There's something unique about following a legend. The Cardinals know a little something about that. They've had to do it in triplicate this season. Tony La Russa has the third-most managerial wins in baseball history. Mike Matheny had none when he succeeded the future Hall of Famer, but here the Cardinals are, back in the National League Championship Series.
Albert Pujols, by consensus, was baseball's best offensive player in the last decade. But St. Louis first baseman, largely due to the contribution of Allen Craig, batted .293 this year with 21 homers and 109 RBIs.
And finally, Dave Duncan was one of the most acclaimed pitching coaches. He put in 32 years in that position, more than anybody, before taking a leave of absence to tend to his wife this season. On the way to winning the World Series last year, Duncan's staff had a 3.74 ERA, eighth in the NL. Under Derek Lilliquist this season, the pitchers combined for a 3.71 ERA, ranking sixth.
The transition at pitching coach may not have had the same high profile of the other changes, but there's no doubt that the smooth takeover was crucial in St. Louis getting back to the postseason with a chance to repeat as world champions.
"I think everybody in the game knows the impact [Duncan] has had on this organization and on the game of baseball. And the reputation that he has, deservedly so. ... We weren't asking Derek Lilliquist to be a Dave Duncan, as the guys would see right through that. And that phoniness usually doesn't lead to anything productive," Matheny said Saturday. "So to have someone go out and feel that they had to be an Albert Pujols, they were setting themselves up for failure. For a young manager to come in and be a Tony La Russa, I was setting myself up for failure. And we looked at ourselves and said, 'What we have here is good, let's trust it and trust each other.'
"And Derek has been himself and has been very, very impressive. He has a great sense for the game. He has a great sense of people and how to communicate. He has a great balance of mechanical knowledge to where he helps these guys where they do need it, but not overbearing to where they won't be effective."
An interesting parallel is that, in 2011, Duncan was without Adam Wainwright for the entire season as the big right-hander recovered from Tommy John surgery. Lilliquist was without Chris Carpenter for all but three starts at the end of the season following surgery to correct a nerve issue that was impacting the righty's neck and back.
Lilliquist is in his 11th year with the St. Louis organization. He became the bullpen coach last season after spending the previous three years as the Jupiter Complex pitching coordinator.
"It's been a tremendous experience," he said after a brief workout at AT&T Park as the Cardinals loosened up for Game 1 of the NLCS, which will be played Sunday night (7 CT on FOX). "Having filled in at the end of last year kind of prepared me for the start of this year. It's been awesome. The guys have done a good job ever since Spring Training. They're a bunch of professional guys who now what it's about, know the program. They've been great."
Cardinals Game 1 starter Lance Lynn said he's noticed little difference, despite the change.
"I spent more time with Derek last year in the bullpen. Duncan was more on game preparation and things like that. And I only had two starts last year with him, so I didn't really get a whole lot of insight there, because when you're a rookie coming up, they tell you to throw what [All-Star catcher Yadier Molina] calls," he said with a laugh.
"But they have a lot of similarities. Duncan was great. Lilly is learning, and he's doing a great job with us. And he's helped me a lot this year. I've had more time with him. I would love to have had more time with Dunc, but Dunc did a great job and Derek is doing a great job for us this year."
Added Matheny: "[Lilliquist's] biggest asset, in my opinion, is that he has a great idea of how to put together a game plan. Keep in mind, too, we're all better because of Yadier Molina behind the plate, as far as game-calling goes. As far as the game presentation, Yadi and [backup catcher] Tony Cruz have done a terrific job of putting their time in, but don't want to look past what Derek Lilliquist has done, because he's done a great job."
The Cardinals wouldn't have been in San Francisco on Saturday if he hadn't.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.