Mike Matheny has appeared in commercials for a chess tour, which is ironic, because when it comes to his work as manager, it is exactly in the "chess game" where he seems most lacking.
Maybe it's so striking after years of watching Tony La Russa. I might not have always agreed with the moves La Russa made, but it was obvious the man spent every waking moment imagining each potential situation in the game - especially a postseason game - and was always several moves ahead.
Mike Matheny knows the rook goes straight and the bishop goes diagonal, and the horsey goes up and over... but as soon as something unexpected happens on the board, his moves seem erratic and unplanned.
Criticizing the manager is such a tired exercise in many way, and so often done unfairly with the benefit of hindsight. There's a lot of information that Mike Matheny has privy to that we do not, so I'm not going to question his player evaluation or anything like that. I'm just going to focus on a few key chess moves.
So, for example, I'm not going to question his decision to start Jaime Garcia in Game Two. Garcia's last-minute admission that he was sick, but still thought he could play... that put Matheny in a tough spot. By a margin of 78% to 22%, VEB readers voted (after the game) that Matheny should not have started Garcia. But I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on starting Garcia.
In fact, I'm not even going to question Matheny's decision to have his Game Four starter be prepared to come into the game in relief, even though I think that's pretty questionable.
What I think was patently a bad decision was to bring Lynn in to pitch the third inning WITH THE PITCHER'S SPOT DUE TO BAT 2ND. In fact, I even said so at the time:
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">And you bring in Lynn with the pitchers spot due up 2nd?</p>— Ben Godar (@bengodar) <a href="https://twitter.com/bengodar/status/652975209490722816">October 10, 2015</a></blockquote> <script async src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
In a playoff game where you've already pulled your starter and you're losing by four, you should never have a pitcher take another at-bat. Clearly, the move to be made is to bring in Maness or some other reliever who you will only use for an inning anyway, pinch hit in the bottom half, then bring Lynn into the game at a point where he can give you 2-3 innings. That's not some sophisticated decision based on who's available and match-ups. That's just basic strategy.
In Game Three, Matheny was faced with a similar decision. Michael Wacha struggled through the first four innings, throwing nearly a ball for every strike he threw. Wacha was due to bat second in a tie game, having thrown nearly 80 pitches already just to get through four, and facing the prospect of a third time through the Cubs order if he goes back out on the mound.
Again, I - like many of you - voiced my dismay early.
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">If Michael Wacha bats for himself, Mike Matheny should be brought up on the war crimes at The Hague.</p>— Ben Godar (@bengodar) <a href="https://twitter.com/bengodar/status/653715101887823872">October 12, 2015</a></blockquote> <script async src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Please excuse the grammar. I was dictating into my phone and also drunk and crying.
I bring these situations not to say that IF ONLY Matheny had made the right moves, the Cardinals would have won the series. That's probably not the case. As I wrote a few weeks back, the playoffs are basically a role of the dice, so it's critical to do everything in your power to tilt the odds in your favor. Matheny consistently does not make the right move.
There were plenty of other times where I don't necessarily know what was going on in the manager's head, but the reasoning certainly seems questionable. Was he really going to Siegrist thinking Siegrist would shut down lefties? Did he honestly pinch hit Greg Garcia for Randal Grichuk because Garcia was 3 for 4 against Pedro Strop? Derrick Goold thought so:
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Greg Garcia pinch-hits for a guy who can put it out of the park because he's had success in a few at-bats against Strop. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NLDS?src=hash">#NLDS</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Cardinals?src=hash">#Cardinals</a></p>— Derrick Goold (@dgoold) <a href="https://twitter.com/dgoold/status/654075377392984066">October 13, 2015</a></blockquote> <script async src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Matheny seems to lead his team into each game with a solid Plan A. And when that plan is executed, as in Game One, the team looks great. But as soon as something goes awry and Matheny needs to start thinking two or three moves ahead... that's when the wheels come off the bus.
There are so many components to being a manager, many of which happen behind closed doors where we can't see them. And we're told Matheny is very effective in those roles. But when it comes to the chess moves that are required during a game... ESPECIALLY when something goes wrong and ESPECIALLY in the playoffs, he continues to look like he's not up to the task.