I have always been a fan of ‘Year in Review’ posts. Whether it is about sports or politics or just current events in general, I always find myself reading them. Now I’m going to put together my own review of 2015, one with a focus on St. Louis sports. Unfortunately it hasn’t been a very great year of sports overall, but I will do my best to be positive within reason. Also doing my best to keep this short, here’s a review of St. Louis sports in 2015.
Starting with some good news, the St. Louis Cardinals had a magical regular season winning 100 games while fighting through major injury adversity. Adam Wainwright made four starts at the beginning of the season before tearing his achilles in Milwaukee. Just like his team, Wainwright miraculously overcame his injury and returned on Sept.30. That day the Cardinals clinched the NL Central in Pittsburgh with their 100th win of the season. After an off day the division-winners went to play the 95-loss Atlanta Braves. Three games later the Cards ended the season still having 100 wins while the Braves still had 95 losses–St. Louis was swept in Atlanta. This was a sign of things to come.
One and Done
Being swept by one of the worst teams in the league before the playoffs started was a bad sign. The NLDS pitted St. Louis against their historic rivals who call Wrigley home. John Lackey carried the Cardinals to a Game 1 victory throwing 7.1 scoreless innings. Then everything went sour. Game 2 starter Jaime Garcia only went two innings giving up five runs. He was supposedly suffering from stomach ailments at the time. Why he did not make the coaching staff aware of this before the game may haunt this franchise for quite a while. Feeling good after evening the series at Busch, the baby bears went back to Chicago and handed the Cardinals two more losses and an early exit.
Losses Continue into the Winter
Amidst much speculation regarding a large uptick in payroll due to a new television contract, the Cardinals went into free agency ready to make a splash. It was clear they would pursue high-dollar targets David Price and Jason Heyward. Neither star would choose to play in St. Louis in 2016. John Lackey rejected his qualifying offer and decided to play out the twilight of his career in Wrigley. In an effort to improve their bench, the Cardinals sent Jon Jay to San Diego for Jedd Gyorko who should bring some power while serving as a utility infielder. They also signed Mike Leake to eat up the innings left open after Lance Lynn’s Tommy John surgery. Personally I would be surprised if the Cardinals were done building this winter, especially in the bullpen.
Blues winning the division
Speaking of first round exits… oh wait, I’m sorry, I said I would be positive. The St. Louis Blues won the best division in hockey, the Central, in 2014-2015. Making the title sweeter was doing it by beating Chicago and seeing Nashville fall to Minnesota that same night, April 10. This was the end of the franchise’s third 50-win season.
One and Done (again)
Winning the division, in part, because Minnesota won turned out to be a sign of things to come. The Blues drew the Wild in the first round. Many fans were just happy not to face Chicago in the playoffs; it didn’t matter. Once again the Note didn’t show up. They lost Game 1 at home 4-2 and then salvaged the second home game 4-1. After being shutout in Game 3 in Minnesota, the Blues won Game 4 just to fall in the next two and once again go on vacation early. While there were some positive signs in the series, Tarasenko showing he can score in the playoffs & Jake Allen’s solid play without any help in front of him, the front office still promised change. It came. General Manager Doug Armstrong shipped T.J. Oshie to Washington for Troy Brouwer, who had an up-and-down first half of the 2015-16 season. They also added role players Kyle Brodziak and Scottie Upshall.
Another Shot — 2015-16 St. Louis Blues
Much like the Cardinals 2015 season, the Blues have dealt with a fair share of injuries to start the 2015-16 season. Kevin Shattenkirk, a key offensive piece on the blue line, missed ten games. $7 million center Paul Stastny missed 16 games. Perhaps the most significant injury has been left-wing Jaden Schwartz’s severe ankle injury suffered in an early-season practice. Schwartz only played seven games before the injury. Fans have seen in the past how poorly the Blues play without the young winger. His talent and energy are sorely missed. He is expected back at the end of January. Sticking to the positive theme, Tarasenko has been near the top of the league in goals all season and defenseman Colton Parayko has had a terrific first half of his rookie season.
#STLNFL Stadium Situation
It’s hard to write about St. Louis sports in 2015 without discussing the dark cloud hanging over the sports scene. Luckily I can confidently say that 2015 was a great year for the city of St. Louis and its effort to remain an NFL city. The STLNFL Task Force led by Dave Peacock and Bob Blitz made more progress in a year and a half than the cities of San Diego and Oakland did in more than a decade each. The task force’s hard work means St. Louis will head to the crucial owner’s meeting in January with a real stadium plan that could break ground as is, something the other two cities can not say.
