When the Cardinals resume their season on Thursday night, Mike Shildt will be managing his first series at Wrigley Field. Five games in four days including a sun-and-moon split doubleheader Saturday.
As first road trips go, this isn’t exactly a soft landing for the new manager. But look at it this way: Shildt has a chance to make an instant, positive, impactful impression.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon isn’t sure what to make of this.
Which I think is funny.
First of all, Maddon told Cubs’ media he was saddened to learn of Mike Matheny’s firing in St. Louis.
After all, Maddon had a .610 winning percentage in his last 59 games versus Matheny.
Maddon’s domination of Matheny had reached the point where I expected Maddon to order Matheny to cut the grass at Wrigley this weekend. But Matheny’s dismissal now makes that impossible.
And Maddon is perplexed by his new rival manager on the St. Louis side.
Maddon, a devout Cardinals’ fan growing up, probably has heard about Shildt being a baseball son of the iconic George Kissell, the greatest baseball brain in Cardinals’ history. Kissell raised Shildt in this game. He taught Shildt everything. The late Kissell’s personal (and famous) book on teaching the Cardinals’ way of fundamentals training and playing the game was gifted to Shildt by Kissell’s son. That’s how highly Kissell thought of Shildt.
Maddon doesn’t know Shildt. But Maddon knew Kissell.
So Maddon kind of does know Shildt.
And Maddon definitely gives a Shildt because the new St. Louis manager may prove to be a more intriguing competitor than Matheny.
“I don’t know if it’s better or worse,” Maddon told reporters after his team’s 7-4 win at San Diego on Sunday. He pointed to the Reds’ revitalization after changing managers earlier this season.
Bryan Price was fired after a 3-15 start, and replaced by interim manager Jim Riggleman. The Cincinnatians have responded with a record of 40-38 since Riggleman moved into the pilot house. In getting reacquainted with respectability, the Reds swept the visiting Cubs in a four-game series at the Great American Ballpark.
“What it means, obviously — it’s almost like Cincinnati,” Maddon said of the Cardinals being under new management. “You’ve got to rework it. What are they like? What is this guy like? The personality of the team can change — what they’re willing to do, what they’re willing to try, how they react to situations. All that stuff changes with the new guy.”
But … Joe … the Cardinals are a drab 48-46. They’re in third place in the NL Central, with fourth-place Pittsburgh crowding them at only 1.5 games back. The Cardinals are six games under .500 in their last 62 games. And good grief the Cardinals are closer in the standings to last-place Cincinnati (only six games ahead of the Reds) than the first-place Cubs (7.5 games behind.)
“I just know I’ve got to get used to a new guy,” Maddon told the media pack. “If I could have watched maybe from a distance for a bit, I’d have a better feel for it. But I’m not worried about it in a sense. I’m just curious more than anything.”
The Cubs have the best record (55-38) in the National League. The first-place Cubs wrestled back control of the NL Central by winning 12 of their final 15 games before the All-Star break.
In a smashing show of force over those dozen games, the no-messing-around Cubs averaged 6.8 runs, slugged .476, ripped 41 doubles, cranked 18 bombaroos, and had a glistening .841 OPS with runners in scoring position.
After the extended hostilities on Chicago’s North side, the Cardinals jet to Cincinnati for three, then return home for a three-game set against the Cubs at Busch Stadium.
So coming out of the All-Star festival, the Cardinals will tangle with the Cubs in eight of their first 11 games. And the Reds had more All-Star reps (three) than the Cardinals (two.)
Since the start of 2016, the Cubs have the top record in the NL Central (regular season) at 250-166, .601. How large is the gap between the Cubs and their NL Central victims since the beginning of the ‘16 campaign? If we put together the division standings from the 2016 opener through the final game before the 2018 All-Star break, here’s the deficit for each team:
The Cardinals have won only 12 of their last 32 games at Wrigley Field.
I don’t know how Shildt will do against Cubs and Maddon. Shildt will need some time to get acclimated, and reassign coaching duties, and set up things his way.
But I don’t expect Shildt to be intimidated.
That was the most sickening aspect of the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry being flipped upside down since late in the 2015 campaign. In toppling the Cardinals from their position of power in the NL Central, the Cubs clearly had (and have) more talent, and they had a huge advantage in the manager vs. manager matchup. But it was just remarkable to me, how Maddon rattled Matheny, and got the tough old catcher to stand down. The infirmity was stunning considering Matheny’s old-school baseball mindset and his projected public image.
Shildt isn’t a big, dashing, rugged strong-looking individual. He doesn’t have the kind of physical profile you’d look for when auditioning actors for the role of the Charismatic Tough Intense Baseball Manager Superhero Leader Guy.
Shildt, however, is really smart. He may not have a roster that can match Maddon’s current roster in talent. But I’m thinking that maybe Maddon suspects Shildt’s brain may pose a more complex, difficult challenge than Matheny’s muscles.
“I’ve gotten to know Mike (Matheny) a little bit. I don’t know him that well,” Maddon said. “But I feel for him and his family. I do. That’s my immediate thought. It always concerns me when that happens. You think about the guy and you think about his family.”
Actually, I think Maddon feels a little blue for Maddon. He doesn’t have Matheny to kick around anymore. Maddon doesn’t have Matheny around to give away games to the Cubs.
I don’t think Shildt will enter this rivalry by standing on the top step of the visiting-team dugout at Wrigley and screaming four-letter missiles of invective across the field at Maddon. But that would be some kind of Shildt mind game, eh? The Cardinals will have a new manager at Wrigley. And this is the new manager’s first opportunity to change the same old results.
Thanks for reading …