Picking up where they left off

So far, the St. Louis Cardinals are making it look easy in 2012. And while no one would say anything in 2011 was easy—maybe when they put Game 7 of the World Series out of reach…maybe—the Cards are playing a lot like they did at the end of last season.

And that’s no small feat, for a couple of reasons. Mike Matheny and his revamped coaching staff may not have been tested with any chess match-type of games, but so far the rookie manager has not made any mistakes either. The Cards are 2-0 facing two different teams in their home openers and against their aces: The Miami Marlins threw Josh Johnson, and the Milwaukee Brewers sent out Yovanni Gallardo. The Redbirds handled them both, and without the benefit of having an ace on the mound either time.

There are a lot of similarities between this year’s squad and last year’s World Champs. The Cards have gotten two really solid starts from their rotation already. The team plays good defense, and the middle of the order is hitting the ball well. Even David Freese looks the same; every time he comes up with runners in scoring position and two outs, he gets a hit. It’s getting to be a shock when he does not. But the 2012 Cardinals are doing some things a little differently, too. They already have three stolen bases this season, and one was (gasp!) while the #3 hitter was up to bat. And for the second game of the season, Matheny trotted out the exact same lineup he used in the first game of the season. It’s almost as if he is just taunting Tony La Russa now…

But the first big test comes Saturday in Milwaukee. Adam Wainwright makes his regular season debut just 13 or so months after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Wainwright will probably be his old self, but his stats at the end of the game will not be the whole story. What really matters on that mound Saturday is how many pitches he’s able to throw before he tires. And then the next story will be how he feels on Sunday. The Cardinals have no idea when Chris Carpenter will be back; they need Wainwright to be the go-to guy indefinitely this season. And that may require him to throw fewer innings based on how he recovers after each start. In the meantime, it will be great to see him on the mound.

The Cardinals are coming out of the gate with guns blazing, but it can’t last. Their stats will fall back down to near their averages. But this is so much like what happened in the 2011 season end and postseason. Imagine that: solid pitching, timely hitting, and good defense lead to wins. Still, the Cardinals have to be careful not to kick back and think they have things in the bag. That is one reason the stolen bases are so significant: they represent a bit of a culture shift. The Cards are exploring new—or, at the very least, expanded—ways to “get ‘em on, get ‘em over, get ‘em out” and there is nothing wrong with that.

Couple it with the “never say die” attitude of last year’s team and maybe the Cardinals will be as good as the team that won it all last year. Maybe they will even be better.

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