Among baseball fans like you and me, managers get too much credit and too much blame. Baseball games are won on the field via feats performed by the players. Do managers have an impact on the outcome of ballgames? Of course. But I firmly believe that a manager's impact on a ballclub is greatest during those times that fans don't witness. Managing personalities is more important than managing games. Until October anyway. And that's the month the St. Louis Cardinals found themselves playing in last night in San Francisco when manager Mike Matheny punctuated his third postseason with perhaps his worst in-game managerial decision.
For most of NLCS Game 5, the contest was one that marginalized the managers. Madison Bumgarner was very good, but Adam Wainwright was better. The Cardinals plated three runs on the San Francisco southpaw, the last of which and go-ahead tally coming by way of an improbable Tony Cruz homer. The worst batsman on the Redbirds, Cruz has spent three full seasons in the majors with the club and dinged three career homers—one in each season. His homer was one of those Go Crazy Folks or Charlie Brown After Sex moments that only October can deliver. Baseball is unpredictable; baseball is beautiful.
Like Superman being rejuvenated by Earth's yellow sun after exposure to Kryptonite, Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright became more and more the ace who led the St. Louis pitching staff before suffering an arm injury. After Cruz touched home to punctuate his go-ahead roundtripper, Wainwright was as sharp as a knife and he cut the Giants batters up. It took Wainwright 97 pitches to pitch through seven innings. The wagonmaker allowed two runs on four hits and two walks with seven strikeouts—five of which came in the fifth inning or later. It was the performance the Cardinals needed.
Manager Mike Matheny pulled Wainwright after the seventh. It was tough to first-guess it at the time. The team's ace, dealing with an aggravation of a June arm injury that required a cortisone shot and a start off, managed to pitch just 4 1/3 innings in each of his first two October starts while allowing nine runs on 17 hits and four walks while striking out seven. What's more we know that there is a time-through-the-order bump that helps hitters and hurts pitchers: the more times a batter has seen a pitcher in a game, the better he tends to hit against that pitcher. The ace had done his job; it was up to the bullpen to close out the victory.
When tallying innings played in this NLCS, fans of the future will note that Matt Holliday, the Cardinals' best batter in 2014, will have fewer innings played than Grichuk. That's because Matheny elected to pull Holliday as part of a double-switch after the Cards' veteran left fielder made the final out of the eighth inning. Matheny opted to emphasize run prevention with his club up a single run and Holliday's spot not due up ninth in the top of the ninth, electing an outfield composition of Peter Bourjos in center, Jon Jay in left, and Randal Grichuk in right. Matheny stuck reliever Pat Neshek in Holliday's lineup spot and installed Bourjos in the No. 9 hole.
Neshek had a sterling season for St. Louis. Over 67 1/3 regular-season innings, the submariner struck out 26.7% of opposing batters faced while walking 3.5% en route to posting a 1.87 ERA and 2.37 FIP. Neshek's burrowing delivery was particularly harsh on righthanded batsmen. The righty held them to a .176/.205/.236 line. In 156 plate appearances, righthanded hitters rapped out five extra-base hits against Neshek during the regular season: three doubles and two homers. Of course Neshek's résumé as a righty specialist goes further back than opening day 2014. For his career, righties have hit .180/.246/.297 against him.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy called on Michael Morse to lead off the eighth against Neshek. For his career, Morse hasn't had much of a platoon split. His batting average against righthanders is actually higher than it is against lefties, but his power-hitting isn't quite so strong—.183 Isolated Power vs. righties to a .208 ISO against southpaws—though it's still rather potent.
If there's a pitcher on the Cardinals staff you want facing Morse in the bottom of the eighth in a must-win game St. Louis leads by a run, it's Neshek. So naturally Morse uncorked a fly-ball that sailed deep into the Bay air, landing beyond the left-field wall that tied the game. Neshek got out of the inning—thanks in part to the help of a nice sliding catch by Jay in left field that Holliday almost assuredly would not have made—without allowing another San Francisco run to score and that's when things got weird.
After Jhonny Peralta grounded out to lead off the top of the ninth against Giants closer Sanitago Casilla, Matt Adams drew a walk. Grichuk singled, giving the Cards runners at first and second. With the go-ahead run in scoring position at second base in the form of the not-so-speedy Adams, Matheny called on Daniel Descalso to pinch-run. If a manager elects to have Descalso on his bench, the best way in which he can deploy the futility infielder is by having him pinch-run—running the bases is essentially Descalso's only skill. And the move would have worked, too, if a Kolten Wong grounder didn't deflect off the glove of a diving Pablo Sandoval and to shortstop Brandon Crawford. Not only did the ping-ponging off Panda's mitt allow Crawford to keep the ball on the infield and Descalso at third base, but the slick-fielding shortstop with the greasily slicked hair managed to fire to second base to retire Grichuk via force out. The baseball gods had dealt the Cardinals a twist of fate as cruel as the Hunter Pence double-hit of 2012 in the form of a 5-6-4 out.
