ST. LOUIS — The response to the question, like the last calendar week of Cardinals baseball, varies by the day.
Is Cardinals manager Mike Shildt deserving of the National League Manager of the Year award?
“Of course!” said Cardinals fans when Shildt’s button-pressing and lever-pulling led the Cardinals to a four-game sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
“Not so fast,” questioned critics as the Cardinals stubbed their toe twice in the desert, first in a 19-inning loss against an eliminated opponent, and then again in the hangover game Shildt handed over to his bench.
Here’s a better answer: We’re about to find out.
For most of the candidates in this year’s competition, the regular-season body of work considered by a group of Baseball Writers’ Association of America voters is complete.
Each offers reasons for pause.
The knock against Dave Roberts of the Dodgers is that his club’s excellence was expected. Tough, but true.
Brian Snitker of the Braves won it last year, and he’s certainly deserving once more. But repeat winners are rare. Former Braves manager Bobby Cox is the only back-to-back winner (2004-05) since 2000.
Dave Martinez of the Nationals should be in the mix, and there’s some wow factor in the story of his return from an emergency heart surgery late in the season, but how much credit should he get for digging the Nationals out of a 19-31 hole he helped put them in?
A strong case can be made that the winner should be the manager whose club emerges from the NL’s toughest competition.
That would be the Central. It’s the only undecided division left standing. It can’t be claimed until Saturday, at the earliest. Sign me up for Shildt versus Brewers manager Craig Counsell. Winner takes all.
The Brewers’ comeback against the Reds on Thursday made them 14-2 since defending NL MVP Christian Yelich was lost for the season. We figured Milwaukee’s knees would buckle along with their outfielder’s. Wrong. And please dismiss the gobbledygook about the Brewers’ soft schedule. Good teams beat bad ones, and the Brewers have beaten good ones, too. They have a division-best 44 wins against winning teams.
Milwaukee finishes on the road against the Rockies. Bud Black’s team is eliminated and acting like it. The Rockies have lost six of their last eight and own as many losses since August (32) as the Brewers have wins. The voodoo of Coors Field is no match for the Rockies’ current disinterest.
What Counsell’s club has done without Yelich is amazing. Period. The All-Star accounted for 18% of the Brewers’ home runs and 13% of their RBIs. Simply making the postseason is impressive, considering the circumstances. The house-money Brewers want more.
Some will say Counsell deserves to be named Manager of the Year even if Milwaukee doesn’t upgrade its postseason ticket.
That argument overlooks Shildt’s qualifications.
In his first full season as manager, Shildt has the Cardinals on the cusp of their first first-place finish since 2015.
The Cardinals have the third-most wins in the NL (90). Their 46 wins since the All-Star break lead all NL teams. And since the five-game divot that coincided with the front office’s decision to not add help after declaring itself a buyer, the Cardinals’ .696 win percentage is best in baseball, period.
The Cardinals remain on track to become the first team in recorded MLB history to transition from the MLB-high in errors committed one season to the MLB-low the following season.
They are one of the best baserunning teams in baseball this season, according to FanGraphs’ all-inclusive BaseRunning statistic.
Their season-long ERA of 3.80 is second-best in the NL, and the best (3.38) since the break.
On top of the usual injuries any manager must sidestep, Shildt steered his team around the loss of closer Jordan Hicks, and still the Cardinals lead the NL in saves (52) and save percentage (72.2).
Now consider the help Shildt did not receive.
He has done this without a single true All-Star. It took the commissioner’s office to name shortstop Paul DeJong to this year’s list. The Cardinals and the Marlins were the only NL teams that did not have a player picked by players and/or fans.
Shildt’s bunch has not benefited from one outside addition since it departed spring training. The front office challenged his team to prove it was deserving of help, then reversed course after that challenge was met with a second-half surge. This fact made the griping about Shildt’s turn toward the bench in Wednesday’s loss in Arizona seem shortsighted.
The regulars were gassed. The regular relievers were toast. The lineup of subs scored seven runs, more than the starting lineup often provides.
What the Cardinals desperately needed was a quality start from the fifth spot in the rotation, one fresh and reliable arm to carry the load. But Michael Wacha exited with another late-season injury, and an area of need that was evident as the trade deadline neared and expired came back to bite the Cardinals. Hard. At a very bad time.
There is no more time to rest. The Cardinals have not lost three consecutive games since the first week of August, and they can’t afford to make it three in a row now.
The Brewers must be expected to win out.
To prove their manager deserves to be Manager of the Year, the Cardinals need another sweep of the Cubs.
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