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VOL. 130 | NO. 187 | Friday, September 25, 2015

Redbirds Manager 'Taking Notes' As Cardinals Drive Toward Division Title

By Don Wade

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If his business was something other than baseball, first-year Memphis Redbirds manager Mike Shildt might be at conference somewhere, shuttling from one hotel ballroom to another, listening to speakers and participating in workshops.

First-year Memphis Redbirds manager Mike Shildt is in uniform for the rest of the St. Louis Cardinals’ regular season. The Cardinals’ roster is full of recent Redbirds who have been called up to the big leagues.

(Taka Yanagimoto/St. Louis Cardinals)

Instead, he’s in uniform for the rest of the St. Louis Cardinals’ regular season. His classrooms are the dugout and clubhouse.

But unlike that mythical business conference, here Shildt does not need any introductions. The Cardinals’ roster is full of recent Redbirds who have enabled the big league club to survive a rash of injuries and thrive.

A playoff spot is already clinched and, barring a collapse down the stretch, the Cardinals will soon celebrate another National League Central Division title and eclipse 100 wins.

It’s difficult – no, make that impossible – to imagine that they are where they are without rookie outfielder Stephen Piscotty; he leads the team hitting (.309 through his first 207 at-bats) and has done a nice impersonation of a no-nonsense veteran.

Props also go to 27-year-old rookie outfielder Tommy Pham, who has been a spark since his last recall and has earned effusive praise from Cardinals manager Mike Matheny.

Even rookie infielder Greg Garcia has, of all things, found a niche as a go-to pinch-hitter. And several Redbirds pitchers have delivered crucial innings as substitute starters and/or relievers.

“First and foremost, you’re happy for the individual guys, how hard they’ve worked, and to see it pay off,” Shildt said, adding: “Our scouting department doesn’t get enough credit.”

That’s a good point, especially when framed within the context of preseason expectations and the current chatter about the strongest NL Manager of the Year candidates. In other words, the Cardinals were supposed to be where they are and the media-darling Chicago Cubs, led by entertaining skipper Joe Maddon, were not supposed to have the third-best record in baseball.

Yet the Cubs are the ones with the platinum prospects making the huge contributions. Put it this way: Cubs rookie third baseman Kris Bryant – the favorite for NL Rookie of the Year – and journeyman Tommy Pham are not mentioned in the same conversation. Neither are rookie Cubs shortstop Addison Russell, who has multiple Gold Gloves in his future, and Greg Garcia.

Piscotty’s play was, if not expected, fervently hoped for by the Cardinals’ front office. Pham has been, whether anyone cares to admit it, a happy surprise. Now, Matheny has to think about who sits and who plays going forward as Randal Grichuk and Matt Holliday presumably return to something close to full health.

“If he does what he does, he’s playing,” Matheny told stltoday.com of Pham’s status. “That’s the nature of the game. (When) young guys come in here, they get opportunities … He’s doing it on both sides (offense and defense). He comes in prepared to play every single day and I love the energy he brings.”

No surprise to Shildt.

“Tommy’s a very driven guy,” Shildt said. “Same thing with Piscotty. He was not only ready to contribute when he got to St. Louis, but to stay there.”

And yet a funny, or not so funny, thing will almost certainly happen when the votes for NL Manager of the Year are counted. Maddon will get many more than Matheny. Maddon’s the better story, the dugout architect of a turnaround at the Friendly Confines, and certainly more fun in a post-game press conference.

After the Cardinals and Cubs took turns hitting each other with pitches last weekend in Chicago, Maddon weighed in on the “Cardinal Way.”

“I never read that book the Cardinals have written about how to play baseball,” Maddon said. “You can take that book and read it yourself because I don’t give a crap about that book.”

As for Matheny, he doesn’t have Maddon’s or Whitey Herzog’s ability to work the media, nor Tony La Russa’s track record and glare. In truth, Matheny can appear more statuesque than Stan the Man outside Busch Stadium.

“To say I wouldn’t be a little biased would be unfair,” Shildt said, “but Mike and his staff have done a phenomenal job with a ton of obstacles inherent to the job.”

Namely, injuries. To ace pitcher Adam Wainwright, lost after just four starts and only now pointing toward a possible return as a reliever. To Holliday and first baseman Matt Adams and most recently to catcher Yadier Molina. Center fielder Jon Jay also has been hurt and starter Jaime Garcia has missed several turns in the rotation.

“He’s been overlooked and underappreciated nationally,” Shildt said of Matheny, adding, “which doesn’t motivate him at all.”

In fact, it’s part and parcel of the Cardinal Way. Embrace your place in flyover country and just win like crazy.

Shildt’s soaking up every bit of it while he can.

“I’m taking notes for sure.”

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