On November 13, 2011, Mike Matheny was named as the new manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, replacing retired Tony La Russa. While his club was unable to repeat as World Champions, the 42-year-old had a solid first season in the job.
Prior to his hire, Matheny had been a special assistant to general manager John Mozeliak and an organizational catching instructor. A 13-year major league veteran and four-time Gold Glove Award winner, Matheny was a popular player with St. Louis from 2000-04. However, he had no prior professional team coaching or managerial experience.
Matheny was charged with replacing a future Hall-of-Famer in La Russa, while taking over the defending World Series winner. Less than a month after assuming the position, he saw his club’s superstar, Albert Pujols, depart St. Louis as a free agent. Then, at the very start of spring training, ace Chris Carpenter went down with injury.
With many questions about the new manager and his club coming into the season, Matheny learned fast on the job. When the regular season bell rang, St. Louis stormed out of the gate, becoming the first defending champion since 1922 to win its first six series.
However, May 23 would be the Cardinals last day in first place, as the club suffered through losing months in May and June. Lance Berkman’s injury-plagued summer was another major factor to deal with.
As the injuries mounted, Matheny deftly worked youngsters such as Matt Carpenter, Lance Lynn, Trevor Rosenthal, Joe Kelly and later, Pete Kozma, into key roles. Yet it seemed like veterans Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran would have been fresher in October with more regular rest during the long summer.
St. Louis went into the All-Star break just 2 ½ games behind Cincinnati. However, by the time July was out, the red-hot Reds were up by seven games. As the Reds pulled away, the Cardinals remained in the Wild Card chase.
The deployment of July 31st-acquired Edward Mujica to stabilize the bullpen as the seventh-inning man was a key move that strengthened both Matheny’s managerial decisions and his club overall.
From September 1 through the end of the regular season, the Cardinals went 17-13. That included home series wins over two of the three NL division champions and potential playoff opponents Washington and Cincinnati to conclude the regular season.
The club’s 88-victory total was just two games fewer than the 2011 World Champions won, but would not have been enough to make the playoffs the prior year. St. Louis clinched after game 161, taking the new second wild card spot.
The Cardinals won the first-ever National League Wild Card Game over Atlanta, then took three of five against the Washington Nationals. Division Series Game 5 featured a comeback worthy of the 2011 club as the Cards came back from a six run deficit after twice being down to their last strike.
Though his team ran out of steam after going up three games to one over San Francisco in the NLCS, arguably the biggest change in the 2012 Cardinals – their new manager – proved to be a major stabilizing force all year long.
Expect Matheny to continue to grow, remaining in the managerial chair for a long time to come.