Matheny is a worthy successor to La Russa
Rookie skipper guided team through turbulence back to playoffs
A year ago at this time, Mike Matheny had never filled out a lineup card. He had never made a double switch. Plus, he never had to tell a player he wasn't good enough, and was being released.
Now, look at him.
Hired to fill the shoes vacated by future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa in St. Louis, Matheny answered most questions anyone could have had about whether the 41-year-old former big league catcher was ready to handle the field manager duties for one of the most storied franchises in baseball.
"I know there is a high level of expectation with the job," Matheny said. "If I didn't think I could handle it, I wouldn't have walked into the interview process."
Matheny handled the job well.
He guided the Cardinals to a National League Wild Card berth, then knocked off Atlanta in their one-game showdown. His team stunned Washington in the best-of-five NL Division Series before losing to eventual World Series champion San Francisco in the NL Championship Series.
It was impressive enough to earn him consideration for the NL Manager of the Year, although he lost out to Davey Johnson of Washington, Bruce Bochy of San Francisco and Dusty Baker of Cincinnati as a finalist for the award, which will be announced on Tuesday.
Yes, Matheny did take over a team that was the defending champion.
Remember, those 2011 Cardinals claimed the NL Wild Card en route to the World Series. But these 2012 Cardinals had to piece some things back together.
It was a Cardinals team that lost La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan. Perennial Most Valuable Player candidate Albert Pujols followed free-agent riches to Anaheim. St. Louis opened the season without rotation ace Chris Carpenter -- due to a nerve-related shoulder problem that required surgery and limited him to three late-season starts -- and cleanup hitter Allen Craig. It ended the season without shortstop Rafael Furcal.
Not that Matheny complained.
"I love the job," Matheny said. "I enjoy getting to invest in these guys, and then watching them turn and invest into each other. That's really the culture we have created, going out and having each other's back all the time."
There were moments of concern during the season. In first place the first six weeks of the season, the Cards slipped into third place after back-to-back losing records in May and June.
"Sure, I second-guessed myself," Matheny said. "Cardinals fans second-guessed every move -- and they deserve that. ... But you take your failures and success, and you learn from them. I kept close notes, worked with the coaches and tried to make sure we were helping guys."
The effort paid off.
The Cardinals regrouped over the final two months. They won 41 of their final 70 games -- including 14 of the final 20 games -- to advance to the postseason for the 25th time in franchise history.
That allowed general manager John Mozeliak to feel justified for his decision to hire Matheny out of a list of finalists that included Terry Francona, Ryne Sandberg and Jose Oquendo.
Matheny wasn't even among the original list of nearly 40 names the Cardinals researched. But he was always part of Mozeliak's thought process, "the outlier," as the GM put it.
"One of the things that had to be considered in hiring the replacement [for] Tony La Russa was finding [someone] who understood the culture we developed and how things go down here," said Mozeliak. "I wanted a guy who not only could come in and maintain what we have built, [but] someone who would be a part of our long-term future.
"A lot of people might have felt they needed to put their fingerprints on the team, but we felt what we do as an organization, we do well. We wanted someone to build off what we had, not build something different -- and Mike had been a part of the organization as a player [for five years] and [a catching] instructor. He had a good relationship with our staff."
He also had a legitimate respect for La Russa, having played for him for five years. La Russa, after all, spent 16 of his 33 managerial seasons with St. Louis, and earned 2,591 of his 5,097 big league managerial victories with the Cardinals.
"Tony [was] so prepared," said Matheny. "He [was] ready for whatever [happened] -- and playing for him, you never felt you were going to be surprised. He taught you the importance of preparation."
The lessons paid off for Matheny in his rookie managerial season.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.