It has been exactly one month since former manager, Mike Matheny, was fired by the St. Louis Cardinals following a loss to the Cincinnati Reds. As a result of the loss, the Cardinals record fell to 47-46 at the time, which put them 7.5 games back of the first place Chicago Cubs.
Fast forward to today. It is Wednesday, August 15, and the Cardinals are sporting a 65-55 record. They are currently four games behind the Cubs and just two games out of a National League Wild Card spot. The team has gone 17-9 under interim manager, Mike Shildt, and could have found themselves even closer to first place in the NL Central division had it not been for the incredible heroics of David Bote this past Sunday night.
The Cardinals had a massive culture problem in the first half of this season, with much of the blame falling on Matheny for his lack of leadership. Bad strategic decisions, horrible defense, and a toxic locker room were just some of the issues that were dragging the team down.
Brandon Kiley, who produces and writes for WXOS-ESPN 101.1 in St. Louis, highlighted these problems just two days before Matheny was eventually fired.
Mike Matheny has come under fire multiple times recently for his leadership (or lackthereof). He's been mocked mercilessly for his tactical decision-making. Now, there are headlines about how poorly he comes off in Saxon's article.
What, exactly, is he bringing to the table?
— Brandon Kiley (@BKSportsTalk) July 12, 2018
It was clear that the Cardinals needed a drastic change in leadership and personnel in order to turn the ship around and hope to salvage anything from the 2018 season.
The Cardinals did exactly that in July, with the firing of Matheny being the first step. The team then announced that then bench coach, Mike Shildt, would move from that position and become the interim manager. Many other names were floated around to potentially take the managerial job, including Joe Girardi, as well as John Mabry and Bill Mueller, who was serving as the team’s hitting coaches at the time.
However, The Cardinals’ President of Baseball Operations, John Mozeliak, decided to overhaul a large portion of the coaching staff instead. Mozeliak named Shildt as the interim manager and also promoted the team’s Triple-A hitting coach, Mark Budaska, as well as hitting instructor, George Greer, to the replace Mabry and Mueller as the hitting coach tandem.The @Cardinals have stayed alive in the National League postseason race thanks to the culture change of new leadership.Click To Tweet
The impact on the Cardinals’ lineup has been extremely positive since the coaching change, as the team is currently on a torrid pace in August. The team is hitting a collective .309 in the month of August while hitting .281 overall since the MLB All-Star break. This is a major improvement over the .255 cumulative average the team showed in the first half of the season.
Several of the Cardinals’ offensive stars are starting to return to form under the new leadership as well. Marcell Ozuna, for example, is hitting .291 since the All-Star break after a slow first half with his new team. Paul DeJong, while still struggling to hit for average, has shown the power that earned him a six-year contract extension after a breakout rookie season in 2017. DeJong has already smacked four home runs in just the first two weeks of August after hitting just nine home runs all season long up to this point.
Another shift in the Cardinals’ offense took place when the team decided to trade outfielder, Tommy Pham, to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for a package of prospects. The move came as a shock to many fans of the Red Birds due to Pham’s breakout 2017 season in which he hit .285 with 23 home runs in 128 games. However, Pham was in the midst of a horrible slump in the months of May and June this year, hitting for just a combined .197 in those months. The trade led to more playing time for one of the Cardinals’ rising stars, Harrison Bader, and he has responded in kind by hitting a scorching-hot .325 in August. The move also allowed the team to call up Tyler O’Neill, one of the team’s top prospects, who was hitting .311 with 26 home runs in Triple-A Memphis at the time.
The Cardinals have also benefited from stable, strong starting pitching despite the current absence of Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez. The team has already made it clear that Martinez will pitch out of the bullpen when he returns since they believe that he will not have enough time to regain the form needed to pitch deep into ballgames going forward. Martinez, if healthy, could turn into a powerful weapon out of the bullpen for the Cardinals as they attempt to make a run at the Wild Card play-in game.
Luckily for the Cardinals, losing Martinez is not likely to hurt their starting rotation all that much. St. Louis has found gold in reliever-turned-starter, Miles Mikolas, and 22-year old phenom, Jack Flaherty. Mikolas holds an impressive 12-3 record with a 2.85 ERA in 24 starts, while Flaherty sports a 6-6 record with a 3.22 ERA with 127 strikeouts in 103.1 innings pitched. The Cardinals also picked up former Padres starter, Tyson Ross, whom they claimed off waivers over a week ago. Ross already made an immediate impact, delivering a victory in his debut with the team just two days ago against the Kansas City Royals.
Wacha, meanwhile, is on the comeback trail and hoping to rejoin the Cardinals’ rotation in the next few weeks. His return will round out the Red Birds‘ starting five and give them a real chance to shake things up in the National League playoff race.
Whether or not the Cardinals’ have what it takes to sneak into the playoffs remains to be seen, and they will certainly face a lot of stiff competition to get there. One thing, however, is abundantly clear: the St. Louis Cardinals have transformed their team’s culture and attitude, and it has paid off in the best way possible. Baseball in St. Louis is once again fun, exciting, and is providing fans with reason to believe in the 2018 Cardinals ballclub.