SPRINGFIELD, MO.—It was mid-November 2011, just weeks after the surprise retirement of Tony La Russa began to be felt in the high minor leagues, when the Double-A Springfield Cardinals called for a news conference to introduce a new manager.
Nobody, however, expected this Adam Wainwright-like curveball. Into the room and the managerial role walked Mike Shildt, promoted all the way from the Rookie-level Appalachian League, where he was fresh off back-to-back titles for Johnson City. But he had never played in the minor leagues or coached for a full-season club.
“I remember everybody’s reaction was, ‘Who is this guy?’ ” Shildt said before breaking into a laugh.
By year’s end, no one had to ask. Not after Shildt, 43, led Springfield to a club-record 77 wins and to its first Texas League pennant.
What a year it was—so successful, in fact, that the Springfield Cardinals are Baseball America’s Minor League Team of the Year.
Second baseman Kolten Wong, righthander Trevor Rosenthal and a 19-year-old Oscar Taveras jumped straight from the low Class A Midwest League out of spring training and played starring roles. Taveras won his second consecutive batting title, and Rosenthal reached St. Louis in July. Wong batted .286/.348/.405.
But the storylines also included the key additions of three seasoned minor leaguers in May and June, a steady bullpen that supported a rotation whose names were completely different in mid-July than on Opening Day, and the late-season arrival of first-rounder Michael Wacha, a Texas A&M stalwart who reached Double-A just 66 days after signing.
And that is only the CliffsNotes version.
By the time Springfield blitzed Frisco in the TL finals in four games—even receiving a surprise clubhouse visit from La Russa after a dramatic Game Two victory—one story had long been forgotten.
That is, a 10-game losing streak in April.
“That was very trying. I had never experienced anything close to that,” Shildt said, adding that he got calls of encouragement from St. Louis’ front-office executives, coaches on the big league staff and in player development. “That meant a lot for them to say, ‘Hey, just keep plugging.’ It also reinforced that it’s not about the winning and losing.
“We’re obviously keeping score and competitive. But through adversity comes growth, and we were able to grow during those 10 games.”
Returning To Basics
During the losing streak, Springfield took six one-run losses. It could have torpedoed a team that was the youngest in the league (average age of 23) and that carried no one with any extensive Triple-A experience.
However, the narrative slowly changed over the next nine weeks.
It all began with Shildt, a former infielder at UNC Asheville, a college assistant at UNC Charlotte and a former scout who in previous seasons coordinated St. Louis’ spring training.
He maintained a positive clubhouse atmosphere with very few team meetings. More significantly, Shildt was a stickler to detail in the fundamentals, one of the reasons he got the job in the first place.
“We knew the Springfield club was going to be young, but also that it likely would have some of our better prospects,” farm director John Vuch said. “As a result, we wanted to have a manager in place that we knew not only could be patient with the younger players, but also had the ability to help them learn from their inevitable mistakes without getting frustrated.”
In May and June, the additions of infielder Jermaine Curtis, outfielder Chris Swauger and outfielder/first baseman Jamie Romak from Triple-A Memphis proved valuable. Wong moved fully into the leadoff role, while Curtis and Romak flanked Taveras in a lineup that often went left/right/left throughout.
Springfield finished with a .268 average, tied with Corpus Christi (Astros) atop the league, the second year in a row the Cardinals led the circuit with batting coach Phillip Wellman.
Curtis not only led the league in on-base percentage (.416) but he almost wrestled away the batting title, hitting .313 to Taveras’ .321.
Swauger steadied the second half of the lineup, in which first baseman Xavier Scruggs finished with 22 home runs and 91 RBIs after a slow start. Swauger’s three home runs highlighted a come-from-behind, 8-6 playoff-opening win against Tulsa in the division series. The team trailed 6-0.
Defensively, the Cardinals led the league in double plays, with Wong partnered with his old University of Hawaii teammate, shortstop Greg Garcia. Shildt called Garcia “a coach on the field.”
“When we got Romak, Swauger and Curtis, all those guys who had been there before, that’s when we started clicking,” Wong said. “We started playing baseball the right way.”
Lead By Pitching
With pitching coach Bryan Eversgerd overseeing them, the rotation and bullpen also led the way.
Lefthander John Gast was leading the league in (1.93) ERA when he was promoted to Triple-A Memphis in early May. Lefthander Tyler Lyons joined him a month later.
Rosenthal got called up straight to St. Louis on July 16. He was 8-6, 2.76 in the Texas League, and later dominated during St. Louis’ playoff run.
Fortunately, righthander Seth Maness advanced from high Class A Palm Beach in May, and prospect righthander Carlos Martinez joined him too a few weeks later after a stint on the disabled list (mild shoulder tendonitis).
Maness piqued the interest of veteran scouts, with one scout comparing his pinpoint control to that of Greg Maddux and Mike Boddicker. Maness finished 11-3, 3.27 and—this is not a misprint—walked only nine batters in almost 124 Double-A innings.
Meanwhile, Martinez, 20, became more aggressive with his fastball, and working primarily with backup catcher Travis Tartamella, compiled a 2.94 ERA in 71 innings. He threw seven scoreless innings in his Game Two start against Frisco. Scott Gorgen, up and down from Memphis all year and another Tommy John survivor, fired six scoreless innings in the pennant clincher.
“We knew we were dealing with a ton of inexperience going into the season,” Shildt said. “It was an adjustment period for all of us at the beginning, but it was a real character-builder.”