a bit of everything: superb pitching, sensational defense, astonishing comebacks, and late-game heroics. Game Seven was tied 1-1 in the top of the ninth when catcher Yadier Molina popped one over the left-field fence to give the Cards a 3-1 lead. The drama wasn't over, though. The Mets threatened rookie closer Adam Wainwright, loading the bases before he fanned Carlos Beltran to end it.
2006 National League Highlights
The 2006 baseball season seemed like it might be the year of the Detroit Tigers. They had consistent numbers all season and then took out the Oakland A's in a dramatic manor to put them in the 2006 World Series. But, when they got there, they found the Cardinals were too much to handle.
• In NLDS action, the Mets sweep the Dodgers while the Cardinals top the Padres in four games.
• Yadier Molina's ninth-inning homer helps St. Louis beat the Mets in Game Seven of the NLCS.
• Thanks to hot pitching and eight Tigers errors, St. Louis defeats Detroit in five 2006 World Series games.
• David Eckstein's clutch hitting earns him the 2006 World Series MVP Award.
• St. Louis wins the National League Central with an 83-78 record, fending off a ferocious late-season charge by Houston.
• The National League East-champion Mets (97-65) are the only National League team with 90 victories.
• In the National League West, the Padres and Dodgers each go 88-74 and make the playoffs, with L.A. the wildcard.
• The Phillies' Ryan Howard wins the 2006 National League MVP Award.
• Howard tops the National League with 58 homers (a Phillies record) and 149 RBI.
• The 2006 National League Cy Young goes to Arizona's Brandon Webb (16-8).
• Albert Pujols of St. Louis smashes .331-49-137 and leads the National League in slugging (.671).
• Pittsburgh's Freddy Sanchez leads the senior circuit in batting (.344) and doubles (53).
• Trevor Hoffman's league-high 46 saves for San Diego give him 482 for his career -- a new Major League record.
• In March, the inaugural World Baseball Classic features players from the U.S. major leagues wearing the uniforms of their home countries. Japan wins the 16-team tournament, besting Cuba for the title.
• Two Team USA players make the WBC All-Star Team: Jeter and Cincinnati's Ken Griffey Jr.
• Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies goes hitless on April 6, ending his two-season hitting streak at 38 games, ninth longest ever.
• On April 9, Colorado's Cory Sullivan triples twice in one inning against San Diego.
• On May 28, Barry Bonds clubs his 715th career home run, moving him past Babe Ruth for second place on the all-time list. Bonds finishes the season with 734, just 21 behind Hank Aaron.
• With two outs in the top of the ninth inning, Texas's Michael Young slams a two-run triple that gives the American League its ninth straight All-Star Game victory.
• On September 6, Marlins rookie Anibal Sanchez pitches the first no-hitter in more than two years.
• Philadelphia's Chase Utley paces the National League in runs (131).
• Juan Pierre of the Cubs cracks a circuit-best 204 hits.
• Shortstop Hanley Ramirez of the Marlins is named the 2006 National League Rookie of the Year.
• Randy Johnson pockets his 4,500th career strikeout, the third most in history.
• The Cardinals open their new ballpark, which -- like its two predecessors -- is called Busch Stadium.
• Chipper Jones of the Braves ties a major league record with an extra-base hit in 14 straight games.
• Carlos Delgado of the Mets belts his 400th career homer.
• Atlanta's record of 14 consecutive division titles is finally snapped.
• Six National League pitchers tie for the lead in wins with just 16: Webb, Aaron Harang, Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, John Smoltz, and Carlos Zambrano.
• Bonds leads the National League in walks for the 11th time.
• The Marlins have an unprecedented four first-year hurlers with at least 10 wins: Sanchez, Josh Johnson, Scott Olson, and Ricky Nolasco.
• Joe Girardi lasts just one season as manager of the Marlins, but he wins National League Manager of the Year honors after he is fired.
• Jose Reyes of the Mets repeats as National League leader in triples (17) and steals (64).
• Pitcher Greg Maddux wins his 16th Gold Glove Award, tying him with Jim Kaat and Brooks Robinson for the most Gold Gloves for a career.
• The Baseball Hall of Fame's Special Committee on the Negro Leagues selects 17 Negro Leaguers for induction.
• Pitcher Bruce Sutter is elected to the Hall of Fame.
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