By: Chris Larson
It was just a mere three weeks ago when we all thought the Cardinals had sailed off into the yonder and would no longer be relevant in terms of being a contender this season. Well, here we sit nearly three weeks later and the Cardinals have re-emerged as a threat to all of baseball and have had an incredible run since virtually the All-Star Break.
Even more amazing is the fact that this was a team that fired their skipper, Mike Matheny, a little over a month ago and an organization that was pondering about the idea of selling off some assets, at the trade deadline, to build back up their prospect and player depth. Talk about a tale of two worlds and something that the Cardinals should have no fear boasting about.
Heading into play today, the Cardinals hold sole possession of the second NL Wild Card spot, with a 68-56 record, and are 4 and 1/2 games back of the division leading Chicago Cubs in the NL Central. Furthermore, the team has raised their run differential to +57 and have a 9-1 record over their last 10 games. Later on, St. Louis will look to complete the series sweep, against their division rival Milwaukee Brewers, which would give them a perfect 10-0 record at the conclusion of play today, if that does indeed happen.
So the million dollar question is: What is fueling the Cardinals recent run and what ingredients (no pun intended!) have put them in the position that they are today? Now before starting that discussion, let's give some obvious credit to Matt Carpenter's salsa recipe, which has become, a go-to food for the entire Cardinals clubhouse. Hence, why the term ingredients was used earlier in this paragraph! Carpenter is going to have to at some point bottle that stuff up and sell it as a miracle food at some point, if the team continues to play the way they have and makes it into a postseason berth.
Now, with all kidding aside, the biggest influence that the Cardinals have had comes from their new skipper and former bench coach, Mike Shildt. Shildt assumed the position of skipper right before the All-Star Break on July 14th. Since taking over control of the team and clubhouse, Shildt has helped lead the team to a 21-10 record. You could say that the entire philosophy and culture of the clubhouse shifted when Shildt took over the reigns of the team and a whole new bundle of energy was induced into the 25 players on the Cardinals roster.
Another contributor to the Cardinals recent success was the shuffle that occurred in the Cardinals bullpen prior to the July 31st Non-Waiver Trade Deadline. Through a series of small trades, DFA's, demotions, and callups, the Cardinals seemingly remade their bullpen overnight. A lot of the decision's that went into the transaction wire at that time can be credited to Mike Shildt and his entire coaching staff as well as Cardinals General Manager, Mike Girsch, along with President of Baseball Operations, John Mozeliak.
The biggest contributors in the Cardinals bullpen since, Mike Shildt taking over as skipper, have been both Bud Norris and Jordan Hicks. Over the last 30 days, Norris has pitched to the tune of a 3.18 ERA over 11.0 IP, while Hicks has posted a 1.88 ERA over 14.1 innings of work with an Opponent Batting Average of .208. For any team to be successful, especially contending teams, they should have a 1-2 punch at the back end of the bullpen and for the Cardinals, that is exactly the value that both Norris and Hicks have provided.
Also, don't overlook the value that 23-year old, Dakota Hudson, has provided for the Cardinals either. Since being called up to the big leagues to make his official MLB debut at the end of July, Hudson has a 0.79 ERA over 11.1 innings of work with a .135 Opponent Batting Average Against. Hudson has been yet another valuable weapon and someone who has contributed at a high level especially during the Cardinals recent run. There is no doubt that he will continue to play an integral role this season and be a big cornerstone piece moving forward into the future.
Beyond those two factors alone, let's examine the Cardinals starting rotation, which has also been a very big contributor to their recent success and is something that will likely headline the excitement for the team looking toward the future. No longer is the Cardinals starting rotation headlined by Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright, now a new leaf has turned over as Miles Mikolas has stepped into an ace role and is the leader of the other four young starters in: Jack Flaherty, Luke Weaver, John Gant, and Austin Gomber.
Over the last 30 days, Miles Mikolas has a 2.84 ERA over 38.0 innings of work and has completely transformed himself into an entirely new starting pitcher since coming back over to the states. Furthermore, Jack Flaherty has become quite a strikeout machine himself. Over the last 30 days, essentially the time around when Mike Shildt took over as skipper, Flaherty has 49 strikeouts over 34.1 IP. During the last 15 days alone, Flaherty's ERA is 0.95 over 19 innings of work!
If the reasons listed above still aren't enough to convince you of how hot the Cardinals have been recently or the amount of success they have had over the past 30 days, don't overlook the large defensive adjustment, the Cardinals made, when they named Matt Carpenter their primary first baseman and Jose Martinez their primary right fielder. Martinez started the first half of the year at first base, but with negative defensive ratings at that position, he was later shifted to the outfield in favor of Carpenter who has proven to have the better glove. Regardless, this will likely be a big area of focus this coming offseason, given that Jedd Gyorko is the Cardinals primary third baseman, and the team still needs to add a legitimate shortstop. Manny Machado, anyone?
For now, the Cardinals can continue to keep their eyes focused on this season and using their relentless energy to try as hard as possible to clinch a postseason berth. After missing out on the playoffs the past two years, Cardinals players and fans are hungrier than ever to make it back to October and help to convince the front office that, John Shildt, is the man for the managerial job opening for the foreseeable future. Along the way, the team will continue to rely heavily on it's young impact players, a renewed sense of chemistry and culture in the clubhouse, and yes, that magical salsa, that was introduced to the baseball world and the other Cardinals players last month, thanks to Matt Carpenter.