The Cardinals are dueling with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the best record in the National League, but when you get to run differential, nobody's close.
The Cardinals are beating up opponents — not scratching out runs in closely-contested, low-scoring wins, which has become the NL way. In their 20-11 start, the Cardinals led the majors in run differential at +75, +10 better than the Rangers. Next-best in the NL? The Braves at +24, one ahead of the Dodgers at +23.
While Albert Pujols flounders in an Angels uniform, free-agent signee Carlos Beltran is doing what Pujols used to do for the Cardinals; being near the top in the NL in homers and RBI. That puts him in the same company as David Freese, who has picked up where he left off in his breakout 2011 postseason. And a healthy Rafael Furcal has had six weeks as good as any in his career.
Along with La Russa, pitching coach Dave Duncan stepped away and was replaced by Derek Lilliquist. But despite Chris Carpenter's shoulder injury, the Cardinals' rotation trails only the Nationals in ERA. Unexpectedly leading the way is Lance Lynn, who was pulled from a deep bullpen, where he had been for a year after coming through the system as a starter. Lynn, 24, leads the league with six wins, and sits near the top in ERA and WHIP.
Yes, the rest of the National League still is trying to catch up with the Cardinals.
"They just keep coming at you,'' Arizona Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson said after the Cardinals' three-game sweep this week in Chase Field. "They out-pitched us. They out-defended us. We're glad to see them go.''
The World Series celebration barely had ended when La Russa announced he was stepping down (let's not call it retirement just yet). And the first in a series of what are proving to be correct off-season decisions by general manager John Mozeliak was the Nov. 14 hiring of Mike Matheny, 41, as the game's youngest manager despite no previous managerial experience.
Matheny isn't comfortable with the inevitable comparisons to his legendary predecessor, but thoughtfully has answered that line of questioning at every stop on the road so far.
"Tony sat in this seat for a long time.'' Matheny said. "Every one has a job to do, and we're all individuals. (The comparisons) aren't fair to the guys out there (in the clubhouse). It all comes down to them doing their jobs, and they've been very professional in how they've gone about it. They challenge themselves. That's a benefit for any manager, whether he's experienced or not.''
Matheny is measured, but at the same time, sure of what he's saying. He'll humbly admit he's learning on the job. But walk into his office three-plus hours before a game, and he has two I-Pads propped up on his desk — one for statistics, the other for videos, he says — and you know he's well prepared.
He preaches much of the same mantra as La Russa — all that 'Cardinals way' stuff that could rub you the wrong way if you were prone not to like La Russa's air of absolute certainty. Matheny's delivery is kinder-gentler, the intensity less in-your-face.
But don't take his managerial inexperience into account without balancing it with four Gold Gloves and major-league records for consecutive errorless games (252) and chances (1,565) in a 13-year big-league career. And there is a toughness about him, born in part from enduring a series of career-ending concussions he estimates at 25 and says took about 1 1/2 years from which to fully recover.
"I'm not sure I've had enough time (as a manager) to have a style,'' Matheny said. "I like spending time listening to these guys, and trying to find out what makes them go. I try to put them in positions when they can excel. I use this coaching staff. We have some very talented people around here.''
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
But it's not as if Matheny has been dealing with a full deck of Cards. The Carpenter shoulder injury struck in spring training, and there's no set timetable for his return.
Skip Shumaker, part of a triumvirate of second-base options, didn't play his first game until April 27. Allen Craig, designated as the primary replacement for Pujols, didn't get off the disabled list until May 1 — and accumulated three homers and 11 RBI in his first seven games and 27 at-bat. Lance Berkman (strained left calf) played only seven games before going on the DL on April 18, and is expected back this weekend.
That will create enough of a position-player glut to create a nice problem to have for Matheny in dividing up playing time. And that lets you know the Cardinals went far enough in offering Pujols what they did — reportedly about $200 million — even if the Angels (and reportedly the Marlins) went much further.
With this group of Cardinals, it's not about who's gone. It's about who's still here. "We're going to continue to try to play the game right — put whatever label you want on it,'' Matheny said.
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