There have been plenty of ‘if you’d told me’ comments flying around regarding your St. Louis Cardinals.
“If you’d told me in May they’d be leading the National League Wild Card race on Aug. 23, I’d have said you’re nuts.”
“If you’d told me they’d be winning so consistently with this roster and within three games of the Cubs in late August, I’d have told you to lay off the pipe.”
“If you’d told me in April the bench coach (Mike Shildt) would garner NL Manager of the Year talk late in the season, I would’ve just punched you in the face.”
Some of these may be a tad specific, but you get the picture. The Cardinals have defied expectations on another level since placing Shildt in Mike Matheny’s old spot, enough so the interim manager has baseball pundits placing him in NL Manager of the Year discussion.
And why not? If you’d have told us, even for someone with Shildt’s baseball acumen, that he could get what he has from this Cardinals team, we probably would have told you to temper your expectations. But here we are, and though it is true the club beefed up Shildt’s bullpen in his successor’s wake, you can give the current manager a whole bunch of credit for recent success.
“When a new manager comes in, particularly when it’s someone from inside the organization, you think a little bit of improvement, but nothing like this. This is a staggering improvement,” USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale recently told ‘The Fast Lane.’
The scribe went on to give the national perspective on the Birds and Shildt’s job at the helm.
“It wasn’t a Washington Nationals team that was grossly underachieving or anything like that. It was just like, ‘Well, maybe this team is a mediocre team.’ They hadn’t made the playoffs the past couple years; maybe the Cardinals had overrated themselves,” Nightengale said.
“Then to see a guy like this come in and the players playing so relaxed…That’s what’s waking up a whole lot of people who are saying, ‘Wow. How is this possible?’ Nobody gets more out of their farm system than the Cardinals, but to do it with their own homegrown talent with their own homegrown guy, it’s very, very special.”
Would Nightengale, as a member of the Baseball Writers of America, find it hard to vote for someone for skipper of the year whose MLB managing experience totals just a few months?
“Not when a guy has done this,” Nightengale said. “Right now the leader in the clubhouse would be whoever wins the National League East between the Phillies and the Braves, just because they’ve been there all year long. But if these two teams continue to play .500 baseball until someone kind of backs in the playoffs, and particularly if the Cardinals come back and make the playoffs, not just win the Wild Card but actually beat out the Cubs, then that opens the eye to say, ‘Man, you know what? Let’s give this guy the Manager of the Year Award.”
‘Some of the most dramatic in history’
As stated above, the Cardinals are only three games behind the NL Central-leading Cubs, a spot not many thought possible just a few weeks ago. Outside of Wednesday’s 8-2 win over Detroit, the Cubbies have had myriad problems scoring to coincide with the Cardinals’ rise up the standings.
Being as no one saw this coming, can the Cardinals keep it up and challenge the Northsiders for the Central crown?
“I think it’s very realistic. I wouldn’t have believed this even as long as a week ago, but just the way they’re doing it,” Nightengale said. “I booked a room in Chicago for that final weekend series saying, ‘You know what? This could be some of the most dramatic Cardinals-Cubs regular season games in the history of both franchises…I think there’s a real opportunity.”
Stay tuned to 101 ESPN and 101Sports.com for plenty of Cardinals chatter and analysis as the season rolls on.