LOS ANGELES – You could tell the story of the St. Louis Cardinals slaving every day to find themselves, that day having arrived finally several weeks back, when – well, well – they began to win more often.
Or you could tell the story of the Cardinals having known themselves all along (and all too well), that clarity manifesting itself in 3 ½ months of disinterested (and therefore futile) baseball, a story that reaches its conflict when their leaders are about to be sent home in civilian clothes, its moment of resolution when other men are assigned the evacuated lockers, bringing about a wave of personal reflection.
In that way, you have to decide whether the Cardinals kept at it in spite of the apparent futility of it all, the appearance – and evidence – being they weren’t very good at any parts of the game and so, because they are the Cardinals and play where they play, were embarrassing themselves and their city. Or if the game found them, that it was a story of time, just time, for pitchers to arrive and hitters to hit and fielders to catch and throw and baserunners to think a little before running, because in a baseball season the only sure thing is time. So much time.
“It’ll work itself out” is on the gravestone of every mediocre and worse team that ever played, the exceptions being the truly abysmal, of which lately there are too many, granted. The rest, like the Cardinals, repeat it until it comes true or they can go home, because there’s never telling how these things play out. As it is, the Cardinals have the best record in the National League since mid-July, which works the eyebrows of anyone who saw much of them before that, it all starting within hours of the club’s first in-season managerial change in a generation.
To have a franchise such as the Cardinals in the throes of a reawakening can only mean it did significant time nursing a borderline nervous breakdown. Until the winning began – the Cards have won 24 of 35 games and, lately, 16 of 20 – they appeared headed for a third dark October, and the front office was questioning the efforts of a player in public, and the manager was in peril, and most of all the baseball again resembled nothing like the Cardinals are supposed to look.
It seemed stale. It happens. But not to the Cardinals. Not over years.
Mike Shildt’s fungo bat is taped in red, white and blue, stripes on the neck and white stars against a blue field on the handle. This is, by the looks and sounds of him, possibly the most ostentatious part of Mike Shildt.
“Well,” he said, “I was feeling patriotic.”
Shildt is the Cardinals manager. He replaced Mike Matheny 35 games ago, precisely when the Cardinals went and won those 24 of 35. They’ve done everything better since and maybe it was coming anyway, though nobody seems to believe that. There are times and places for leaders, perhaps, like there are times and places for players, and Mike Shildt and the Cardinals seem to be in the right summer together.
“Um, you know, it’s just a fact of allowing adults to do their own thing,” Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong said. “Shildt’s been really good at letting us play our own game the way we want to play it.”
Shildt wears a sensible watch on his left wrist, the kind where the numbers are like half-an-inch high and backlit, the kind worn by a man who follows a schedule and tries his hardest to keep to it. Velcro band, of course. And rectangular eyeglasses, the type that bend and maybe don’t break if you’re thinking about something else and sit on them or send them through the dryer once or twice. A haircut that says, “Aw, hell, it’s under a hat most of the day anyway.” A delightfully approachable manner, too, with a grin that is easy and a back story – decades of scouting, minor-league coaching and managing, not a single professional game played – that is relatable in the determination and loyalty it presents.
“The game has changed more in the last three or four years than in the 100 years prior,” Shildt said, mentioning the technological advances that narrow the sport and player evaluation to spin rates and launch angles and the like. “But it’s still the same game. … Pitching and defense are typically what good clubs do.”
So they do that, or try.
It’s playing, or playing for now, and Matt Carpenter batting almost .300 with 16 home runs and 27 RBI in those 34 games, and the team ERA better by half-a-run in the second half, and where they were loose (on the field) they are taut, and where they were maybe a touch uptight (in the clubhouse) they are officially out of excuses.
As Wong noted, a team that found itself straining to stay in winning-streak range of the second wild card were on the morning of Aug. 23 a mere 2 ½ games out of first place in the NL Central.
“You’re never out,” he said, as it turns out. “It’s a crazy turn-around for us.”
It was going to take crazy for their season to be saved, and they got crazy, along with a lot of quality innings from what was the opening rotation for the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds (Jack Flaherty, John Gant, Austin Gomber, Daniel Poncedeleon, Dakota Hudson), and an uptick from Marcell Ozuna (who landed on the DL on Wednesday), and energy and production from the wholly likeable Harrison Bader, all of which promises them nothing but significant games from here on.
On Wednesday night they completed their sweep of the fading Los Angeles Dodgers in Los Angeles, three games in which the starting pitchers were Gomber, Poncedeleon and Flaherty, in which the tougher and more inspired team was not the one that played in the World Series a year ago, but the team that looked rattled and probably done barely more than a month ago.
“We came in here and played our game and played hard,” shortstop Paul DeJong told reporters after the game, “and I think we just outplayed them for three games.”
And now somebody else gets to tend to a nervous breakdown for a while.
So it worked itself out, not without pain and the ejection of a few good men (hitting coaches Bill Mueller and John Mabry were fired along with Matheny), and someday the Cardinals might tell the story of how they believed in themselves all along. Might just be true, too.
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