St. Louis Cardinals’ Mike Shildt proves managing in MLB is hard

St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, 8, walks into the dugout during a spring training baseball game against the Houston Astros on Thursday, March 25, 2021 in West Palm Beach, Florida.  (AP Photo / Lynne Sladky)

St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, 8, walks into the dugout during a spring training baseball game against the Houston Astros on Thursday, March 25, 2021 in West Palm Beach, Florida. (AP Photo / Lynne Sladky)

AP

Perhaps one underestimated reason for the enduring affection baseball has is that many fans believe they know how to play a game as well – if not better – than the manager of their team.

After all, how hard can it be to fill out a statement card, send in a few prize hitters, and get your best people off the bullpen?

This apparent simplicity leads to the consistent criticism that St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt has largely avoided since his promotion to that position in 2018.

However, this week he invited it.

“You know, I have to own it,” Shildt said last week of his attempt to squeeze starter John Gant through an extra inning that instead put a game out of reach. “I didn’t feel like this was the best decision I made and I have to be responsible for it.

“It didn’t work out and I’ll take full responsibility.”

Shildt, a protégé of White Sox executive and Baseball Hall of Famer Tony LaRussa, may have picked up a few tricks from the post-game press conference that were once affectionately known as “Tony TV”. Sometimes when the team breaks down, it is the manager’s job to fall on a grenade.

In Shildt’s tenure, he had relatively few explosions in mind.

The 2018 team he took over failed due to the strained relationships between ex-manager Mike Matheny and some of the team’s key players. In 2019, Shildt led the Cardinals through the first round of the playoffs and was named NL Manager of the Year for his efforts. The 2020 season was derailed from the pandemic and still ended in a playoff berth.

It was a smooth ride which is part of why the current chop is so annoying.

The day before Gant’s start, Daniel Ponce de Leon barely managed to finish the first inning. Shildt called the starters’ performance “unsustainable” and mentioned that the team’s bullpen, supposedly a strength, had been forced into a position where pitchers were thrown because they were available, not because a spot was optimal.

With that in mind, it might be justifiable to throw the dice at Gant, who is going up against Washington’s top three left-handers for the third time.

And yet two days later the reliable Adam Wainwright, who sat on 85 pitches and had the lower third of the Washington line-up due, became a prize hitter with one out in the fifth inning, a runner on first base and the team has already lost four.

Where was the concern about the bullpen back then?

When the decision was made to keep Gant colorful, Génesis Cabrera warmed up. Shildt stated later that night that Cabrera only had one inning to give after serving the day before. And yet, Cabrera wasn’t brought in, but warmed up a second time later in the game.

That was that. His shot was fired. A day of use by the team’s most effective left-hander went through the tubes before ever getting through the outfield goal.

Andrew Miller has suffered the same fate several times over the past week, which may explain why he managed to get only five outs on a six-game homestand and three runs with five hits. While Cabrera and Miller burned in the bullpen, Tyler Webb played seven of the Cardinals’ first ten games.

No wonder his earned run average surged over 11.

As the team’s bank coach prior to taking over as manager, Shildt had a literal front row seat in Matheny’s frayed relationship with star catcher Yadier Molina. It should come as no surprise that Shildt has paid careful attention to this relationship in his public comments for the past three years, but undue deference also raises questions.

Perhaps the first sign of a problem came in Milwaukee last year when Molina absorbed a blow to the left wrist but refused to leave the game even after teammate Matt Carpenter tried with Shildt to persuade him to go to the dugout.

A similar situation re-emerged last week as a sentimental decision to turn Wainwright’s rotation around with Molina’s incredibly impressive 2,000. Combining a start at the Cardinals meant that Molina took off on Tuesday evening and not Wednesday afternoon.

As a result, Molina did not lay off two full days in a row (including the travel day on Thursday) but instead set up her own schedule again, and Shildt turned the ace Jack Flaherty over to backup catcher Andrew Knizner.

The truth, of course, is that running a Major League Baseball team is a lot harder than it seems, and all the line-up rigging in the world is not going to help Lane Thomas play the botched routine midfield games that he was instead sent back to to the minors.

One reason Thomas was patrolling midfield mid-week was because Shildt was not giving Randy Arozarena enough playing time when Arozarena was called up in 2019.

All he’s done since then is win an ALCS MVP and set the major league record for home runs in a single postseason. But as a cardinal, he had a hard time finding the field grass ahead of Tommy Edman, a reliable batsman who wasn’t playing in the right position.

Shildt was named manager of the Cardinals in large part because the team understood the need for healing, connection and respect. Like other organizational stalwarts, Brian Snitker of Atlanta and Luis Rojas of the New York Mets, Shildt has spent his time with minors and has impressed at all levels to take advantage of every opportunity he has been given.

Now is the time to watch it develop.

“Players win games and managers avoid losing games and I didn’t do my part today,” Shildt said on Monday.

There aren’t many days like this that the cardinals can afford.

Jeff Jones is a freelance sports writer and a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. He is a regular contributor to the Belleville News-Democrat, mlb.com, and other sports websites.

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