Even Matheny's not sure: How good can these Cardinals be?

News-DemocratJune 8, 2013 

Mike Matheny has taken the measure of his ballclub, but knows the yardstick stretches far into the distance.

"It takes three quarters of the season, a good section of the season, where you have to prove yourself (to yourself)," Matheny said. "There are a lot of teams that get off to a hot start, and then they fizzle out.

"Right now we've had a pretty good start, and I think it sets a level of expectation for us on how we should go about it, and what it should look like, and how it should be. Time will tell whether this is the kind of team that can do it for the long haul."

That dull thud you hear is Matheny tamping down expectations. He knows, even if we have forgotten it, that exactly 100 games remain to be played this season.

And so, roughly a third of the way through 2013, this thought lingers ... for every bright surprise for these Cardinals, there is a dark cloud:

* The most wins in the majors, but arguably the most significant injuries to any team in baseball.

* The most candidates for National League Rookie of the Year from any team -- by far -- but the nagging worries that come with putting so much pressure on so many young shoulders.

* The league's Most Valuable Player, catcher Yadier Molina, and yet he plays the most physically and mentally demanding position of all.

* A dominating starting staff, yet one that has seen injury after injury chip away at its effectiveness.

* A surprising relief corps, with unforeseen perfection from a previously untried closer, and yet questions in middle relief that stalk Matheny and his coaching staff.

"I think we've shown ourselves there are some things we can do right, and things that we know we can do better," Matheny said. "It's a long, long way to go; we've got months ahead (of us). There are going to be trying times, and it doesn't take long for something to happen that changes everything you've thought. We just don't get too far ahead of ourselves in that regard."

Case in point: Three weeks ago Sports Illustrated put the five Cardinals starting pitchers on its cover, saying the rotation was the best in baseball. Before the magazine could reach the newsstands, two of the five pitchers were hurt, one of them lost for the season.

And this for a pitching staff that lost its ace before spring training began, and lost its closer as spring training wound to a close.

Such could happen to any of a number of absolutely essential Cardinals as the season rolls on through June and past the All-Star break, into the dog days of August and amid the lengthening shadows of September and beyond.

What if, heaven forbid, something happened to Molina? Or Adam Wainwright? Or Matt Holliday? Or Carlos Beltran? Or Allen Craig? Or Matt Carpenter? Or any of a half-dozen other players the Cardinals could ill afford to lose?

The thoughts go unspoken, but linger.

"It's still early," Matheny said. "We're excited we got off to a good start, but we've got a long way to go. We're staying very realistic, we're only two months into this.

"We've got some young pitchers that haven't been tested in every area. So we're not going to get too far along, except to say we're happy where they are, and want them to keep going along that route."

Matheny, the catcher on Cardinals teams that won 105 games in 2004 and 100 games in 2005, noted that even those clubs faced adversity. Those teams believed they were capable of great things, but couldn't know for sure until the season wound to a close.

"What you remember from a number of teams like that is that toward the end, you're walking into the postseason, you're rolling into the end of August and September, and you know you have a really good team," he said. "People's roles are defined, and it turns into a situation where you anticipate winning every night. It's a pretty fun experience."

The 2013 Cardinals aren't there yet. But as the challenges mount, this club can draw from recent success and a tradition of excellence.

"A lot of it has to do with a long-standing tradition and history and a level of expectations that have just been here," Matheny said. "We've had some success, which leads to expectation for further success, and I think it's incumbent on an organizational-wide philosophy of excellence.

"And then people at the top not just talking about it, but trying to put it into place, and then that creates a culture. Everybody in the organization, the minor-league system, all the way through to what we do here, we try to follow along with the same ideals."

The measure of this club has been taken, but it is held to a standard that only a few teams in baseball can meet.

Will this club make the grade? In 100 games we'll know.

Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has written about the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since 1985. He can be reached at jostermeier@bnd.com or at (618) 239-2512.

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