The St. Louis Cardinals have always reveled in the underdog role.
They were the underdog against the Texas Rangers in the 2011 World Series. They were the underdog against the Los Angeles Dodgers in last year's playoffs. They’ve been the underdog against just about everyone in past Octobers.
Except for this year.
Before a single pitch has been thrown (as Mike Matheny will remind you), the expectations are high for the 2014 Cardinals.
Matheny’s not a fan of talking expectations. Of course, neither is anyone else in MLB. While veteran players and front office personnel might be able to put those expectations aside, it’s not always so easy for young players.
“We like our chances just as much as anybody else, but to start making bold statements and predictions is really not wise,” Matheny said. “At this point, we’ve got to play the game.”
And the game starts now.
Whether they fully live up to those expectations, Matheny believes in playing every game like it’s your last—regardless of how much or how little is expected of you.
“It doesn’t matter the expectations and it doesn’t matter what people are saying,” Matheny said. “It’s a lot of talk and it gets you nowhere.”
They don’t talk about it regularly, but Matheny said he makes it clear to his players that the expectations and predictions for this team are just talk and nothing more.
“We have things that are said about us—compliments is what they are—but these guys have gone about their business the right way,” Matheny said.
While the team looks good on paper, that means nothing until it’s translated into on-field production. Just because a group of guys look good together statistically doesn’t make them winners.
Matheny is quick to point this out.
“People in this business understand we have talent, but talent has to come together as a team,” he said. “You’ve got to form the right kind of clubhouse and the right kind of play on the field.
“All of the speculation in the world gets you no runs. It doesn’t get you any outs from the mound either.”
Despite all of the hype and the need to play it down, Matheny understands why this team is drawing so much attention. Aside from the numbers, he feels he has a group of guys who all understand the importance of putting in their time.
“They go about it the right way,” he said. “They realize there’s a short window of opportunity in this game and they don’t want to lose any of those opportunities. They’re ready.”
It’s also important to remember that teams require change throughout the year. Whether it’s minor league call-ups or major league trades, more often than not a team looks different at game 162 than it did at game one.
General manager John Mozeliak knows that even with the best of teams, adjustments are usually required.
He thinks it’s a matter of “learning the DNA” of a particular team.
“We’re not perfect on day one and we know that,” Mozeliak said. “Our rotation looks stable, our everyday core players look solid. In terms of what we may have to go get at some point, we don’t know, but we know it will probably be something.
For now, as the Cardinals prepare for the season opener in Cincinnati, all they’re thinking about is getting back to baseball.
“It’s fun because now we get to go out there and actually see what we’ve got,” Matheny said.
All quotes obtained firsthand by the author.