HOUSTON -- He was one of the key people behind the success the Cardinals have enjoyed in the past nine years, a span that involved three National League pennants and two World Series championships. Jeff Luhnow poured his heart and soul -- and his brainpower -- into the St. Louis organization for nearly a decade before jumping at the chance to lead the Astros.
With that mind, the Cardinals' visit to Minute Maid Park for a three-game series beginning Friday is anything but your routine early May series. Luhnow's Astros, who are off to a respectable 11-14 start, will face his former team, the defending World Series champs, for the first time. First-place St. Louis is 16-9 and five games ahead of Houston.
"Once you're with an organization for eight or nine years, you feel like you're a part of it forever, and I take a lot of what I learned over there and apply it over here," said Luhnow, who was hired Dec. 7. "Those relationships will be there with those individuals. It was a special time in my life, going through three World Series and winning two of them with the club, and it's something I hope we can replicate over here."
The series will also be the first against the Cards for Astros bench coach Joe Pettini, who came to Houston after longtime manager Tony La Russa retired last fall.
Luhnow was the Cardinals' director of player procurement when the Astros tabbed him to be their 12th general manager. He began working for the club in 2003, and he helped them acquire several impact players that played a part in St. Louis winning the World Series in 2011, including Jaime Garcia, Allen Craig, John Jay and Daniel Descalso.
One of the key philosophies Luhnow brought to Houston from St. Louis was an emphasis on data-based analysis and the use of technology in scouting and player evaluation. One of his first hires was director of decision sciences Sig Mejdal, who handled analytics for the Cards from 2005-11.
In eight years with the organization, Luhnow won eight rings -- five Minor League championships, an NL championship ring and two World Series rings. In fact, Luhnow said he will receive one of the two 2011 Minor League championship rings this weekend, but he'll have to wait until next month to receive the World Series ring.
"A lot of players from that team, I was involved in helping them get drafted or develop or in the trades that brought them over, so I have a connection to them," he said. "The team is obviously doing well. Our goal is to beat them once the games start. It's going to be fun to see all those guys at Minute Maid Park and say hello to all of them, and it's going to be a big test for our club to see where we are and play a team as good as the Cardinals are right now."
The Astros are facing a long climb to reach the kind of success the Cardinals have enjoyed in recent years. Houston, which endured a club-record 106 losses last year, is rebuilding from the bottom up and hopes to be a contender in the new American League West sooner than people think.
Houston, which is coming off a three-game sweep of the Mets, has featured a surprising offense that ranks second in the NL in batting average (.266), trailing only St. Louis (.290). The Astros are fourth in the league in runs scored and second in on-base percentage (.340), behind the Cards (.358).
Luhnow is looking forward to seeing how the young Astros perform against starting pitchers Kyle Lohse (4-0, 1.62 ERA) on Friday, Garcia (2-1, 2.78) on Saturday and Adam Wainwright (1-3, 6.75) on Sunday.
"We definitely have our work cut out for us," he said. "But I do think it's a good checkpoint. The Mets were playing well until they came to Minute Maid Park, and we cooled them off a little bit, and hopefully we can do the same to the Cardinals.
"In terms of being able to give our coaching staff any insights into how to play them, I really don't know. They're a good team -- good pitching, good hitting, good baserunning and defense. It's definitely going to be a challenge for us. I'm excited to watch it happen, and I think our guys are up for the challenge."