With Duncan out, Lilliquist filled in seamlessly

With Duncan out, Lilliquist filled in seamlessly

With Duncan out, Lilliquist filled in seamlessly
ST. LOUIS -- During his time as the Cardinals' pitching coach pro tem, Derek Lilliquist never really had to answer what would have been the toughest question of all. He never had to differentiate between what Dave Duncan would do and what he thought was the right thing to do. Because there just wasn't much difference.

Lilliquist, the Cardinals' first-year bullpen coach, found himself in an extremely difficult situation in August. Duncan, manager Tony La Russa's first lieutenant and associate of more than 30 years, stepped away from the team to tend to his ailing wife, Jeanine.

That left Lilliquist trying to do two jobs: his own as bullpen coach, and Duncan's as pitching coach. It could have ended in woe. Instead, the Cards' staff rolled along, with Lilliquist using Duncan's data and processes and his own insights to help handle the extra responsibility.

"You approach it with the mindset that basically all you're doing is keeping the structure the same and letting them go out and compete as they have the whole year," said Lilliquist, an affable but understated 45-year-old. "There's really not a change in anything other than doing what I'd done the whole time with the Cardinals as a pitching guy. You're doing the same thing anyway."

The move didn't just affect Lilliquist, of course. La Russa had to make do without his longtime sideman. Bullpen catcher Jeff Murphy took a larger role in handling relievers. And every pitcher had to adjust to the absence of Duncan, a towering figure in the organization.

And yet it worked. Purely coincidentally but still remarkably, the Cardinals took off at about the same time Duncan stepped away. They missed him all the while -- don't doubt that for a second -- but Lilliquist's efforts kept everything working and the Cards roared to a playoff spot.

"I think a lot of the groundwork was laid already, but he did a great job of continuing that," said right-hander Kyle Lohse. "Really kind of seamlessly made it the same."

Lilliquist used Duncan's processes and data as the Cardinals kept up their game plans for attacking hitters. And at times, Duncan was in touch with the staff. But during games, Lilliquist still had to do plenty on his own, including mound visits and helping to formulate tactical decisions.

It might have been more daunting in May, but by August, he had a well-developed idea of how the whole operation works. Besides, it's not as though he's a newcomer to the Cardinals' ways of doing business. He's been in the organization since 2002.

"He's kind of gone under the radar a little bit," said Chris Carpenter. "I've known Lilly for a long time. He was a rehab coordinator back years ago when I was doing my elbow [rehabilitation], coming back from my elbow [surgery]. He was down there when I was coming back from my shoulder [surgery], when I first came over here. So he's been a part of this organization for a long time and part of our philosophy for a long time. He's learned a lot, never mind his own opinions of how to pitch. He's an ex-big league pitcher himself. It's not like he doesn't know what he's doing."

Lilliquist was chosen as the new bullpen coach over the winter, replacing Marty Mason, and part of why he was brought in was that familiarity. The Cards knew they'd be using a relief corps that included plenty of homegrown talent. He's been a success by most measures, as St. Louis' reconfigured bullpen has emerged as a strength in the second half.

"I've found that it's been real important to have the right guy in that position, and afford him the opportunity to bring forth his knowledge and talent," Duncan said. "He does a good job. He's stayed within the boundaries that he should, and at the same time, I think he's been a valuable asset to the guys in the bullpen."

When the Cardinals finished off their run to the playoffs, Duncan was there. The arrival of the offseason allowed his son Shelley to take a greater role in tending to Jeanine, and Duncan flew to Houston to visit the club on the final day of the season. When the playoffs began, La Russa invited Duncan to rejoin if he was able. He was.

Duncan has said little about his time away, preferring to maintain his family's privacy to the extent that it is possible. But there's no doubt his return has been extremely welcome.

"[Lilliquist] kept everything the same," Lohse said. "That was big. ... But it's not because we didn't miss [Duncan]. I don't want to make it seem like that. Because he has done so much and laid the groundwork."

Now Lilliquist is back to his regular role, and that's just fine with him. He's out of the spotlight, doing what he can to help the Cards win their third pennant in eight seasons. But his part in helping the team get that far ought not to be forgotten.

"It worked out a lot better than it could have," Lohse said.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.