The Cardinals had runners on the corners with two outs as Cruz strode to the plate. His chance at being the game-winning hero erased by the Morse the inning before, fate once again played him an NLCS hand. But Casilla relegated him to historical footnote with spotty control, walking Cruz with a collection of pitches that included two near beanings. Whether it was the enormity of the moment or something else, Casilla appeared to be grappling more than pitching. Bochy was ready to swap out his closer; the wily gray-goateed manager had lefty Jeremy Affeldt warming in AT&T Park's afterthought bullpen down the third-base line.
The Cruz walk brought Bourjos to the plate, but Matheny had other ideas. A glance down the third-base line crystalized the St. Louis manager's choice: Bourjos vs. Casilla or Taveras vs. Affeldt. Casilla has held righthanded batters to a .211/.305/.324 (.283 wOBA) line; lefthanded hitters, .250/.338/.386 (.313 wOBA). 1,328 lefthanded hitters have batted .231/.324/.361 (.307 wOBA) against Affeldt over his career compared to a .259/.341/.394 (.321 wOBA) line from 2,543 righty batsmen. But in 2014, Affeldt has generated a reverse platoon split in his results: .229/.304/.304 (.284 wOBA) against lefties and .226/.275/.287 (.250 wOBA) against righthanded batters. Bourjos has shown a reverse platoon split over his career—hitting righties better than portsiders. Taveras doesn't have enough MLB plate appearances to generate any sort of meaningful stats period, let alone splits data, but in the minors he has hit lefties well. Matheny decided Taveras against Affeldt was preferable to Bourjos vs. Casilla, who had just walked the offensively inept Cruz.
Bochy obliged Matheny, calling on Affeldt once Matheny had called Bourjos back from the on-deck circle and Taveras was announced as the next batter. Taveras grounded out to Affeldt, ending the St. Louis threat.
The Cardinals had played in eight postseason games before NLCS Game 5. Matheny did not use Michael Wacha in any of them. The last time Wacha threw a baseball in a MLB game was September 26 in Arizona. As the October days passed, Matheny offered words about Wacha's role and even had the righty get loose twice during the NLCS. In both instances, extra innings were near, though Matheny didn't have Wacha get loose in Game 4's extra-innings loss. It appeared that Matheny had relegated Wacha to Miller's 2013 postseason role: extra-inning reliever of last resort. Most recently, Matheny explained that he still had faith that Wacha would pitch well in game action when called upon:
"We haven’t had a situation really to get him in there that he’s going to get stretched out like we need him to. We’re also in that spot that if we get a chance to get somebody on and hit a home run and we don’t have anybody at the back end of this game to throw multiple innings, we’re in bad shape.
"Exactly the same situation I told you before the first series. This is (Wacha’s) role right now. Now it could change tomorrow, since we have used the bullpen pretty hard. It could be different. You know, we keep kind of talking about this, but it’s the same answer and this is what he’s going to have to be prepared for–and he will. And when he gets his chance, I know he’ll be sharp."
Matheny ordered Wacha to get loose in the late innings of NLCS Game 5 on the 20th day after his last game action, October 17. And with the scored tied 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth, with closer Trevor Rosenthal loose as well and other bullpen arms available, Matheny chose Wacha to pitch. Matheny, a devout adherent to the notion of bullpen roles, explained after the game why Rosenthal was not an option at that point: the manager was playing for a potential save situation that would never come.
Matheny, when asked about not using closer T. Rosenthal in 9th: "We can't bring him in, in a tie-game situation. We're on the road."— Bernie Miklasz (@miklasz) October 17, 2014
Wacha came in and looked every bit as rusty as he did during his pennant-race rehab stint after being activated from the disabled list. Sandoval singled to right to lead things off. Pence flew out to Taveras in right. Then Wacha walked Brandon Belt. Relievers sprinted from the Cardinals dugout to the visitors' bullpen along the first-base line to get loose in haste—why Matheny didn't have them throwing sooner is anyone's guess. It was plain that Wacha did not have his best stuff; the velocity was there but the ability to spot his pitches was eluding him.
Then lefthanded batter Travis Ishikawa dug in. Wacha missed with his first two offerings, giving Ishikawa a 2-0 hitter's count. Wacha's next delivery was a fat fourseamer that Ishikawa launched into the crowd atop the arched right-field wall, a walkoff NLCS winner.
After the game, as reported by Fox Sports Midwest's Stan McNeal, Matheny took the blame:
"That's on me," Matheny said. "I don't know if anybody could expect him to be as sharp as he normally would if he gets consistent time on the mound."
Just before NLCS Game 5, Matheny says that he expects Wacha to be sharp. After throwing Wacha for the first time in almost three weeks, Matheny said that he doesn't "know if anybody could expect him to be as sharp as he normally would if he gets consistent time on the mound." Matheny's use of Wacha throughout the postseason, punctuated by throwing him in the bottom of the ninth of a tie elimination game, and framed by diametrically opposite statements from the manager is the essence of Mathenaging.
One would think that, after three years of October managing, Matheny would improve with his in-game tactics, yet here we are: Matheny's most indefensible in-game decision is his most recent one. The players win or lose games, but in the postseason a manager can have a significant impact. For three Octobers now, the Cardinals have had to try to outplay their opponents as well as their manager's decisions and for the third straight October the St. Louis baseball season has ended with a loss. One wonders: Will the Cardinals ever be able to win a World Series in spite of their manager's Mathenaging?