Blues reaping championship opportunity on lessons sowed by Cardinals

This past week I was listening to Golic and Wingo on my way to work and they had former NHL player Eddie Olczyk on to talk about the Stanley Cup Finals. During the spot he sort of mocked the fact that the St. Louis Blues had yet to remove the interim tag from interim head coach Craig Berube‘s title despite their turnaround from a last place team to a team preparing to play in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

“Craig Berube, who has the interim tag on him, which just drives me crazy when they introduce him in the building as interim head coach. I’m just like, this guy has brought the team from dead last in the National Hockey LEague and they still call him interim head coach,” said Olcyzk while being asked about the Blues’ resilience on the road.

But I don’t find it that surprising because the Blues don’t have to look to far to see what taking the interim tag off a head coach early can do to a team and a hot streak.

We remember all too well the Cardinals example from last season. On July 14th as the Cardinals fell to 47-46, 7.5 games out of the division, and 4 games out of a wild card spot, the front office made the decision to fire manager Mike Matheny and make Mike Shildt the team’s interim manager.

The Cardinals began to turn their season around. On August 28th, the Cardinals had gone 22-12 since Shildt assumed control, the best record in baseball over that stretch. They’d climbed to 4.5 games out of the division and held the first wild card spot with a two game cushion. The front office decided they had seen enough and made Shildt the permanent manager, locking him up through 2020.

Afterwards, the Cardinals went flat. They finished the season 15-16. They fell back to 7 games out of the division and finished 2.5 games out of a wild card too.

I’ve often argued that having the interim tag on a manager creates a unique situation in sports. The perceived lack of job security for the interim manager or coach crates a great deal of freedom to do the job you feel needs to be done without giving the long term consequences of those decisions the same kind of weight you otherwise would. It also keeps the pressure on the players knowing that if they want to keep this guy around, they need to keep winning.

The Blues got off to a rough start and fired their head coach Mike Yeo on November 20th and promoted Berube in the interim role. On January 2nd the Blues were 15-18-4 and had 34 points, last place in the NHL. The Blues would go 30-10-5 and add 65 points to finish out the season, finish second in their division, and now find themselves a story that is still not done.

The Blues were impacted by the arrival of rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington. Seeing him in the net for the first game of the series reminded me of seeing another rookie wearing #50 leading a St. Louis team to a championship. That was Adam Wainwright in 2006.

As I was writing this it recalled to me the decision that the Cardinals made at the end of July to release Greg Holland, designate Tyler Lyons for assignment, and trade Sam Tuivailala. Those moves made room for rookies Dakota Hudson and Daniel Ponce de Leon on the big league roster. Both finished out the season with ERAs under 3.

But September would come. Rosters would expand. The interim manager tag removed. And the magic was gone.

This season has begun more frustrating than others. After an 18-7 April, the Cardinals failed to win double digit games in a month for the first time since June 2006.

We’ve watched as Luke Voit and Tommy Pham, both dealt away in deadline deals last summer, flourish playing regularly in the American League East and have been better than the players who are playing in their place, at least to this point.

We’ve watched as needs in the bullpen and the rotation went unanswered as Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel signed discounted deals with National League contenders as it feels like the Cardinals look more and more like National League pretenders.

But the grand irony of it all is that the Cardinals don’t need Kimbrel or Keuchel.

The one thing this organization has had and hoarded for years has been pitching depth. I wrote about it in the winter. We saw it in 2017 when John Mozeliak shook up the bullpen to create opportunities for that pitching depth. We saw it in 2018 when he did the same. Each time the young players came through. And each winter, rather than rely on that talent, Mozeliak went back to the well and loaded up with guaranteed contracts.

For all the young talent they have, the Cardinals seem to be afraid to commit to it.

You see the effects of it all over the roster. It’s why Tyler O’Neill is destroying AAA pitching where he has nothing left to prove instead of cutting his teeth against Major League pitching.

Tonight the Cardinals are going to let Michael Wacha and his 6.30 ERA start against the Miami Marlins.

They could have let Genesis Cabrera make another start. Cabrera took Wacha’s last two starts and has a 6.48 ERA, not too far off of Wacha’s, and has apparently been tipping his pitches. Yes, read that again, his ERA is similar to Wacha’s and the other team knows what’s coming.

They could have gone to Ponce de Leon who has a career 2.59 ERA in five career Major League starts, including allowing just one run on two hits in a spot start earlier this season.

Or literally anyone else who could possibly give them a better result than a 6.30 ERA would suggest.

And that’s the problem with these Cardinals. They’re a team that claims to develop from within who is afraid to commit to it. What’s the point of having minor league depth if you bury it and never use it?

I’ll repeat what I said a few winters ago, it’s time to clean up the roster and give the kids the keys to the car.

Stat of the week

Dakota Hudson has rebounded nicely from his struggles earlier this season and now has a 61.5% ground ball rate through 65.2 innings pitched this season. That’s good for tops among starting pitchers in all of baseball. And that’s a good thing for a pitcher in a league where hitters are only hitting .231 on ground balls this season. Here’s the rest of the top-5.

  1. Hudson, STL, 61.5%
  2. Luis Castillo, CIN, 59.8%
  3. Mike Soroka, ATL, 58.4%
  4. Sonny Gray, CIN, 57.6%
  5. Marcus Stroman, TOR, 56.5%

Play of the week

While Kolten Wong made another incredible rangy defensive play this week, the play of the week is going to go to Paul DeJong’s go ahead homer to beat the Reds. It was DeJong’s first home run since May 18th. In between he hit just .091 with one extra base hit.

Who’s Hot

Here’s a look at the top Cardinals hitters over the last 14 days by wRC+ and their MLB rank among players with at least 30 plate appearances.

  1. Marcell Ozuna, 169 wRC+ (29th in MLB)
  2. Paul Goldschmidt, 136 (71st)
  3. Matt Carpenter, 95 (T-140th)
  4. Kolten Wong, 77 (T-172nd)
  5. Matt Wieters, 58 (203rd)

Looking Back

The Cardinals are 31-32 through 63 games this season. That makes them 84-78 in their last 162 games.

I thought it was interesting when I started looking back over some of the longest losing streaks in Cardinals’ history when I saw multiple long losing streaks in the 2006 season. Those 2006 Cardinals lost eight straight twice and seven straight another time. Before May 2019, June 2006 was the last time the Cardinals failed to win double-digit games in a month.

I do see some similarities that could be drawn between the two teams, but time will tell if they stand up.

Jon Doble has been writing about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2010. You can also find him on Twitter at @GroundRuleDoble. Thank you for reading.

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