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Given Second Chance, Cards Get It Done…

On April 1st, 2007, the Cardinals opened the Major League Baseball (MLB) season on a Sunday night in St. Louis. Chris Carpenter was on the mound for the Redbirds to throw the much-anticipated Opening Day start. Less than six months before, the team had won its tenth World Series Championship behind the tenacious right arm of the man dubbed “The Ace.” In the previous regular season (2006), Carpenter had earned an All-Star appearance and finished third in NL Cy Young voting. Two years ago (2005), he started the All-Star Game for the National League…and won the Cy Young award. He was the clear choice for the Opening Night assignment.

It did not go well.

In the third inning, the Mets scored two runs off the typically stingy hurler. In the fourth, they scored three more. Something seemed to be off for the uber-competative pitcher, but it was tough to say what. Was it postseason hangover? Carpenter had thrown more innings in 2006 and 2005 combined – including the postseason – than he had ever thrown before. Was the workload taking its toll? Or was it simply the start of the season? Some players need a few extra days – sometimes a week or two – to really shake off the offseason cobwebs. Could that be it? Was it as simple as rust?

Whatever it was…it got worse.

By the 7th inning, Carpenter was gone. He had left the game with an unexplained elbow injury. Discomfort? Pain? Soreness? Fatigue? The descriptions varied…and so did the predictions. Would he be back in a week? A month? Three months? No one knew. But one thing they did know…Opening Night in St. Louis for the fans of the defending World Champions had certainly not gone as planned.

It was supposed to be a celebration of the miraculous 2006 team – a team seeded last in the postseason, a team that had fought to hold onto it’s NL Central Division title until the last day, a team that had defied all odds and made the World Series…and a team that had, despite one writer’s prediction of “Tigers in 3”, defeated the mighty Detroit Tigers in five games to win the Series. It was supposed to be Budweisers and smiles all around.

Instead…it was disaster.

The Cardinals lost the game 6 to 1 – suitably depressing all on its own – but what came after that night…months into the regular 2007 season…was much, much worse. Chris Carpenter would require Tommy John Surgery…again. He would not return to the St. Louis rotation until late 2008. And without him, the Cardinals finished the 2007 season with a record of 78 and 84 – their first losing record since 1999.

Flash forward to April 4th, 2012. It’s Opening Night again – although this time the game is in Miami, FL…in a ballpark perhaps better suited to Las Vegas showgirls than professional baseball players – and the Cardinals are again playing to a national audience on sports super-giant, ESPN. Once again, less than six months ago, a wildly miraculous St. Louis team won the World Series. 11 in 11, as it was known, was an even less likely outcome than 2006…and Chris Carpenter had, again, forcefully drug his team across the finish line.

And he had, once again, drawn the Opening Night assignment…a start The Ace would never make.

Before Carpenter could make his first Spring Training start in Grapefruit League play, a nerve issue knocked him from the rotation. He would pitch this year, the club announced, but when that would happen…no one could say. Opening Night in Miami was up for grabs. Would it be Garcia…the young lefty the club had just signed to a four year contract? Would it go to Adam Wainwright, fresh off his own Tommy John Surgery but already a favorite for at least one NL Cy Young Award over the next three years? Or would it be the slimmer, re-energized Jake Westbrook, a veteran sinker-baller motivated by a sub-par 2011 and encouraged by a stellar 2012 Spring Training?

In fact…it would be none of them. Instead, first year manager Mike Matheny elected to go with a veteran pitcher who – in a manner of speaking – had a bit of Opening Day experience under his belt. Officially the Opening Day starter in 2008 after the scheduled starter’s performance – Adam Wainwright – had been rained out, veteran righty Kyle Lohse would throw the first pitch of the Cardinals’ 2012 season…possibly his last season as a St. Louis Cardinal.

He was, in a word, brilliant.

Throwing 7.1 innings of 2 hit, 1 run ball, Kyle carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning at the Marlins’ new ballpark. Sure, there were a few hard hit balls – a couple that likely would have been over the wall in a…*ahem*…lesser stadium – but every pitching story has a few side notes, and results are results. And the results for Lohse were outstanding.

