Last season, St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny guided his team to one of the best seasons in franchise history. It certainly was one of most commendable managerial efforts by a Cardinals manager ever. An effort worthy enough for him to win the National League Manager of the Year award, the award that went to an also deserving Pittsburgh Pirates skipper, Clint Hurdle.
Hurdle inherited a Pirates team that had won a total of 57 games in 2010. In his first year as the Bucs skipper, Hurdle increased the win total to 72 games in 2011 and 79 in 2013 before winning 94 games last season, leading the Pirates to their first postseason appearance since their 1992 League Championship Series.
While Hurdle was in Pittsburgh piloting the Bucs snapping a streak of 20 years between playoff appearances, Matheny was in St. Louis dealing with a rash of injuries to his team, that devastated his roster, forcing him to juggle a 25-man roster throughout the season that included using a total of 65 different players (44 batters / 25 pitchers) to get the Cardinals to the playoffs.
The injuries forced Matheny to field one of the youngest clubs in the team’s history, by using 20 rookies, the most rookies since the team employed 21 in 1970. Unlike the 2013 version of the Cardinals who made it to the Fall Classic, the 1970 Cardinals finished with a record of 76-86, a .469 winning percentage.
The Cardinals were hit hard with injuries; Chris Carpenter (right shoulder) and Jaime Garcia (left shoulder strain) missed a combined 281 games. Closer Jason Motte (right elbow ligament) went on the disabled list in May and missed 120 games. Starting pitcher Jake Westbrook also missed significant playing time. Among the position players, the Cardinals lost their starting shortstop Rafael Furcal (right elbow ligament) with him missing 161 games and down the stretch, 1B Allen Craig; missed most of the month of September with a foot injury and he saw limited playing time in the postseason.
Despite all the injuries to the pitching staff, Matheny a former a catcher, with the help of arguably the best catcher in the game today, Gold Glove Award winner, Yadier Molina, they milked a Major League-leading 36 combined wins from rookie pitchers last season, the most wins by rookies since the franchise record of 42 was set by Cardinals manager, Billy Southworth’s 1941 Redbirds.
Of note, following the 1941 season, Southworth’s Cardinals went on to win 106 games in 42, 101 games in 43 and 105 games in 44, including two World Championships in the 42 & 44 seasons and a National League title in 43. Perhaps a preview of what is to come for the Cardinals and their fans.
Last year the Cardinals finished with 97 wins and a season high 32 games above .500 and won their first NL Central title since 2008. Their 97 victories, was the most wins by the Cardinals since 2005 (100) and 2004 (105). As a result, Matheny became the first Cardinals manager to pilot the Redbirds to the postseason in his first two full seasons at the helm.
A number that stands out from last season is that the Cardinals with all their rookies in the rotation and in the bullpen, allowed just 596 runs. You have to go all the way back to the Whitey Herzog’s 1985 Cardinals National League Championship team to find a club that allowed fewer runs (572). Whitey had the advantage of using just 16 pitchers, to accomplish this feat, while Matheny was forced to run 25 arms, including 10 rookies, which made up a much younger staff, out on the mound.
Something else that went unnoticed by many was how much team fielding contributed to the success of keeping the opposition from scoring against the Cardinals. St. Louis led the National League with a team fielding percentage of .988, making only 75 errors, which also was the league’s best.
Sound management of the team, combined with strong pitching, solid defense, along with timely clutch hitting by the rookie-laden Cardinals allowed them to win the National League Central Division crown. The Cardinals faced the Pirates for the first time ever in the postseason, after Clint Hurdle led the Pirates to a National League Wild Card game win over the Cincinnati Reds.
The National League Division Series featured a match-up between the Pirates Clint Hurdle, last year’s National League Manager of the Year, and the Cardinals Mike Matheny. In the end, when the dust settled and they turned off the lights in Busch Stadium, it was Matheny’s Cardinals who defeated the Pirates, 3-2, in the five-game set, to move onto the National League Championship Series. Maybe another reason, the Manager of the Year honors could have gone to Matheny.