At the beginning of this baseball season, the Cardinals thought their top six starting pitchers were Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly and the injured Jaime Garcia. When Kelly got hurt, Garcia was ready to return and reclaim his spot in the rotation.
After Sunday’s win over Philadelphia, Cards general manager John Mozeliak announced that Garcia would return to the disabled list with more shoulder woes, and Wacha would join Garcia and Kelly in the infirmary with a “stress reaction” in his right shoulder.
And so 50 percent of the Cardinals’ top six starters are injured and out for a period of time. This is the sort of challenge great managers and coaches live for, and Mike Matheny should be chomping at the bit to prove that his pitching depth is real, and that he can handle the adversity thrown at him as a manager.
Matheny’s predecessor, Tony La Russa, relished the opportunity to prove people wrong when he lost players. When the Redbirds won the 2006 World Series, La Russa really had only one good starter. Chris Carpenter was 15-8 with a 3.19 ERA. Only two other starters had more than 17 starts; Jason Marquis, who had a 6.02 ERA, and Jeff Suppan, who was 12-7 with a 4.12.
La Russa did what good managers do, and was able to cobble together a group that consisted of Jeff Weaver, Anthony Reyes and our own Brad Thompson to win the division and the title. Mark Mulder suffered a shoulder injury and delivered only seven innings in three starts after June 15. Sidney Ponson was injured and missed most of May, and his subsequent ineffectiveness led to a trade to the Yankees. Oh, and closer Jason Isringhausen’s bad hip caused the Cardinals to have to improvise at the closer position, too.
La Russa and Dave Duncan made the most of the situation; they expertly used their bullpen, and overcame injury and ineffectiveness to win the division, the pennant and the World Series. A rotation that had Carpenter, Mulder, Marquis, Suppan and Ponson at the start of the season had only Carpenter and Suppan on the postseason roster.
2011 was much the same. The Cards lost co-ace Adam Wainwright before a pitch was thrown in spring training. Kyle McClellan succumbed to injury over the Fourth of July weekend. The team started rookies Lance Lynn and Brandon Dickson before acquiring Edwin Jackson to fortify the rotation for the stretch, and once again the Redbirds overcame a rocky closer situation to figure it out and win the World Series.
Heck, La Russa’s best managerial effort in St. Louis came in 2002, when Daryl Kile passed away and numerous injuries forced him to use 14 starters, including nine guys who had double-digit starts. That team won 95 games and advanced to the seventh game of the NLCS.
Matheny has worked through some adversity early in his managerial career. He had to deal with the end of Carpenter’s career, multiple injuries to Garcia, and the implosion last year of closers Mitchell Boggs and Edward Mujica. He’s done so with great success, leading his teams to the NLCS and the World Series in his first two years.
Even though it’s somewhat unpleasant, what the Cardinals face now is what makes great coaches and managers. He has the opportunity to expertly utilize his bullpen to its greatest ability. He has a chance to nurture young talents like Carlos Martinez and Tyler Lyons and come up with ways to win games when the odds don’t favor his team.
The best coaches in history have won with lots of combinations. Bobby Cox, La Russa, Sparky Anderson, Scotty Bowman and Phil Jackson have all won championships with completely different rosters. Matheny has the chance to join that group. This is a challenge to embrace, not run from. Losing players and succeeding without them is what makes great coaches and memorable seasons.
This will be the greatest on-field adversity of Matheny’s managerial career. This is when we find out if he’s ready to handle what La Russa handled before him. If there is such thing as growing up as a manager, Matheny has the chance to do that over the next few weeks.