Winning the game 4 to 1, the 2012 Cardinals picked up where the 2011 team left off. David Freese had 3 hits and 2 RBIs, Rafael Furcal went 3 for 5 with an RBI, and Jason Motte recorded his first save of the season by striking out both Ramirez and Stanton in the bottom of the 9th. It was as if the 2011 Cardinals had simply taken a couple days off – hung up the cleats, hit the beach, spent some time with the kids – and then laced ’em up and returned to work. No interruption. No problem.

But one thing the 2012 Cardinals could not say was simply, “No changes.”

Falling victim to the “victory tour” syndrome that aflicts so many MLB Champions, the 2006 Cardinals simply eased into the 2007 season with much the same roster – experienced, well-known…but also older and more injury prone. Walt Jocketty had merely taken the “wash, rinse, repeat” approach to building the defending Champions’ roster, and the results had not been pretty. But where change had been perhaps taboo in the 2007 clubhouse…the 2012 Redbirds had change thrust upon them.

After 16 seasons, three NL Championships, and two World Series Championships, the Cardinals’ skipper Tony La Russa called it a career and took off the sunglasses. In a word – he “retired.” Then…less than two months later…the team’s franchise icon and all-around beloved citizen Albert Pujols abandoned and betrayed Cardinal Nation by accepting a grossly-overblown contract with the LA Angels of Anaheim. In a word – he “left.” And John Mozeliak – “Mo” – was left holding the proverbial bag. He would not panic.

Perhaps learning a thing or two from his predecessor in the GM’s office – more by proximity than intent – Mo refused to simply “wash, rinse, repeat” the old formula. Given the opportunity to hire the “obvious” choice in Terry Francona – or even Jose Oquendo – Mozeliak took the chance to inject relative youth into a position that had been dominated by Hall of Fame caliber experience. He hired Mike Matheny as Cardinal Manager.

Having never coached at the MLB level – or even the minor league level, for that matter – Matheny was a surprise to many outside the organization. Inside the organization, however, many saw the move coming. Mike had been groomed from day one for a potential coaching and/or managing position by Mozeliak. While the timing of the opportunity was a bit of a surprise, the opportunity itself had been a long time coming.

But the changes didn’t stop there.

To potentially “replace” some of the production lost by the defection of Albert Pujols, Mozeliak grabbed the top hitter on the market – Carlos Beltran. The aging outfielder could no longer man center field every day, or demand attention on the basepaths as he had in the past, but he could still hit. As testament to his ability, the right fielder stroked two hits and scored a key run in the Cardinals’ victory last night.

But Mozeliak – and now Matheny – was not done, yet.

Chafing against a coaching log-jam of sorts in the organization for years, Mo was intent on taking the opportunity created by La Russa’s sudden retirement to refresh the coaching staff and create “internal churn” within the organization. All but Oquendo and McGwire’s positions were up for grabs. And nearly all of them saw fresh new faces step into MLB coaching jobs in the St. Louis dugout.

It seemed Mozeliak would take the change initially thrust upon him and make it the theme of the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals. An era of Cardinals baseball had ended in a blaze of glory. Mozeliak would see to it that a new era in Cardinals baseball would begin with fresh hope and renewed purpose. Change was on the horizon. Change in players, change in coaches, and even change in key organizational members like Jeff Luhnow, who took the vacant Houston Astros’ GM position.

But one thing would not change, according to Mozeliak, Matheny, and primary club owner Bill Dewitt – the winning tradition of St. Louis Cardinals baseball.

The leadership of the St. Louis Cardinals knows that above all else, winning is paramount to this city, this fanbase, and to this team – and each of them share in the affliction. The methods may change, the team may focus much more on homegrown talent rather than free agent signings, but the goal is always the same…winning.

In 2007, the World Champion Cardinals began their season with a stale lineup, an aching pitcher, and a GM who refused to read the writing on the wall. In 2012, however, the World Champion Cardinals took change by the throat and wrestled it into submission. Winning would continue…but it would do so through fresh talent, core player retention, and re-vitalizing leadership.

On April 4th, 2012, Mike Matheny and the St. Louis Cardinals made a statement. This season – the season of the reigning 2011 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals – will not be a victory tour of the National League. This team is here for one purpose and one purpose only – to “win the whole f***ing thing.” *

St. Louis Cardinals: 1 – 0…on pace to go 162 – 0. October, here we come.

GO CARDS!!!

* For those wondering, the quote is from Major League.

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