The Strategy Problems Behind Last Night’s Win
In the wreckage of the last two months, the Cardinals were desperately looking for The Moment, a catalytic event to forcibly shift them into high gear again. Winning teams always experience The Moment at some point in a long season. For the 2011 Cardinals, it was Chris Carpenter‘s fiery speech after a devastating sweep by the Dodgers. In 1985, John Tudor‘s incredible 10-inning, 1-0 win over the Mets propelled that team into the World Series. Every great team can find The Moment somewhere along their path to glory.
Starling Marte‘s dropped fly ball with one out in the ninth last night might prove to be as significant as the ball Nelson Cruz failed to catch in the 2011 World Series. Until that moment, the Cardinals spent the game slumped over and still apparently carrying the baggage of their recent struggles. The 3-2 Pirate lead seemed insurmountable given the fact that the Cardinals had only one late comeback win this year.
Then Marte dropped the ball, and Daniel Descalso hustled to second base. For the first time this year, you could feel it: HOPE. The Cardinals suddenly snapped out of their funk, clawing their way to a tie with an Allen Craig single and sending the game into extra innings. The Cardinals finally won the game on an improbable Adron Chambers single in the 14th inning.
But that moment was so ecstatic because the journey there was so torturous. Matheny’s ridiculous mismanagement of the game’s final innings threatened to derail the team’s second late-game comeback of the season. Here are a few choice blunders:
The Tenth-Inning Debacle
With the Cardinal bullpen holding the Pirates at bay after three nervous innings of relief, the Matt Holliday opened the bottom of the tenth with a single and Rob Johnson reached on a throwing error while attempting to bunt. So the Cardinals had runners at first and second and nobody out, the perfect moment to seal a rare walkoff win.
Then Matheny calls for Jon Jay to BUNT.
Mind you, this is not the ineffective Jay of last May; Jay is hitting .349 and slugging .465 over the last month. He has a .400 batting average over the last two weeks. Aside from Holliday, Jay has been one of our hottest hitters in recent weeks. Asking him to bunt in that situation is like clubbing the Golden Goose to death before it has the chance to lay any eggs.
So Jay bunted the runners over, leaving first base vacated. Clint Hurdle laughed at his good fortune as Matheny sent Chambers in to pinch-hit for Edward Mujica. Hurdle did what everyone in baseball (except Matheny) expected next — he walked Chambers to bring up Pete Kozma. Yes, the Pete Kozma who is batting .203 over the last month, and .071 over the last week. To the surprise of nobody (except Matheny), Kozma struck out.
So let’s look at this “strategy” for a second: force the team’s hottest hitter to make an intentional out so that the team’s worst offensive position player can bat. Try to wrap your mind around that stupidity.
The Eleventh-Inning Debacle
The Cardinals came right after the Pirates in the eleventh. Matt Carpenter opened the frame with a single, and he moved to second on a wild pitch. Carlos Beltran grounded out, moving Carpenter to third with just one out and the lethal Allen Craig coming to the plate. Hurdle, of course, elects to walk Craig and pitch to reliever Seth Maness. The Pirates take a risk and move rightfielder Garrett Jones into the hole between first and second. In other words, the Pirates have seven infielders positioned around the infield as Maness went to the plate with runners at first and third and just one out.
Matheny loves the bunt, and this is the perfect spot for it. Baseball logic says that Maness should bunt Craig from first to second, thereby forcing Hurdle to either face Johnson or Jay with the winning run at third.
So what does Matheny do? He orders Maness to SWING AWAY. Yes, SETH MANESS who has four major league at-bats and a .000 batting average! The two most likely outcomes from Maness swinging away in that situation are (a) a strikeout, and (b) a double play. Neither outcome would advance the runners or help the team.
So, of course, Maness grounded into a double play to end the threat. Nice work, Mathenius!
A Questionable Thirteenth
With two outs, Carpenter doubled. Hurdle decided to intentionally-walk Carlos Beltran and Allen Craig and load the bases for Maness again. Reliever Sam Freeman was warming up in the bullpen. Who would Matheny choose to take this important at-bat?
You’re right – SETH MANESS! Yes, Seth Maness who has just four at-bats in the big leagues and carries a .000 average!
Granted, the bench was depleted at this point. However, Matheny still had the following pitchers available to pinch hit: Jake Westbrook (.172), Michael Wacha (.111), and Lance Lynn (.105), all of whom have seen more at-bats with more success than Maness! In fact, Westbrook has an OPS shockingly-close to Kozma’s!
Maness struck out to end the inning.
To add even more insult to injury, Freeman took over for Maness in the top of the 14th! So Maness wasn’t staying in the game anyway!
Does it Matter?
I’m sure many Cardinal fans will say, “Who cares? We won the game, so why does it matter if Matheny made mistakes?” To these people, I say it DOES matter because Matheny’s mismanagement forced the team deep into extra innings, using up valuable arms for an important series and adding stress to an overstressed club. Can this team really afford to play five or six hour games because Matheny cannot properly use his staff? How many games must Matheny push to the brink of insanity before he learns a few simple lessons about roster management?
Yes, we won the game. Nobody is happier than I am … well, except for Adron Chambers, of course. However, it’s time for Matheny to take an honest, in-depth look at these mistakes while there’s still time on this schedule. We cannot afford to piss away games while Matheny cluelessly fumbles with this very talented, World Series-caliber team.
Moments like this cannot be wasted.