It was 30 years ago today, or this week at least, that the Cardinals lost a 19-inning battle to the Atlanta Braves in what has come to be known as “the Jose Oquendo game.” That’s because it was a moment of Peak Secret Weapon, with Oquendo entering the game at 1st base and sticking around to pitch the final four innings.
But when I looked back at the game, I was struck most by how Whitey Herzog managed it... and how diametrically opposed it was from the tendencies of the current manager.
May 14, 1988
The Cardinals arrived at old Busch Stadium with 14 position players, five starters and a six-man bullpen. It was their 9th straight day with a game. Two days before, they won a 13-12 game that required five pitchers. The day before that, they’d played 16-innings. They were gassed.
Herzog got six innings out of starter Cris Carpenter (different guy), who came out for the 7th holding a 5-4 lead. But after giving up a leadoff double to Ron Gant, Herzog pulled his starter and used two relievers to try to hold the lead. But Gant scored and the game was tied.
Ken Dayley pitched a perfect 8th and Todd Worrell held the Braves scoreless in the 9th. Oquendo and Tony Pena singled in the bottom half of the frame, but Vince Coleman grounded into ONE OF ONLY FOUR double-plays he would hit into the entire season, and we moved into extra innings.
To this point, Whitey Herzog has done everything you would expect to try to win this game in 9 innings, from a lineup perspective. He used three different pitchers to try to hold the lead in the 7th, playing the lefty/righty matchups in his favor. His two best relievers pitched the 8th and 9th, respectively.
As the game moved into extras, Herzog had to brace for the possibility of a long game while still doing everything to end it as soon as possible. And he did that brilliantly.
Worrell would pitch three innings - likely all he had in the tank, but he was also pulled in order to have a pinch-hitter lead-off the 12th inning. Starters Bob Forsch and Randy O’Neal would combine to pitch the next four innings, likely all they could do and again, Herzog used his bench - including his backup catcher - to insure his pitcher never had to bat.
And so it was in the Top of the 16th inning that Herzog found himself completely out of pitchers that he turned to, who else? Jose Oquendo. But The White Rat was also out of position players at that moment, so what could he do with his pitcher? If he was going to have to leave a pitcher on the field, he would make sure it was his most athletic. So Herzog tapped the previous day’s starter, Jose DeLeon, and sent him out to left field.
This was not the first time Herzog had put a pitcher in left field, as he had dabbled with the Waxahatchie Swap, moving a reliever to left field for a batter or two and then back to the mound. But this was something different. This was, “hey Jose, you’re playing outfield from now until... maybe forever.”
This is also the point where most managers - though they would never admit to this - would kind of just give-up. You’ve got a position player on the mound. You’ve got yesterday’s starter in the outfield. What can you do but throw your hands up in the air and see how it all turns out?
Well, if you’re Whitey Herzog, you can keep pushing for every advantage you can. He may not have had spray charts, or an analytics department, or... let’s be honest, he probably couldn’t even use a computer. But he did know that hitters tend to hit to their pull-side, especially when they’re facing the BP fastball of a utility infielder. And so what did Herzog do? He rotated DeLeon and Brunansky from left to right field depending on the batter.
So for the four innings DeLeon was in the game as a position player, this is what his position looked like:
That is a preternatural will to win from Herzog.
Oquendo on the mound was... look, he wasn’t GOOD, but for a position player he certainly held his own, giving up three hits and three walks (one intentional) through is first three scoreless innings, before surrendering two runs on a double and three more walks (one intentional) in the 19th.
Yes, in the 19th inning, with a utility infielder on the mound for his 4th inning of work, Whitey Herzog was still calling for intentional walks to get into better situations to win. He still wasn’t done.
In the bottom of the 19th, the Cardinals needed two runs to stay alive. DeLeon was due up 2nd. Herzog was long out of pinch hitters, but he still called on the better hitting pitcher John Tudor to take the at-bat, just to give the Cardinals even that slightest edge.
The Cardinals failed to score. Atlanta won 7-5. Jose Oquendo took the loss.
What’s this got to do with Matheny?
The intensity with which Whitey Herzog tried to win this game... on May 14, against a 9 and 22 Braves team... is incredible. To some extent, this is the product of the era, or of a more “old school” mentality, if you prefer. If any of these guys were to get injured pressing to win this one game, that would be managerial malfeasance.
But doing everything you can (within reason) to win a game in May? Understanding those wins count just as much as those in September? That’s good managing.
What interests me even more is what Herzog was doing at the micro-level, as we look at the game moment-to-moment. He was trying to win IN EVERY MOMENT of the game, without worrying what “might” happen the next inning.
One of Mike Matheny’s greatest flaws is being overly-conservative, consistently failing to put his team in position to win because he’s afraid of what “might” happen later.
In the May 5 game against the Cubs, Mike Matheny sent Carlos Martinez to the plate as a pinch-hitter in the 6th inning. He still had both Jedd Gyorko and Francisco Pena on the bench. The Cardinals trailed just 5-4, with that pitcher’s spot leading off the inning and then the top of the order.
That decision, dear readers, is a crime against baseball.
A better manager would have been trying to win the game in that moment. Send Gyorko to the plate and maybe start a big inning. But Matheny was seemingly saving him for some big moment he imagined might happen later in the game.
And there’s no way Matheny would have had Pena hit. After all, he believes he has to hang onto his backup catcher at all costs just in case some disaster might befall his starter. Now, I’ll grant you that such a disaster did happen just a few innings later, when Molina’s man parts were destroyed by a Jordan Hicks fastball... but that’s a pretty rare case. Matheny’s backup catcher is typically off-limits, just as is his break-glass-in-emergency reliever.
The Cardinals play every game with a 23-man roster because Captain Conservative is scared of what might possibly happen.
How many times have you watched a Matheny-led team lose a game in the 5th or 6th inning, when he sends his 4th best reliever into the game so he can hold onto his best for some hypothetical late inning situation?
If Mike Matheny were a basketball coach, his star player would sit from the moment he picked up his 3rd foul until a minute was left in the game.
“The Jose Oquendo Game” happened because Whitey Herzog did everything e could to win at every moment of the game. He was left with no option but to let his utility infielder pitch for four innings. And you know what? He still almost won, because baseball is weird and unpredictable.
The time to win a game is always NOW.