Rams, Mediocrity, Jeff Fisher, and the Big Picture
On the field things were more of the same for professional football in St. Louis. I could talk about the specific problems the team has or the bright spots on this year’s team, but instead I’m going to look at the big picture. Why? Because the Rams will never be successful unless the big picture is fixed.
Jeff Fisher, king of .500 football, held a 27-35 record with the Rams heading into the last game of the 2015 season. A win in that final game would give Fisher his first non-losing season in St. Louis and first overall since 2009 in Tennessee. This coaching regime can no longer play the ‘rebuilding’ card as the Arizona Cardinals have finished a rebuild in less time. So while Rams fans watch the football Cardinals potentially host the NFC Championship game, they will be forced to accept the fact that Kroenke doesn’t care enough to fire Fisher and bring someone in who can actually lead this team back to the playoffs.
This section became quite opinionated quick, and I apologize. The point is, any progress the Rams made on the field in 2015 won’t matter until the STLNFL situation is resolved and Kroenke’s ulterior motives are destroyed.
Rebuilding in Columbia
Historically, Mizzou Arena has been a place where fans could go to see some competitive basketball. In 110 years as a major program, Mizzou boasts a 1593-1097 record (Fun fact: Norm Stewart coached for 967 of those wins) and 26 tournament berths. Not lately. The Tigers only earned nine wins in the 2014-15 season, the first under Kim Anderson. The MU alumnus will start 2016 in the middle of his second year of completely rebuilding the program. Personally I have faith he will get the job done, but for now there’s not much to watch on the hardwood.
Disappointing Football & a Change of Guard
Speaking of getting the job done, Gary Pinkel won 118 games in his 15 years at Mizzou. However, 2015 was a tough year for Missouri and its coach both on and off the field. Suffering only its second losing season since 2004, the Tigers desperately missed the previous year’s senior class. The proverbial cherry on top of the already disappointing season came on Nov. 13 when the program’s leader in wins announced his retirement due to health concerns. The Mizzou legend earned what would be his last win in Arrowhead Stadium the next day; GP gave fans a moment to remember after the game. 2016 will be a year of firsts on the football field in Columbia. The first time since 2000 that Pinkel wasn’t calling the shots. Barry Odom has a big job in front of him.
Illinois Basketball and Football a Mess
…and then there’s Illinois. Where do you start with this athletic program in 2015? Head coach Tim Beckman was fired less than a month before the football season started after having some ugly accusations levied against him. A few months later the athletic director would suffer the same fate. After reaching the third round of the tournament in his first year, John Groce has led the basketball team to mediocrity since. They ended the 2014-15 season with a 19-14 record and have started the new season with a 8-6 record. The program hasn’t been ranked higher than 23 nationwide since the 2012-13 season. Paul Kowalczyk is serving as interim athletic director while the school decides its next course of action.
Following A Legend
At the end of the 2013-14 school year, St. Louis University graduated five senior basketball players who won more games than any other class in the program’s history. These students played under both legendary coach Rick Majerus and Jim Crews, his understudy and successor after Majerus’ premature demise in 2012. Crews carried on the program’s success for two years, but then fell on hard times in 2014-15. SLU will enter 2016 under .500 as Crews looks to bring the program back to where it was a few years ago.
Trying to be positive:
After all of the more disheartening news of the past year, let’s try to end this story with some good news.
Vladimir Tarasenko is an Elite Scorer and he is Here to Stay
217 games into his NHL career, Tarasenko has scored 88 goals and put up 174 points in the regular season and he has also scored 10 goals in 13 career playoff games. Analysts and fans agree that he is the most exciting goal scorer St. Louis has seen since Brett Hull. Perhaps the best part is that the 23-year-old signed an eight year contract this summer, cementing his place in St. Louis for the near future.
Jake Allen’s Breakout
In 2005 the St. Louis Blues used their third round draft pick to select 6’7″ goaltender Ben Bishop. Three years later the Blues selected another goaltender, Jake Allen, with their second round draft pick. Bishop would obviously reach the NHL before the younger Allen would, but the Blues’ front office knew they had two starting goalies on their hands. In February of 2012 the Blues made their decision and shipped big Ben Bishop to Ottawa for a second round draft pick. Bishop was 4-5-1 with a shutout in his limited opportunity in St. Louis. The goaltender wasn’t in Ottawa long before he was traded to Tampa Bay where he would mind the net for a Lightning team that went to the Stanley Cup Finals. Bishop posted three shutouts in the playoff run.
