ST. LOUIS – Under a much different set of circumstances, a fuming Cardinals manager stormed off after reporters asked questions about a slow start to a season. It was April 6, 2011, when Tony LaRussa uttered a phrase that has lived on in radio mic drops almost a decade later.
“It’s the first week of the season,” he said repeatedly.
But this is 2020, and a season that was already going to be unlike any other has been turned on its head, and not because of a 2-3 start. With COVID 19 infecting 10 players, almost as many staff members. While their opponents have played three weeks of the season, the Cardinals haven’t yet played a full week’s worth.
That changes Saturday when the team plays the first of what figure to be many doubleheaders in an effort to catch up.
“We’re going to embrace it, enjoy it, get after it,” Mike Shildt told reporters in a Zoom news conference Friday night from Chicago, pledging that his team will “fight like heck” to be in the playoffs, despite all the obstacles in their way on and off the field. Here’s a look at five key questions to guide their return to play for the first time since July 29.
HEALTH: The players who first tested positive for COVID, including Yadier Molina and Paul DeJong, are not ready to return and are not expected to be in Chicago this week for the series against the White Sox and Cubs. After getting enough days of negative tests, the team is able to return to play. Will there be a psychological burden of worrying if those tests will keep on coming back negative? Physically, the players who haven’t spent time in Springfield at the Alternate Site have not done much in the way of baseball activities, save for some very socially distant work at Busch Stadium late this week. After stops and starts, what Manager Mike Shildt Friday called the team’s 4th chance if you include the stoppage of spring training back in March will include close eyes on hamstrings, shoulders and elbows.
THE ROTATION: Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Dakota Hudson, Daniel Ponce de Leon and KK Kim are your starters, with Miles Mikolas out with elbow surgery and Carlos Martinez on the injured list. Expect to see a lot of “bullpen games” with the number of doubleheaders on the docket. Pitchers like John Gant and Austin Gomber, who have starter experience, would figure to be key cogs in that effort, but Gomber first has to return from the COVID injury list, due to concerns about his exposure to teammates determined by contact tracing.
CLOSER’S ROLE: When Carlos Martinez was named to the rotation, the surprise wasn’t that KK Kim was going to the bullpen, but that he’d be given first crack at the closer’s role, considering his relative inexperience in the job. After a shaky first outing on opening night, Kim’s next pitch will come as a member of the rotation. Ryan Helsley, a candidate to get a shot at the role, is out with COVID, along with other candidates like Junior Fernandez, who struggled with command in Summer Camp, and Kodi Whitley. Andrew Miller has the most experience of those remaining, but Giovanny Gallegos is fully capable. Is Alex Reyes ready to make a big splash?
OUTFIELD: Dylan Carlson is now here. The prized prospect is here to play, not to sit. Shildt confirmed the switch-hitter will bat sixth in his debut Saturday and is ready to play all three outfield positions. Tyler O’Neill was off to a strong start way back when three weeks ago, while Harrison Bader had struggled at the plate. With Lane Thomas recovering from COVID, one wonders if we’ll see a lot of Carlson in the field, while O’Neill and Fowler occasionally help out with Designated Hitter duty. Don’t forget Tommy Edman saw time in the outfield when he broke in last season.
DESIGNATED HITTER: When the season started, Matt Carpenter looked to get the lion’s share of ABs as the DH. But with DeJong out, Tommy Edman should slide over to short, putting Carpenter back in the field. Carpenter will hope that the delay gives him a chance for a fresh start, after he began the year with six strikeouts in his first fifteen plate appearances. Brad Miller will be a good bet to alternate some time with Carpenter at DH and at third, but again, it would not surprise to see O’Neill and Fowler get DH at-bats.
St. Louis was not the first team to be rocked by coronavirus and it may not be the last. If they need any inspiration upon their return, the Cardinals need only to look at the Miami Marlins, the first club to be benched by the virus. Limited to 13 games through Friday after they were grounded for about a week, the ragtag bunch of callups and free agent signings finds itself in first place in the National League East.