10 things that have changed about the Cardinals

On July 14, the Cardinals lost, 8-2, at home to the Reds in a game that was plagued by two extended rain delays, two ugly Cardinals errors, one of the most baffling double switches I've ever seen and a Busch Stadium crowd that was doing an excellent collective impersonation of 40,000 sad mimes.

August 16th, 2018

On July 14, the Cardinals lost, 8-2, at home to the Reds in a game that was plagued by two extended rain delays, two ugly Cardinals errors, one of the most baffling double switches I've ever seen and a Busch Stadium crowd that was doing an excellent collective impersonation of 40,000 sad mimes. (My son still had a great time.) The Cardinals fell to one game over .500, 7 1/2 games out of first place in the National League Central, four games out of the second NL Wild Card spot and to a place of fan displeasure and disinterest the franchise hadn't been in roughly 25 years.

After the game, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak fired manager Mike Matheny, the third-longest-tenured manager in the NL, and installed Mike Shildt, a longtime organizational stalwart who'd been serving as bench coach. Since that move, the Cardinals have been arguably the best team in baseball.

There are many reasons Matheny probably needed to be fired, but still, firing a manager isn't supposed to make that much of a difference. Busch Stadium has gone from a peeved morgue to rocking every night as loud as it did in Albert Pujols' heyday. The Cardinals have won eight in a row, six consecutive series and are now only one game out of the second NL Wild Card spot and four games out of first place. It is, in its own way, as remarkable a turnaround as that famed 2011 comeback in which the Cardinals were 10 1/2 games out of the NL Wild Card on Aug. 24 and came back to win it. How is this happening? Here are 10 things that have changed during this remarkable month -- and an evluation as to whether or not they're sustainable.

1. The bullpen makeover.

Firing Matheny was the biggest change Mozeliak and general manager Mike Girsch made in the last month, but the bullpen shakeup is a close second. Cardinals reliever had been nightmarish in 2018 from day one, with free agents like Luke Gregerson, Brett Cecil and (especially) Greg Holland imploding alongside expected contributors like Tyler Lyons and Matt Bowman. On July 27, Mozeliak and company decided they'd had enough, waiving Holland and Lyons, trading Sam Tuivailala and placing Cecil on the disabled list with a suspiciously undisclosed foot injury. The bullpen became, essentially, Bud Norris and the kids, a cross section of young arms up from Memphis. The turnaround was instantaneous. Daniel Poncedeleon, Mike Mayers, Dakota Hudson and Jordan Hicks, all rookies, along with Norris and Yankees import Chasen Shreve have stopped the bullpen bleeding and have become legitimate weapons for Shildt to deploy, in a far more inventive fashion than his predecessor. And it might get even better soon: When Carlos Martinez returns from his current disabled list stint, he will be pitching out of the pen, not the rotation. Suddenly the team's fatal flaw is its strength.

2. Matt Carpenter. Cardinals fans watched Albert Pujols put together one of the greatest 11-year spans in baseball history while he wore the Birds on the Bat; it was like watching Ted Williams, every day, for 11 years. Well here's the thing about Matt Carpenter: Since June 1 he has been better than Albert Pujols ever was at any point of his Cardinals career. Carpenter's line since June 1: .308/.427/.699, for an OPS of 1.126. That is better than any year of Pujols' career, even his monster MVP seasons of 2008-09. Matt Carpenter has turned himself into the best hitter in baseball over the last three months, and it has culminated in this current Cardinals run, including a stretch where he hit eight homers in six games. https://www.mlb.com/cut4/matt-carpenters-home-run-streak-graded/c-286762146 If you're looking for ways to improve your lineup, having the best hitter in the sport does help.

3. The rotation flexibility. The current Cardinals rotation has only two of its original five members: Miles Mikolas and Luke Weaver (who missed his last start with a sliced finger). They have lost Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright and Alex Reyes to injury. But their remarkable minor league pitching depth has saved them. Austin Gomber, who had been helping out from the bullpen for part of the season, has now thrown 11 scoreless innings in his last two starts. John Gant has given up just two in his last two starts, both wins. And Jack Flaherty has become a sleeper Rookie of the Year candidate, putting up a 3.22 ERA and the highest strikeout rate on the team (11.1 K/9). Wacha is working his way back from injury - Wainwright's eventual return is likely more of the ceremonial variety - and it's a legitimate question as to what the Cardinals will do with him. And Shildt has shown a quick hook, something that has proven particularly helpful for pitchers like Weaver who typically struggle the third time through a lineup. Considering the injuries they have had, that the Cardinals' one constant all season has been terrific starting pitching is remarkable.