No pressure for Jake Allen, huh? Jake “The Snake” Allen arrived in the NHL shortly after Bishop was traded in the 2012-13 season. Transitioning from a backup goalie to sharing time with Elliott, Allen got his feet wet in the NHL. His opportunity came in the 2014-15 playoffs when Hitchcock all but named him the starting goalie throughout the playoffs. Allen performed well, but didn’t receive much help from the skaters in front of him. The Blues opened 2015-16 season with Allen and Elliott sharing time, but Allen’s solid play (18-8-2, .927 save pct., 5 SOs going into the last game of 2015) earned him the starting spot.
Allen has been a bright spot in 2015 and I look forward to seeing what he can grow into as a regular NHL starter.
Young Stars Under The Arch
In 2015 Cardinals fans heard plenty about Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler and Addison Russell. Meanwhile, the Cardinals received a large amount of production from their own young stars. Tommy Pham and Randal Grichuk were huge playmakers in the outfield when healthy. Kolten Wong is still young himself with much potential to improve. Yet 2015’s biggest breakout came from two other young birds: Stephen Piscotty & Carlos Martinez.
Piscotty started 2015 in AAA Memphis where he played 87 games and hit .272 with 11 home runs. The average could have been higher had Piscotty not hit lower than .255 the first two months of the season while working on his swing. He received his call-up in July and took off immediately. After being drafted in 2012, the Stanford graduate hit .305 with 7 home runs in only 63 games as a major leaguer. Piscotty hit .375 in the four playoff games against the Cubs, including 3 home runs in only 16 at bats. This young man went from Stanford to hitting 3 home runs in MLB playoff games in only three years. What a great 2015 for Piscotty.
Much like Piscotty, Cardinals fans knew Carlos Martinez had the potential to be something special. Mostly serving as a reliever before 2015, Martinez earned a spot in the starting rotation in 2015. He did not disappoint. In 179.2 innings Martinez posted 14 wins, 182 strikeouts and a 3.01 ERA. Selected an All-Star for the first time in his career, CMart was dominant when he was throwing strikes with his sharp breaking pitches and impressive fastball. Unfortunately his season was ended early due to a shoulder injury.
Aaron Donald very well may be on his way to Canton
Similar to Martinez, Aaron Donald is an All-Star player who still shows signs of growth. Only 31 games into his NFL career, Donald boasts 20 sacks, including 11 heading into the last game of the 2015-16 NFL season. It’s important to note that Donald had these incredible performances in 2015 with Robert Quinn and Chris Long missing 11 games combined. This meant No. 99 was often facing a double team, but he often didn’t let that stop him. If Aaron Donald can be blessed with a healthy career he may just find himself in the Professional Football Hall of Fame.
Randy Karraker Stands Up for St. Louis
In late October the NFL held relocation hearings in all three cities that may lose a team. The league invited fans of each team to stand in front of NFL executives and give a short speech about what football means to them. St. Louis Rams fans did a spectacular job. The highlight of the evening came when Randy Karraker, St. Louis sports talk figure and original Rams seat license owner, gave an emotional speech not only exclaiming his love for the Rams, but proving how poor Enos Kroenke has treated St. Louis. I beg you to listen to this speech. Later that week Bernie Miklasz wrote this piece, titled “Unless the Fix Is In, St. Louis Is Winning the Race.” I think this speech and what it meant for the city was a big part of 2015 and potentially another thirty plus years down the road in the new stadium.
Gurley is Good
If the Rams do stay in St. Louis, Karraker is going to enjoy watching a certain young running back. Todd Gurley’s 2015 numbers (13 games): 1106 rushing yards on 229 attempts, 188 receiving yards, and 10 touchdowns. He put up these numbers one year removed from tearing his ACL and behind a poor offensive line. It’s safe to say that he is going to be something special, no matter what a jealous opponent will say.
Oh and Bernie Miklasz is back on radio.
But I’m probably more excited about that than most people…
I tried to be positive and I tried to keep things short, but I’m not sure how successful I was in either area. 2015 certainly wasn’t the greatest year the area’s sports teams have ever had, but I have a feeling it won’t stop sports fans from coming back for more.
Here’s hoping 2016 brings more joy.
Thanks for reading…