ST. LOUIS -- As the Cardinals emerged from the shock that enveloped them in the wake of Oscar Taveras' death last October, they looked to one man to lead them forward. That man had spent the prior week peppered with criticism for his postseason decisions -- none more scrutinized than his use of Michael Wacha -- was all of a sudden needed for what he did best:
For all the debate about Mike Matheny's skills as a tactician since his hire in November 2011, there has been equal praise for his ability to galvanize a group and foster an environment that breeds collective success. That's why, just days after Taveras' passing, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak spoke confidently of how the team had the right man in charge to guide it through tragedy.
"I do know one of the things that Mike does a great job in in the clubhouse is bring guys together and impress the value of what a team and family means," Mozeliak said that day. "That's invaluable."
He was the rudder then, and Matheny has since been the backbone of a team that has dealt with a non-stop current of on-field adversity. The injuries seemed incessant at times, and, when the Cardinals open the National League Division Series against the Cubs on Friday (live on TBS at 5:30 p.m. CT), their 25-man roster will include seven players who spent time on the disabled list. That doesn't even include Yadier Molina, who stayed off the DL only because the Cardinals had the benefit of playing September out with an expanded roster. Nor does that list name Jordan Walden, Matt Adams, Matt Belisle, Carlos Martinez and Mitch Harris, all of whom were sidelined for various lengths of time.
The Cardinals may have finished, as many predicted they would, atop the National League Central. But it took the even hand of Matheny and help from so many unlikely contributors to get them there.
"It's getting people on the same page, dealing with issues," Matheny said, in describing his role in this 100-win season. "We've had, obviously, more visible issues, but those aren't the bigger challenges. There is stuff behind the scenes, trying to keep everybody in a good spot. That's part of the great reward of this position, too, is trying to figure out how to create an atmosphere that can allow people to do what they do, and create an atmosphere with a consistent goal in mind."
The injuries started before the Cardinals could even break camp. A March quad injury stalled Tommy Pham's pursuit of a bench spot, and another shoulder setback left everyone wondering if Jaime Garcia would ever be back in the rotation.
Three weeks into the season, ace Adam Wainwright went down; then Walden, their setup man. Cleanup hitter Matt Adams and three-hole hitter Matt Holliday sustained serious quad injuries within two weeks of one another. Jon Jay hardly played healthy, Randal Grichuk dealt with back and elbow issues and Lance Lynn had to miss two starts in June. And a shoulder injury cost Martinez the chance to make his first October start.
Matheny's message amid it all was consistent. He implored his players not to concern themselves with who wasn't there, but to rally around those who were.
"Even keel is the perfect adjective for him because he never panics," Wainwright said of Matheny. "In this game, where you can ride the highs and ride the lows as well, he seems to stay in the middle. He reminds us when we're going good that we need to keep working and when we're going bad that we need to keep working and things will turn around. Obviously, the constant thought there is keep working."
The Cardinals, with 722 days, did not lead the Majors in DL days. That distinction belongs to the Rangers, whose players combined to sit on the DL for 1,701 days. But no club was more negatively impacted by injuries than St. Louis.
Per mangameslost.com, the Cardinals lost a projected WAR of 15.88 to the DL. That was more than five wins above replacement than the next team, the Blue Jays (10.70). The Cardinals' ability to never slow down speaks to how well they plugged holes.
"I was surprised in how well we reacted," reliever Carlos Villanueva said. "We lose Wainwright, and usually somewhere else, it's like, 'Season over.' But the first couple games we come out and our record in the next 10 games is 8-2, and it's like, 'Maybe, it's not that bad.'
"He's different," continued Villanueva, speaking of Matheny. "I've had so many different [managers] over the years, and he's definitely a more consistent voice. And that's something here that I think everybody appreciates."
The consistent message led to consistent play. The Cardinals' longest losing streak was four games, and it wasn't until the final series of the season, when they were resting many of their regulars, that the club endured a three-game sweep. They were terrific at home (55-26), one of the Majors' best on the road (45-36) and successful in one-run games (32-23).
Matheny's team won at least 15 games every month.
"He sets the tone," Stephen Piscotty said. "I think guys want to play their best for him. He really does bring out the best in all of us. He's had a tremendous track record and knows a lot about the game. He's been a huge part of that stability when things were getting crazy with injuries."
Matheny's moves and decisions will surely be dissected for as long as this October runs lasts. But inside the clubhouse walls, there will be a group of players unified in their pursuit and believing, confidently, that their manager will put them in position to succeed.
"I think from a manager's standpoint, he has these guys believing in what to do and how to go about it," Mozeliak said. "I think Mike has just done a tremendous job to where when adversity hit, when injuries hit, there was never that moment of, 'Oh boy. It's happened to us again.' It was always like, 'Hey. We're going to play today. And we're going to have to put nine out there and give it our best.' That's what they've done, and I think it's a compliment to Mike, as well as our players."