4. Bader. Your bWAR leader among rookies this year is not Ronald Acuna, or Juan Soto, or Gleyber Torres, or Miguel Andujar. It is Harrison Bader. EMBED TWEET PLEASE https://twitter.com/griersonleitch/status/1030094468995788800

Bader is second in fWAR, but you get the point. After the Cardinals traded Tommy Pham to Tampa Bay at the trade deadline, they handed the center field job to Bader, and he has responded by showcasing his otherworldy defense, blinding speed and even some real pop in his bat. Perhaps just as important, he plays with an exuberance that is undeniably contagious: He plays, frankly, like one of those 1980s Cardinals players, a shot of adrenaline that the sleepy Cardinals and sleepy Busch Stadium fans desperately needed.

5. Lineup clarity. One of the major issues plaguing Matheny, one that wasn't his fault at all, was figuring out how to get everybody enough at-bats, particularly in the outfield. Marcell Ozuna was entrenched in left field - his bat has shown some more life this month as well, for that matter - but the other spots were in constant flux, with Pham, Bader, Jose Martinez, rookie Tyler O'Neill and the profoundly struggling Dexter Fowler all fighting for at-bats. That issue has been resolved, at least temporarily. Pham has been traded, Fowler broke his foot and Martinez has shown he can handle right field enough to justify keeping his bat in the lineup (though Shildt regularly subs him out in late innings). Shildt is a more creative manager than Matheny, but he doesn't actually move his lineup around that much. Everybody now knows their roles.

6. Good fortune. The Cardinals have now won six consecutive series, with four of them coming against teams who had a winning record when the series began. But the Cardinals did catch those teams at good times. The Cubs and Rockies were still steadying around the trade deadline, the Pirates were sorting themselves (and finding their natural level probably) after the Chris Archer trade, the Marlins and the Royals are the Marlins and the Royals, and the Nationals had just lost a nationally televised Sunday night game against the Cubs in the worst possible fashion. The schedule remains difficult moving forward: They have three against Milwaukee at Busch after tonight's finale of the four-game set against Washington, and then they travel to Los Angeles and Colorado. It would behoove them to stay as hot as possible as long as they can.

7. Defensive improvements. Bader has locked down the outfield now, but the infield defense has been much improved as well, with Paul DeJong back to normal after a wrist injury, Jedd Gyorko holding down third base and, mostly, Kolten Wong as maybe the best second baseman in the game. The Cardinals' defense still makes some errors, but it's more stable than it has been any other time this season. Yairo Munoz, currently on the DL, has shown a position versatility that has been a big help too.

8. The salsa. It's also possible it's just the salsa. EMBED TWEET PLEASE https://twitter.com/Cardinals/status/1029386685606494210

9. Yadi. Oh, yes, we should probably talk about Yadier Molina. Yadier Molina is 36 years old, missed a month earlier this year after being hit directly in the groin by a Kris Bryant foul ball off a Jordan Hicks fastball - which is basically a nuclear fastball - and is already seventh in innings caught in MLB history. And he hasn't had a day off in a month. Seriously: Molina has caught 23 straight games, and, as Viva El Birdos pointed out https://www.vivaelbirdos.com/2018/8/16/17695868/what-yadier-molina-is-doing-is-absurd-and-amazing , the game before the streak was actually the second game of a doubleheader. Which means Molina the last full day off Molina has had - the last day the Cardinals played and he didn't - was July 8. How has he responded to this usage? He has gotten better. His second-half slash line is .318/.377/.464, and he has batted exclusively in the No. 2 spot since Shildt took over. And he's still making plays like this from behind the plate: EMBED VIDEO PLEASE https://www.mlb.com/video/molina-fields-bunt-to-nab-soto/c-2381496283?tid=6479266

Yadier Molina is basically the Tom Cruise of baseball at this point. You have no idea how he's doing all these stunts at this age, and rather than question it, you can only just sit back and marvel at it. Molina has stepped up his game since the team got hot; as St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Derrick Goold put it, it's "WBC Yadi, World Series Yadi." Molina is always at his best when his team has something good cooking. He's, somehow, at his best right now.

10. Shildt. Perhaps one should not overthink this. Shildt is new to Cardinals fans, but he's not new to the Cardinals players, many of whom have worked with him their entire careers. He runs a drama-free clubhouse, with a daily meeting that Carpenter has said is like "daily therapy." https://www.101sports.com/audio/cardinals-matt-carpenter-on-how-the-teams-new-daily-meetings-have-been-like-group-therapy/ And he has proven himself strategically inventive in a way that's far more in line with his front office than Matheny ever was. Even when the Cardinals were still playing .500 ball in the first week or so after Shildt took over, you could still see a clear and obvious difference in the team, both on and off the field. You could tell it was different. Now the Cardinals are seeing those results. Mike Shildt is still officially the interim manager of the Cardinals. But the way things are going right now, and the way things have gone since he took over, he won't stay that way for much longer.