'Just breathe': Cards count on the kids as postseason journey begins

News-DemocratOctober 2, 2013 

Think it's old hat for the St. Louis Cardinals to be back in the playoff hunt once again?

Tell that to the 10 rookies on the Cardinals roster for the Division Series beginning with Game 1 against Pittsburgh this afternoon at Busch Stadium.

One Redbird rookie -- Matt Adams -- will hit cleanup. Another -- Trevor Rosenthal -- will be the closer. And in between, eight others will have a hand in the Cards' seventh post-season journey in the last 10 years.

"In 2006 Jason Isringhausen said, 'Just breathe,'" Game 1 starter Adam Wainwright said as the teams worked out Wednesday at Busch. "It sounds simple, it sounds childish.

"But when you get out there in the moment, to actually take some time to breathe," said Wainwright, thrust into the closer's role for the Cards' triumphant World Series run in 2006 when Isringhausen missed the end of the season due to a hip injury. "It simplifies the game a little bit, calms your nerves and allows you to focus on the pitch you're making."

There's nothing like a kid's first playoff game -- before 40,000 Cardinals fans in a bunting-draped ballpark -- to focus the attention just a little bit.

"It's something special for me to be part of a club like this and have so many great guys in this clubhouse that are willing to help each other out," said Adams, who hit 17 homers in 108 games this season, or one every 12 at-bats or so. "I feel that if I sit back and think too much about it, it's going distract me a little bit from what I need to go out and do.

"So I just prepare like I'm playing in any other regular-season game, and just take things one out at a time."

That's the challenge facing a group of rookies that played a major role in the Cards' 97-win regular-season -- tying them with the Boston Red Sox for the best record in baseball.

Adams fills the huge hole created by Allen Craig's late-season ankle injury. Rosenthal has taken the ninth-inning baseball from a faltering and fatigued Edward Mujica. And who knows what rookie contributions will come this month from the likes of Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness and the rest?

One thing we know for sure: Manager Mike Matheny won't be reluctant to hand the ball to any of them. Or put the Cardinals' playoff fate in their hands.

"We've talked a lot here locally about how much credit we give our veteran staff, our veteran players -- but also our development system," Matheny said. "We've had so many young players who have come into St. Louis here ready, not to just be in the Big Leagues, but to contribute to a team that was in the fight from the beginning."

David Freese, one of the graybeards on the club with four years in the majors, said the veterans marveled at the contributions from the youngsters all season.

"We've got a lot of talent, and I think you can tip your hat to the young guys, the rookies, that came up here," said Freese, the hero of the Cards' 2011 World Series run. "What they've accomplished, it's unbelievable. In this environment, they're unfazed, and it's cool to see.

"You look at Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and what they accomplished, and winning this division was not an easy thing to do."

Made easier, though, by the Cardinal veterans who took the kids under their wings. The Cardinals used 20 rookies this year, the most since the 1971 Cardinals used 21, and every one had a significant role on the club.

"I think really something different here is just the culture we have with our veteran players," Matheny said. "These guys let them know that they're rookies, but for the most part they've created an environment where these guys can come in and be successful without any other thoughts except 'doing what I need to do to help this club win.'

"And there is constant teaching going on, from our veterans and obviously our coaching staff."

The message as the Cards begin their first steps toward what could be their 12th World Series title, and third in eight seasons? Don't try to do more than you can do, even if the postseason spotlight shines brighter than ever.

"Part of the message, truly what I expect from them, is what I've seen all season long," Matheny said. "I need them to really, truly believe that what they've done so far this year is exactly what they need to continue to do. Regardless of how many different questions they get, regardless of how many times people are trying to tell them this different.

"It's not. It's the same game, it's still 60 feet 6 inches (from the mound to home plate), 90 feet to each base. They need to trust that, and realize that the expectation level isn't anything different from me or our coaching staff."

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 (618) 239-2512 or at jostermeier@bnd.com.

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