Mike Shildt does the same thing every home game.
The Cardinals manager finishes his scrum with media members, ascends the dugout steps, then reaches down and grabs a small handful of Busch Stadium dirt.
He rubs the reddish brown substance into his hands as he looks out at his flock. Certain Cardinals are stretching their legs. Some are fine-tuning their swings in the cage. Outfielders are shagging fly balls.
By the time Shildt’s eyes have touched them all, the dirt is gone. And there goes Shildt, jogging off toward his next task.
For 73 home games this season, Shildt has performed some variation of this understated ritual.
He’s not one to change things that work.
“I’m going to get these questions a lot, and I understand the questions, but I’ll answer them in probably a similar fashion,” the manager said before Friday’s game against the Brewers, as we hit him with a volley of reasons this 16-game stretch to the regular season’s finish line just feels different.
And it does feel different, doesn’t it?
Night games are now played in an air that is crisp and trending toward chilly. The scoreboard broadcasts, “Pennant Race 2019.” All eyes are following its updates as minds figure magic numbers.
The National League Central has been the Cardinals’ division to lose for more than half a month now, and they have kept a strong grip. But Friday’s game marked the first of 16 against teams with winning records. Ten of those come against Central rivals who are aiming at the Cardinals’ backs. All 16 come against NL opponents with active postseason hopes.
The Cardinals are leading a race that, for them, finishes on an incline.
They began it with a 34-37 record against winning teams.
Optimists are planning their purchase of postseason tickets. The superstitious are wondering when and how the sky will come crashing down. The teeter-tottering between the two camps can leave nails chewed and emotions singed.
The ride is not limited to fans.
In Chicago, it sure sounds like the Cubs are playing to save their manager’s job. Comments made by president of baseball operations Theo Epstein on Friday confirmed his belief in the team’s talent, which he acquired, but left open-ended why that talent has not performed up to lofty expectations. Hint. Hint. Add this to the list of public comments that have raised questions about Joe Maddon’s future. It could be foreshadowing. It could be a rallying point for a clubhouse that doesn’t want to see Joe go. The Cubs clobbered five home runs and scored more than the Bears in Friday’s win against Pittsburgh. Drama level, high.
The Brewers are playing to lift up Christian Yelich. It’s a powerful story. Since the reigning National League MVP was lost for the remainder of the season due to a cruel foul tip that fractured a kneecap, teammate Ryan Braun has been wearing Yelich’s jersey beneath his own. The Brewers arrived in St. Louis with seven consecutive wins, three of which came without the catalyst of their lineup. Drama level, high.
And then we have Shildt’s Cardinals.
“You guys are going to amplify the games more than we are,” Shildt said before the Cardinals pounded the Brewers 10-0. “I’m not going to be naive to it. You can give it life all you want. At the end of the day, it’s a baseball game. We have to execute. All of our guys, they don’t make a situation bigger than it is. At the end of the day, it’s the same game. We need to play together, throw strikes, make routine plays, and execute our offense. If we do that, and compete, we will feel good, a real good chance of shaking hands. It’s a real distraction if we start thinking ahead, of an opponent, or all of these different things. They are real. We can’t ignore them. But we don’t have to give them a lot of life, either. Just put our energy on what we know we can do, and how we do it. That’s the thing. We have normalized how we play. Just go play.”
Perhaps you will roll your eyes at that quote. Kris Bryant would probably call it boring. Here’s how Shildt explained it.
Since spring training, he has made a point to set the standards for his club. If those standards fluctuated with the calendar, they weren’t very good standards. If he saw a need to sharpen an edge now, he should have done it sooner.
“If you have good habits, habits show up regardless of circumstance,” Shildt said. “Just go play. Trust your habits. Go play the game.”
Drama level, zilch.
Don’t mistake it for vanilla.
No one dressed in red was asking for more excitement Friday.
Adam Wainwright flummoxed the Brewers with biting curveballs as he fumed his way through six scoreless innings.
The three relievers who followed him didn’t allow a hit.
Paul Goldschmidt followed up his third-inning grand slam with a sixth-inning three-run homer. The Milwaukee Mauler is now slugging .712 with eight home runs and 20 RBIs against the Brewers this season. If you looked closely, it seemed like the first baseman whose mind set exemplifies the approach Shildt described before the game almost, sort of cracked a smile as he rounded the bases.
“There’s a lot more chatter around the games, but it’s the same game,” Goldschmidt said.
This ‘just go play’ thing just might work.