Commentary

Matheny making all the right moves

The Cardinals' skipper has sorted out his pen and knows how to win with it

Originally Published: October 13, 2013
By Michael Knisley | ESPN.com

St. LOUIS -- How does it happen that the St. Louis Cardinals are up two games to none over the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series? Here's one explanation: Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has made all the right moves.

Here's another: Matheny has also made all the left moves.

As in, he's pretty much played the perfect matchup games with his deep and talented corps of left-handed and right-handed relief pitchers so far. The result? The Dodgers aren't scoring late. (They aren't scoring early, either, but that's a different story.) And when runs are as scarce as they've been in this series -- you don't even have to carry a one to add up the total in St. Louis' 3-2 and 1-0 wins -- every late-inning matchup looms particularly large.

[+] EnlargeMike Matheny, David Freese
Scott Rovak/USA TODAY SportsThis year's NLCS is earning skipper Mike Matheny kudos for his dugout skills.

Matheny and his bullpen haven't made a single misstep. In Game 2, Kevin Siegrist (lefty), Randy Choate (lefty), Carlos Martinez (righty) and Trevor Rosenthal (righty) faced seven batters over two and a third innings; none reached base. In Game 1, that 13-inning spine-chiller, as the Cardinals' bullpen pitched the last seven frames, L.A. managed three hits (and four walks) without a run.

That's 9 1/3 shutout, three-hit innings from the bullpen. Which, on top of the remarkably strong outings from young starters Joe Kelly in Game 1 (6 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 5 K) and Michael Wacha in Game 2 (6 2/3 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 5 K), is making Matheny look like the second (or is it third?) coming of former Cardinals managers Tony La Russa and Red Schoendienst -- who, coincidentally, threw out the ceremonial first pitches at Busch Stadium on Saturday.

It is, of course, the pitchers more than the manager who deserve the credit for the way the Dodgers have been flailing at the plate. (Well, the pitchers and perhaps the unfortunate health issues that are keeping Hanley Ramirez, Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp out of L.A.'s lineup off and on.) As veteran starter Chris Carpenter said in the Cardinals' clubhouse on Saturday, "Mike has done a fantastic job. But if the bullpen had given up, say, seven runs, you're not asking the same questions."

And it's certainly a fact of baseball life that the successes and failures of managerial moves are magnified out of all proportion in the postseason. But so far in this series, Matheny has done exactly what he's supposed to do, which is put the right player in the right position at the right time to maximize the potential for the right outcome. And it's worked. Nothing has backfired. As the Cardinals go to Los Angeles, they're just two wins away from the World Series and have their veteran ace, Adam Wainwright, set up to pitch Monday's Game 3 against the Dodgers' No. 3 starter, Hyun-Jin Ryu.

"We don't get too far ahead of ourselves," Matheny said. "We don't deny also what's happened here the last two days. Those were two very good wins, two very tough wins when you face starters [Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw] like that."

[+] EnlargeRandy Choate
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesSouthpaw Randy Choate has settled into his situational role of getting Carl Crawford out.

Here's one small-sample example of the way Matheny managed his bullpen to the two one-run wins in St. Louis. Choate, at 38, is a left-handed specialist, on the team only to face one, maybe two, left-handed hitters in critical situations in any one game. Matheny, in the first two games, has made Choate the Cardinals' left-handed Carl Crawford specialist. In Game 1, Choate needed one pitch to induce Crawford -- the Dodgers' left-handed leadoff hitter who came into the NLCS hitting .353 in L.A.'s first four postseason games -- to foul out to third leading off the seventh inning. On Saturday, Choate came in to face Crawford again, this time leading off the eighth. He threw three pitches this time; on the third one, Crawford -- yep -- fouled out to third again.

Surely, Matheny had read "A Brief History of Carl Crawford and Randy Choate," in which a tormented Crawford is still waiting for his first hit against this particular nemesis. Should be fun to watch those matchups re-form and develop over the next few games in L.A.

"I just had to throw strikes and get ahead," Choate said Saturday. "I threw it in the same place as yesterday, pretty much, with the same result. … The more you get him out, the more confidence you have when you come in there that you'll be able to do it again. I've just been fortunate to get him out."

Matheny's smartest-looking move on Saturday was his decision to lift Wacha with two outs and Nick Punto on first in the top of the seventh inning. Wacha had thrown 112 pitches, but hardly looked fatigued in protecting his 1-0 lead. And the next batter was Kershaw, a decent left-handed hitter for a pitcher, but a pitcher nonetheless. Surely, Wacha could dispose of him, despite a single earlier in the game. Kershaw had already stepped toward the plate -- it appeared he was going to hit -- when Matheny went to the mound and called for Siegrist from the pen.

It forced Mattingly's hand. Rather than have Kershaw face a left-handed pitcher, Mattingly pinch hit the right-handed Michael Young. Kershaw, who had thrown only 72 pitches and had allowed just two hits and one unearned run, was out of the game after six innings.

"It wasn't any fun taking him out, honestly, the way he was pitching," Mattingly said. "But I think it was our last chance."

Siegrist threw consecutive wild pitches to move Punto to third during Young's at-bat, but the pinch hitter eventually flew out to right to end the inning. And while the Cardinals didn't score again against the Dodgers' bullpen the rest of the way, at least they weren't facing Kershaw any longer.

[+] EnlargeCarpenter-Wacha
Elsa/Getty ImagesMichael Wacha and Chris Carpenter reflect the Cardinals' staff mix of talents young and old.

Just the way Matheny wanted it.

"We try to think things through in what might be the countermove," Matheny said. "At that point, you realize when the pitcher position comes up, he's a left-handed hitter who already had a base hit. There is a left-handed leadoff hitter [Crawford] behind. This will give you an opportunity for you to bring your lefty in, and Siegrist has done a nice job for us, bringing him in in that situation."

Matheny more or less played successful matchups from there. The lefty Choate against the lefty Crawford (foul-out). The righty Martinez against the righty Mark Ellis (strikeout) and the lefty Adrian Gonzalez (strikeout). And in the ninth, his closer, the righty Rosenthal, against the righty Yasiel Puig (strikeout), the righty Juan Uribe (strikeout) and the lefty pinch-hitting Ethier (strikeout).

"Mike's been doing it all year," said Seth Maness, who got two quick outs in the seventh inning of Game 1. "Obviously, he's got a game plan and he's sticking to it. It's definitely a chess match. It's baseball, you know. You roll people out there day in and day out and see what happens."

Now, Matheny can roll Wainwright out there on Monday and see what happens in Los Angeles. All Wainwright has done so far in 2013 is go 19-9 with a 2.94 ERA during the regular season and pick up two more W's against Pittsburgh in the division series.

According to Matheny, Wainwright spins one of the best right-handed curveballs in the game. That should present an interesting counterpoint style to the two power-pitcher starters the Dodgers have faced so far in the NLCS, Kelly and Wacha.

"I'm definitely the soft-tosser of this group," Wainwright said late Saturday. "I provide that slow look compared to all the rest of these guys."

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