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BenFred: Cardinals, Phillies prove a manager’s touch is still important to modern game

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St. Louis Cardinals prepare for National League Wild Card series against Philadelphia Phillies

Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol supervises a practice session on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022, the day before the start of the team's National League Wild-Card series against the Phillies at Busch Stadium.

Ben Frederickson and Daniel Guerrero preview the best-of-three series, from slumping Paul Goldschmidt to the Phillies' shaky defense.

The Cardinals’ final flight home of the regular season was up in the air, somewhere between Pittsburgh and St. Louis, when president of baseball operations John Mozeliak turned to first-year manager Oli Marmol and said in a direct manner something the often-blunt Marmol surely appreciated: “You’ve had a great year.”

Indeed. But if it’s going to become something better, something sweeter, Marmol must now lead the Cardinals past a National League Wild Card opponent that feels pretty great about its manager, too.

Make that interim manager.

Well, at least for now.

“Hopefully, maybe next year he will be back here with us,” Phillies Game 1 starter Zack Wheeler said about Rob Thomson on Thursday. “That would be nice.”

The NL favorite for Manager of the Year is Buck Showalter, who helped the so-often-lost Mets return to the postseason for the first time since 2016. High in the receiving-votes category should be both Marmol, the youngest manager in the majors who spearheaded the Cardinals back to a division championship for the first time since 2019, and Thomson, who was elevated from bench coach after the Phillies fired Joe Girardi earlier this season.

The Cardinals’ opponent in this best-of-three series was 22-29 when Girardi became the first manager fired this season. Under Thomson, the Phillies snapped out of their slumber, overcame some threatening injuries and went 65-46 to secure their first postseason appearance since the Cardinals shoved them out in 2011.

“It’s important to our passionate fan base,” Thomson said about breaking back into the bracket. “But I feel it in the clubhouse, as well. It’s been a lot of talk, especially in the five years that I’ve been here, and to kind of get that monkey off your back, it’s a big deal. Talking to the guys, they’re very relaxed, very confident. They feel really good about this.”

Marmol’s biggest obstacles came this offseason. His shot to manage came after his friend and mentor Mike Shildt was fired in ugly fashion by the Cardinals. And then the lockout came, adding unknown to awkwardness of his promotion from bench coach. Marmol never flinched.

The 36-year-old who came up with the Cardinals as a player then coach has successfully connected silos of the organization. He’s proven better communication and collaboration can indeed improve the product on the field. The attention to detail, baserunning and defense that were sharpened under Shildt have remained strong. Meanwhile, relationships between the front office and the manager’s office have improved. Marmol’s candor has become appreciated by players, media and fans. More importantly, the Cardinals have moved forward in their beliefs they can maximize production by leaning harder into modern analytics as a guide while creating increased opportunities for more players to contribute in the right roles.

“I think he understands what is in the toolbox,” Mozeliak said. “There are a lot of different ways to measure talent, to evaluate players. Is there a perfect model of optimization of the athlete? One might argue. But there is still the subjective and the human element, and I think he has found great balance between using modern tools and modern analytics to balance that with what he is seeing and what he is feeling.”

Thursday offered an example. Rookie infielder Nolan Gorman seemed to have little chance of making the postseason roster. But because he is a left-handed hitter with power potential and the Phillies have stacked up potent right-handers Wheeler and Aaron Nola, he’s on the squad. And he returns with the confidence of Marmol having trusted him before his season-ending skid. Some forgot Gorman’s 14 homers this season are tied with Lars Nootbaar for fourth-most on the team. Not Marmol.

“Everyone will contribute to us moving this thing along,” Marmol said. “It’s been that way all year. We’ve mixed and matched not only with our lineup but with how we have used our guys out of the pen, and this will be no different.”

In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman discusses Paul Goldschmidt’s .981 OPS this season … but also his .689 OPS after Aug. 25. Plus, a happy birthday shoutout to Brian Sutter! And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat. Ten Hochman is presented by Window Nation!

In Marmol the Cardinals found a unifier who is hungry to push a proud organization forward while still honoring cornerstone values.

In Thomson, it seems the Phillies have found quiet confidence at a time outside noise threatened to overwhelm.

It emerged from within.

“I may look relaxed, but there are times when I’m not relaxed,” Thomson said.

Yet a team that touts a Phanatic as its mascot in a city known for its sports fans’ tendency to get excitable was on the edge of collapse before Thomson’s level head came to the rescue. With expectations as bloated as their massive payroll, the Phillies started 22-29 despite the reigning NL MVP (Bryce Harper) and five 2021 All-Stars calling the clubhouse home. Girardi was the first manager fired in the 2022 season. The 59-year-old Thomson, a baseball lifer who held various roles in baseball before serving as the Phillies’ bench coach for the past three managers, won his first game as interim manager. He’s now 65-46 in the big chair.

“He’s that calming presence for our clubhouse,” catcher J.T. Realmuto said.

“He’s not so robotical, I guess you could say,” added Wheeler. “That’s the first thing that sticks out to me. I’m not saying anybody else we had was, or anything like that. I’m just saying he’s a person. You can have a conversation with the guy. Everybody respects him for what he’s done on the field and throughout his career. Special guy. He cares about us. He is there every single day way earlier than we are preparing for that day and the days ahead. Anybody who has your back like that, we have his back.”

It has become trendy to dismiss the importance of the modern manager. Joe Maddon, among others, has bemoaned the decline of the role’s independence. Front-office collusion is the description for some, not collaboration. The job has changed, and no one is denying that, but if you think having the right manager in place is not critical to winning, see where the Phillies were in April, and where the Cardinals were in a messy transition one year ago.

“Yet, he handled it with grace,” Mozeliak said about Marmol. “He handled it as a professional. He learned a lot. He grew a lot. But even from day one, he hit the ground running.”

The most important leg of the race starts now.

Only one impressive manager gets to advance, but it seems obvious both teams in this series found the right one.

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