Replacing a Cardinal legend

Replacing a Cardinal legend…those words could mean a lot of different things coming into the 2012 season. It could mean Lance Berkman taking over first base for Albert Pujols. It could mean rookie manager Mike Matheny replacing Hall-of-Fame manager Tony LaRussa. This article will focus on Derek Lilliquist, Cardinals pitching coach, who has the task of replacing arguably the greatest pitching coach of all-time, Dave Duncan.

Lilliquist filled in admirably during the 2011 season when Duncan had to take an extended leave of absence to help his wife Jeanine after her surgery to remove a brain tumor. Duncan had a year remaining on his contract after 2011, but it began to seem more and more unlikely that he would come back after LaRussa retired and his wife’s medical issues. On January 6th, 2012, Duncan stepped down as Cardinals pitching coach.

Cardinals fans grew anxious over the off-season, realizing just how crucial the pitching staff would be to the team’s success following the loss of Pujols. Duncan had always been able to work his magic on struggling veteran pitchers, helping them return to form and the Cardinals stay within their budgetary constraints. Duncan also had compiled 30 years worth of notes in his famous notebooks that will no longer be sitting in the Cardinal dugout. It was one thing for Duncan to be on extended leave and available for a phone call from Lilliquist. This year, he is on his own.

Lilliquist pitched in the majors from 1989 to 1996. He was selected by the Braves with the sixth pick of the 1987 draft. Lilliquist had a very successful career at the University of Georgia, where he was named College Pitcher of the Year by Baseball America after leading the Bulldogs to their first ever College World Series appearance.

He pitched in 262 games in his major-league career for five different teams: Atlanta, San Diego, Cleveland, Boston, and Cincinnati. His career record was 25-34 with a 4.13 ERA. Like a lot of good coaches (aka LaRusssa and Duncan) his playing career was nothing exceptional. However, the Cardinals saw something in him to believe he would make a great pitching coach.

After his playing career was over in 1996, Lilliquist coached high school baseball in Florida from 98-01. Then he got his chance to coach for the Cardinals.This season will be his 11th in the Cardinals organization.

Lilliquist started in 2002 coaching for rookie level Johnson City. After one year there he moved up to Peoria in 2003. One year later, he started a four-year stint coaching for Class A Palm Beach. According to the Cardinal’s team website, during those four years, Palm Beach made the playoffs twice and won the 2005 league championship. The 2005 team had the second best ERA (3.94) in the league.

After the 2007 Palm Beach season, Lilliquist became the pitching coordinator in Jupiter (Cardinals spring training site), helping rehabilitating pitchers. Then in 2011, he got his chance with the big club, serving as bullpen coach, before taking over Duncan’s duties during his leave of absence. Although there is a lot of years experience, 2012 is only Lilliquist’s second at the major-league level.

One reason fans were initially more accepting of the club hiring a rookie manager was the year Matheny would get to spend with Dave Duncan at the helm of the pitching staff. That opportunity obviously went away less than two months into Matheny’s tenure. Now the defending World Champions have a rookie manager and a pitching coach with only one year experience. Is it time to press the panic button? Not so fast….

Matheny has shown an incredible work ethic and command of the team so far in spring training. He has done a good job of mixing in veterans with young players and prospects. The daily workouts are ran efficiently and the club seems to be getting very well prepared for the upcoming season.

Although Lilliquist is getting less press, he also seems to be doing a good job of handling his new pitching duties. A lot of different pitchers have gotten extended looks and impressed so far during camp, including Sam Freeman, Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal, John Gast, and Shelby Miller. Lilliquist and Matheny have made sure the young pitchers were able to spend a good amount of time with the veterans of the staff, to watch their daily routine and learn their method of success.

The back end of the rotation, Lohse and Westbrook, have looked strong so far in camp. Adam Wainwright is pitching like a man possessed, having not allowed an earned run so far in spring training. More importantly, his stuff looks really, really good. His curveball is as nasty as ever. All signs point to a successful start for Lilliquist first year at the helm.

The games will start to count in a couple of weeks. How will he handle his starting rotation with Carpenter on the mend? How will he handle a very talented, but still fairly young bullpen? A lot remains to be seen. One thing is certain, the Cardinals have very little chance for a repeat run at a title if the pitching staff falters. Lilliquist is certainly facing his greatest challenge yet. Is he up to the task? Stay tuned.

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