Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon
news

MLB News arrow-downArrow Down icon Arrow Up icon

This is why the Cardinals' strong start matters

@MikeLupica
May 1, 2019

Another Cardinals season was going the wrong way, which means another season that wasn’t pointed in the direction of October, and so John Mozeliak, who runs baseball operations in St. Louis, made as tough a call as he has had to make since taking over the running of the team:

Another Cardinals season was going the wrong way, which means another season that wasn’t pointed in the direction of October, and so John Mozeliak, who runs baseball operations in St. Louis, made as tough a call as he has had to make since taking over the running of the team: He fired Mike Matheny and hired Mike Shildt.

Shildt started last July 15. Since then, the Cardinals have the best record in the National League at 60-38. Only the Tampa Bay Rays have been better in baseball over that time, at 60-35.

Now last season has become this season in St. Louis. The Cardinals are back in first place in the NL Central. This matters, because the Cardinals matter.

Their pitching has yet to catch up with their hitting, even though the pitching has gotten a lot better since the Cardinals had to play seven games early against the Brewers. The Cardinals started out 3-5. After that, they won 16 of their next 21.

They have Paul Goldschmidt in St. Louis now. They traded for Marcell Ozuna a year ago, and Dexter Fowler is back to being the kind of hitter he used to be. Jose Martinez, who was supposed to be their fourth outfielder, is hitting a fast .364.

And that isn’t even the best part, as far as Mozeliak is concerned. The best part is that he thinks his shortstop, Paul DeJong, has been even more of a star than any of them.

DeJong is still just 25. He has 40 hits in 29 games and a .342 batting average with five home runs and an OPS of 1.010. And did we mention that the kid is a shortstop? Yeah. We sure did.

“Look at what [DeJong] is doing as a shortstop,” Mozeliak said. “I know how [Cody] Bellinger and [Christian] Yelich are hitting the ball out of the park. But I put our guy up there with the best guys right now.”

But Mozeliak says that to apply context and proportion to where the Cardinals are and what they have been doing for nearly the past 100 games, you have to start by talking about the work that a baseball lifer like Shildt has done managing his baseball team.

There was all this talk last summer, when it was clear that Matheny was in big trouble in St. Louis, that Mozeliak might hire a bigger name. He stayed in his organization and moved Shildt up instead. The Cardinals ended up making a run at a Wild Card in the NL. Now here they are.

I mentioned to Mozeliak on Wednesday that the vibe created when Shildt took the job really has carried over into 2019.

“It’s a good way to describe this: a good vibe,” he said. “For sure, it starts with the manager and his staff and how they approach every single day. And trust me, it began long before this season began. Mike and his staff were extremely strategic, before they got anywhere near Spring Training, about what they expected from our players. And it’s worked.

“You know what the narratives were for us over the past few years -- poor baserunning, poor defense. So there was a purpose from the start to put all those things behind us. I know everybody always likes to talk about preparation. But I feel [Shildt’s] has been exceptional.

“Now we’ve been able to produce the record we have since he took over, with all of us understanding how far there is to go, and that all the things we’re doing right now are just steppingstones.”

For the first month of the season, they have looked as complete as any team in their league. Of course, the presence of Goldschmidt -- at first base, in the middle of Shildt’s batting order -- has made a huge difference in St. Louis. He is just one of those guys -- one who makes the guys in front of him better, and the guys who come after him. And he has helped mightily in making the Cardinals such an entertaining offense to watch so far.

“The last three weeks, we’ve played very well offensively,” Mozeliak said. “Very well and very consistently, whether you’re talking about up front, or in the middle or in the back of the order. The production keeps coming from somewhere.

“But then our goal coming into this season was to not solely be dependent on power. We wanted to be a team that could score in different ways. We wanted to be a team that could go from first to third. And that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Then he was back to talking about Goldschmidt, who despite having hit nine home runs already, gives you the impression that they haven’t seen anything from him yet in St. Louis.

“He does so much for us,” Mozeliak said. “You are always looking for the best way to deploy your resources and improve your team. We deployed them to get Paul. A middle-of-the-order guy who can hit the way he can hit, and who’s also a Gold Glove first baseman. Then you add the fact that he wanted to be in St. Louis, which is why we got the (five-year, $130 million) extension done.”

So here Goldschmidt is. Here come the Cardinals. They have only been three seasons out of the playoffs. It feels like 300 in St. Louis, the capital of one of the best and most wonderful fan bases in all of professional sports in this country. They finished last season strong (34-20 in August/September). Now they’ve started this season the same way.

“It’s been fun so far,” Mozelia said. “Hey, we’re drawing 40,000 a game. We all know there’s a long way to go. Everybody knows that. But people like our team so far. It’s been dynamic.”

And matters. Because the Cardinals do.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.