The St. Louis Cardinals are exactly what we as Cardinal Nation thought they were. They are winners. The start of this season has been heartbreaking and exciting at the same time.
The offseason found the Birds basking in the afterglow of a World Series title. Seemingly in the next second Manager Tony La Russa announced his retirement. A short time later the club lost one of the greatest players to ever wear the birds on the bat (Has anyone seen what he’s doing so far to earn that ridiculous money for that team on the West Coast?). Longtime La Russa associate Dave Duncan took a long term leave to tend to his ill wife.
After overcoming the shock of those losses the Redbirds went on with the business of preparing for a title defense. With new Manager Mike Matheny firmly ensconced GM John Mozeliak went about putting the puzzle pieces together to move forward. There was the signing of free agent Carlos Beltran. They moved Lance Berkman to first base. Then they began trying to figure out who would play second base on a regular basis.
Cardinal Nation was excited about the return of Adam Wainwright after a year of recovery from Tommy John surgery. The thoughts of a Chris Carpenter and Wainwright one-two punch made the changes much more palatable. Yadier Molina was signed to a long term deal which will most likely have him in the Cardinal red for the remainder of his career. All seemed to be right with the world.
Spring Training finally arrived. It was time to see Matheny’s new look birds finally take the field. With the returning veterans and Hall of Famers in camp it looked to be a great start. Then staff ace Carpenter came up lame and the thoughts of a great start seemed to fall to pieces.
Finally opening day arrived and we got to see just what was going to happen for real. Was this team ready? Would they follow Matheny and pick up where they left off? How would Derek Lilliquist fare replacing the legendary Duncan? Would they be able to produce runs at a sufficient rate to offset the setbacks with the pitching staff? Would they be smarter on the base paths? Would they be able to run like the the Cards of the Whiteyball era?
The answer so far has been a resounding YES! Mozeliak has to be pleased. While it is too early to base the remainder of the season on the brief snapshot we have witnessed so far, it is safe to say that this club is playing to repeat. If you had told me that the Cards would be where they are today with Carp injured, Berkman gimped up, Freese trying to shake off a hand injury, and Wainwright getting shelled in the home opener I would never have thought that the Cards would be 9-3. I would have told you that you had completely lost your mind.
I am not sure that I am surprised at all. This organization is professional. They have made some tough decisions that weren’t always popular. They have worked their plan to perfection and will continue to do so. Matheny has proven to be a quality guy and a leader that this team is following and making him look like an old pro at the managing game. There are others that deserve some credit here as well. Hitting Coach Mark McGwire and Assistant John Mabry have proven to be exceptional at working with young hitters and veterans alike. Carlos Beltran has even adopted McGwire’s old entrance music for his at bats. It was great to hear that Friday night. Lilliquist has stepped into an impossible job of replacing Dunc and has made it look seamless.
While we are barely into the 162 game season I am proud of what the team has accomplished with the adversity it has faced thus far. It won’t be smooth the rest of the season, especially until Carp comes back and Waino returns to form, but the Birds will overcome those obstacles too. The signs I see from last years run are present now. They are playing to win each series. Get two out of three games each series and the Cards will be contenders for sure. They appear to be playing for each other as they did during the push to get into the playoffs and on their way to the Championship. This club seems to have rallied behind Matheny and each other. While I relish the role of the underdog for our Cards, they aren’t going to sneak up on anybody especially if Freese and Yadi stay hot. This is going to be a lot of fun to watch in the coming months. I’m looking forward to watching the ride.