WASHINGTON, D.C. — When the St. Louis Cardinals are in the postseason, their manager is usually as big a star as any of the players on the field.
Over the years, the Cardinals have been led to the postseason by Hall of Famers Red Schoendienst, Whitey Herzog and Tony La Russa.
This year, however, St. Louis returns to the NLCS, and only the most dedicated fans are likely to know the name of the man filling out the lineup card in the dugout.
Mike Shildt, a longtime minor league manager who worked his way up the Cardinals organization, is in his first full season with the club. He never played in the major leagues or, for that matter, the minors. But his players past and present swear by his calm, loyal leadership style.
“He just found the good things in me and allowed me to exploit those,” Kolten Wong, brother of longtime Durham Bull Kean, told the media recently.
Shildt grew up in Charlotte, where his mother worked for the Baltimore Orioles’ farm team that predated the current Triple-A Knights. He played baseball at UNC Asheville, then joined the coaching staff after graduating.
Two decades ago, Shildt founded a baseball skills academy in Pineville, where current UNC pitching coach Robert Woodard was a student. Woodard is the one that convinced former Tar Heels pitching ace Andrew Miller to sign with the Cardinals over the offseason, giving Shildt the highest recommendation.
“As long as I’ve been in the game, I’ve said that Mike Shildt is the best mentor I’ve had in baseball,” Woodard told the St. Louis media. “There’s nobody that knows more about the game of baseball, has better people skills or is more prepared.”
Even with his Cardinals down in the NLCS after losing two home games, Shildt was relentlessly optimistic as the team headed to Washington, excited about the chance to visit a city so steeped in baseball tradition.
“I can certainly appreciate it,” he said. “I love the history of our game. It’s storied. It’s deep. It’s one of the things that’s romantic about our game that people love. It’s the history and the knowledge about organizations and dates and things of that sort.
“I know it’s going to be a wonderful atmosphere here. It’s a great area of many in our country for baseball, and this is a very, very deep-rooted, to your point, baseball area that I know is going to be passionate about and excited about the opportunity to see a National League Championship Series.”
Hardly sounds like a skipper shuffling his lineup to try to find an offensive spark, which is exactly why the Shildt magic works.
“I’m optimistic,” he said. “We’re here for a reason. It’s been a collaborative effort. You look up, you’re down two, it’s not the best place to be, and you’re like, OK, we’ve got Jack (Flaherty) going. All right. So it’s good to have that guy that is your — has been the guy that’s been the best pitcher in baseball in the second half. That’s really inarguable.”
Shildt is just one of several NLCS participants with ties to North Carolina. Miller pitched North Carolina to within one game of the College World Series title, winning Baseball America’s college player of the year award in 2006. His number is retired at UNC. He’s in his 14th season and was MVP of the 2016 American League Championship Series.
In his first season with St. Louis, Miller was 5-6 with six saves and 4.02 ERA. He appeared in three Divisional Series games and the first two NLCS contests and had yet to allow a postseason run.
Also a member of the Cardinals bullpen is John Brebbia, who pitched Elon to the NCAA Tournament as a freshman in 2009.
For the Nationals, former NC State Wolfpack star Trea Turner is manning shortstop and leading off. He battled injury this year, missing games, but manager Dave Martinez (who played for Class-A Winston-Salem back in 1985) said that helped the team build depth.
“We did things differently,” he said. “We used different guys. If you look at all the people that played first base, all the people that played second base, when we lost Trea there for a while, guys that played shortstop, our outfielders, they all contributed, and I think that’s what it takes to win a championship.”
Ryan Zimmerman, the longest-tenured Nationals player, was born in Washington, N.C., and lived in Edenton for a few years before moving to Virginia. He remembers playing T-ball in Eastern North Carolina and a few details about his childhood home and neighborhood.