Michael Scott Matheny. Maybe the guy just might finally be getting it. Well, at least the last few weeks he seems to have figured it out. Can he do it for 162 games? We’ll see. But his adjustments have been maybe the reason why the Cardinals have not only turned the corner after a 3-9 start, but for the time being taken over first place in what looks like will be a much more competitive NL Central Division than national pundits thought.
Yeah, we all know the national media crowned the Cubs 2017 Division Champs well before the champagne even dried on the floor inside the Progressive Field visitor’s clubhouse on that November 2nd night. But John Mozeliak had other ideas, I know that. And he showed everyone that before the season started. Dexter Fowler and Brett Cecil were the answers. Fowler finally gave the Cardinals a true CF for the first time since at least 2010 with Colby Rasmus (though he may not have fit the mold still) and probably as far back as a decade ago with Jim Edmonds. Cecil provided another veteran arm to set up Trevor Rosenthal and Seung-hwan Oh after losing Zach Duke to Tommy John surgery. Both cost a lot, and both improved the team a lot. But that’s getting away from the real point of this post: Mike Matheny may finally be learning how to manage (don’t mind as I take time to do the ultimate cliché and “knock on wood.”).
If he has, even a little bit, this team is dangerous. With a rotation that is rounding in to form and looking like the rotation from 2015, as opposed to 2016, this team can compete with the league’s best teams. They’re a World Series contender. They have been as long as I’ve been a fan dating back to 2001, but this year (if healthy) is as good a team one through 25 as they’ve had. The flaws have been cleaned up, too. All of them fixable from last year, but all looked like they never would be fixed. And after starting with that 3-9 record, it seemed like 2016 may just repeat itself. Last year was a year doomed by injuries, horrible defense, mediocre starting pitching, and bad managing. And all of the sudden, those fixable problems seem to have been, dare I say it….fixed.
The defense has been anchored by better OF play with Fowler, and the infield has been fixed with Jedd Gyorko taking over at 3B and Aledmys Diaz relaxing and becoming stable at SS. The pieces now fit much better without Jhonny Peralta at 3B and Grichuk having to play CF.
The starting pitching is probably the number one change. With the exception of Adam Wainwright, guys are starting to find their career averages, that many lost last year. The return of Lance Lynn has been huge as well. He brings that certain edge about him, that the rotation lacked with John Lackey leaving and Lynn being hurt.
All that said is a side bar, though. Mike Matheny is actually managing in recent weeks. All those things managers do: playing their best players in the best positions and in best spots in the line-up (novel idea right?), not letting his SP flounder on in games they clearly don’t have it, and actually using a talented bullpen correctly. It’s been so amazingly refreshing that it’s been fun to watch the Cardinals for the first time in at least two years. Who knew that good baseball was more fun to watch that dumb error filled garbage? Well, it took Mike a couple years, but even he figured out which is better. There are countless examples how, but I have time for one glaring one: Tommy Pham. Though his return was brought on by injuries, playing him now every day in LF has been a huge key. Remember when Matt Adams was roaming LF? In a major league game??? Yeah, I tried to forget that too (as hard as it was to forget him singlehandedly lose a game against the Cubs by turning a Rizzo fly to LF in to a double). Mike has finally seemed to get exactly what Mo preached all offseason: let’s be better defensively and more athletic.
That’s what has helped the Cardinals these last few weeks. The young guys came up, provided energy, and instead of pulling them after one bad game, Mike has continued to play them through the ups and downs. Is Mike Matheny finally learning how to manage? If you’re a Cardinals fan, let’s hope so.