On June 19, 2011, Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols reached to his left for a wide throw just as the Royals’ Wilson Betemit, a speedy 220-pounder tasting an infield hit, began to lunge for the bag. In the sudden quiet of Busch Stadium, Pujols — a three-time MVP and the greatest hitter St. Louis had known since Stan Musial — dropped his glove, staggered halfway to the home dugout and crumbled to the grass with a broken wrist.
By that point, the baseball gods were just toying with manager Tony La Russa and his team.
Ace Adam Wainwright, a 20-game winner and Cy Young runner-up the season before, had been shut down in spring training and undergone Tommy John surgery. Third baseman David Freese was nearly two months into a stint on the disabled list with a broken hand. All-Star outfielder Matt Holliday had required an emergency appendectomy, of all maladies. The bullpen was a revolving door of chaos. And the manager? For weeks on end, La Russa had suffered with a painful, unsightly rash — shingles — on his face.
On the day Pujols went down, the Cardinals were nine games into a brutal 3-12 stretch that left them teetering at just above .500. Despite all that had gone wrong, at least they were still in the fight.
‘‘It was a struggle early,’’ said La Russa, speaking by phone Friday from the visiting manager’s office at Minute Maid Park in Houston. ‘‘But those were the first signs, that first couple of months, of how tough-minded the team was. They just weren’t going to give in.’’
It wasn’t until late August, however, that those Cardinals — La Russa’s last team as a manager before the 2021 White Sox — launched like a rocket. In the last 32 games of the regular season, they went 23-9, chipping away at the Braves’ 10½-game lead in the wild-card standings until every last bit of it was gone. OK, so the Braves’ 11-21 collapse in the final 32 games helped. Regardless, the charging Cardinals pulled into a tie on the next-to-last day of the season, won in Houston in Game 162, then watched in amazement in the clubhouse as the Braves lost their own finale to the Phillies in 13 innings.
‘‘It was shock when they got to three outs and it was over and we were in,’’ La Russa said. ‘‘Shock. An explosion of emotion.’’
And then the Cardinals won the whole damn thing, capping off one of the unlikeliest runs to a World Series title on record.
What La Russa’s team didn’t know entering the playoffs was that its manager was planning to retire after his 16th season with the Cardinals. And that’s ‘‘retire’’ in the old-fashioned sense, which is to say never, ever doing the 162-game grind again.
‘‘Oh, definitely,’’ he said. ‘‘I thought I was passing the baton. I’d had enough. I had no doubt that was it.’’
Right-hander Lance Lynn was a rookie on that 2011 team. Fittingly, his first go-round came with a 60-day DL stint. Still, talk about a dream come true — but with a bittersweet ending. La Russa called a team meeting right after the championship parade and made his intentions known.
‘‘It caught all of us by surprise,’’ Lynn said, ‘‘even the veterans.’’
Lynn, off to a Cy Young-caliber start in his first season with the Sox, knows more now than he did then about what was weighing on La Russa. At 66, the manager maintained an all-business disposition with his players, no matter how hard it might have been. At 76, he’s doing the same with the Sox.
Like the 2011 Cardinals, the Sox have been dealt a series of heavyweight punches in the injury department. Left fielder Eloy Jimenez — a self-described MVP candidate in 2021 — tore a pectoral muscle in spring training. Center fielder Luis Robert has been out since early May with a hip injury and might be months from a return. Second baseman Nick Madrigal is down for the season after shredding a hamstring.
Unlike the Cardinals, the Sox are winning so often — so far, anyway — that the possibility of missing the playoffs might seem, as of today, to be far-fetched. But that kind of thinking doesn’t fly with La Russa.
‘‘We all go through [adversity],’’ he said. ‘‘You’ve just got to have the commitment of ‘never give in, never give up.’ That’s what we’ve done.
‘‘But an important point: Just because we’ve done it doesn’t mean that we’ve got a guarantee. We’ve got to do it to the end. This club is making a special commitment, and we’re going to take our best shot.’’
And win the whole damn thing, maybe? It happened with La Russa’s last team. That must mean he’s going for a repeat.