A few notable tweets from the last few days as the Cardinals threaten to stumble their way to the second collapse in the NL Central in as many weeks:
“OK #BFIB, explain this to me tonight. You defended Matheny not trying to win last night, what’s up tonight?” — @ctrent (Reds Reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer)
“Mark Ellis hasn’t played all year but he got three KEY at bats against Chap in this series.” #stlcards — @buffa82 (UCB writer and KSDK Sports contributor)
“Manager decided we can cruise into the playoffs and no longer push. Ironic considering it took five months to turn it on.” — @JonDoble (UCB writer)
“Pirates heating up, Cardinals cooling down. I won’t deny it’s making me nervous.” — @johnrabe
I could go on…and on and on and on…but I think the trend is clear. The general feeling around Cardinal Nation — perhaps baseball — is that the Redbirds are blowing it. Given the way the Cardinals have played the last few days, it’s hard to argue.
When Mike Matheny’s team finished with the Milwaukee Brewers, they had a comfortable lead on the Brew Crew and the Pirates at the top of the NL Central division. They now face a scenario where they could find themselves in second place by Monday morning with 12 games to play.
Of course, given the Colorado Rockies’ 20-52 record on the road and the Cardinals’ 44-28 home record, that’s not likely, but the point isn’t the likelihood of a collapse over the weekend — it’s the proximity of one. After the way St. Louis played against Milwaukee, to suddenly find their division lead reduced to 2.5 games is ludicrous, especially while dropping 3 of 4 to a sub-.500 team like the Reds.
As @ctrent suggested above, it was almost as if the Cardinals weren’t interested in winning the games in Cincy…or more specifically, Mike Matheny wasn’t interested.
Over the previous four-game series, here are a few of Matheny’s more questionable managerial moves:
1. Pitching Jason Motte in a high-leverage, 4-1 game. Motte escaped the inning by way of a double-play grounder hit by the pitcher, but only after allowing three more runs to score. Had another pitcher frozen the deficit at three runs, the Cardinals may have been able to rally, considering they scored three more runs by the end of the 7th inning. A defenseless Motte never should’ve been allowed to pitch in that situation.
2. Pinch-hitting Mark Ellis against Aroldis Chapman in the 9th inning of a 2-run game. As @dbuffa82 points out, Ellis hasn’t done much at all this season and is recently back from an injury. I don’t care what his small sample size statistics against Chapman say…he was unprepared for an at-bat of that magnitude. Ellis grounded out softly to the mound. Chapman smiled at his good fortune.
3. Pinch-hitting Peter Bourjos (cold off the bench) for Yadier FREAKING Molina against Chapman in the same game as above. Matheny said he liked Bourjos’ bat speed against Chapman (he swung and missed on three straight pitches). Others suggested that perhaps Mike didn’t like Chapman’s 100+ mph fastball against Yadi’s surgically repaired thumb. Either reason is stupid. Never…ever…sub-out Yadier Molina in an important at-bat.
4. Pinch-hitting rookie outfielder Tommy Pham. Okay…I guess it’s solely because he’s right-handed? Matheny pulled Kolten Wong — a valuable hitter capable of at least beating out an infield single — presumably because Wong is left handed. Of course, Kolten is hitting .300 against lefties this season with 3 of his 11 home runs. It’s not as if the man is defenseless in the box. And he has a quick bat. Honestly, the move stunk of surrendering and trying to get a rookie an AB late in a “lost cause.”
5. Jhonny Peralta never took a swing in that game. Despite being perhaps the Cardinals’ most significant hitter this season, Peralta was left standing with a bat in his hands while watching hitters like Mark Ellis, Peter Bourjos, and Tommy Pham take pinch hit appearances in front of him in a two-run game. Presumably Matheny was saving Jhonny for an RBI situation if one of the other hitters got on base. Of course, Peralta’s splits — .315 when leading off an inning, .296 with the bases empty, and .212 with RISP — suggest he was much better suited to take Ellis’ at-bat instead.
6. Not starting Jhonny Peralta in the first place in that game. Saying he wanted to give him a scheduled day off to prepare him for the final push of the season, Matheny slotted Pete Kozma in at shortstop. I’m a Kozma fan, and he should be on the postseason roster, but with fewer than 20 games to go, a planned off day for the team on the schedule, and the last two days of September off before the postseason starts, Peralta should be playing out the season until the Redbirds clinch. Maybe Mike looked at his .189 average over the last 10 games and surmised Jhonny was tiring. If that’s the case, he would’ve done well to look at Peralta’s 5 hits, 2 home runs, 3 RBIs, and 4 runs scored in the Milwaukee series just a couple days before. Rest him for a final push? How about push now, when you have a sub-.500 team in front of you, momentum, and a 3 to 5 game lead in the Central?! If there was ever a time this season to step on the NL Central’s throat, it was now.
7. Not starting Peter Bourjos at all in the Reds series. Since September 1st, Bourjos was 9 for his last 19 at-bats against the Pirates and Brewers and just before heading to Cincinnati. He was easily the team’s hottest hitting outfielder. In the Reds series, he had a total of 2 at-bats in four games…and didn’t start a single one of them. Look…I get that Jon Jay is an offensive metronome this season, and I understand the potential impact of an Oscar Taveras bat in this lineup if he can get something going with consistency…but you cannot, simply cannot, sit Peter Bourjos four straight games when you’re trying to clinch a division. Especially just days after slobbering all over the awe-inspiring combination of Jay-Bourjos in the OF. Maybe Matheny is REALLY trying to get Jon Jay the at-bats he needs at the top of the order to attempt to qualify for the batting title.
8. Benching Yadier Molina for A.J. Pierzynski against Johnny Cueto and the Reds. I get that we need to protect Yadi’s knees, and I know a night-day game combination is tough on a catcher, but this is one time Yadi should’ve played. With Cueto and Lynn on the mound, you know runs are going to be at a premium. Now factor in Billy Hamilton, the rookie speedster who can turn a bunt into a sac-fly-with-no-outs situation in a hurry. He’s going to run all over AJP. And he’s not the only base stealing threat on the Reds’ roster. In mid-September, with a division on the line and after your team just dropped two straight games, Yadi should’ve been behind the plate…especially with a 20-52 road record team like the Rockies coming to Busch stadium the next day. Give him the rest then, but start him on Thursday.
9. Pinch-hitting Mark Ellis — AGAIN — for Matt Adams against Chapman. I understand the temptation to use Ellis against Chapman. The 3 for 3 history against him coming into this series, the quality at-bat he took against the lefty in his first pinch-hit appearance, and the need to get someone on base in one-run game. But at some point, Matheny has to acknowledge that Mark Ellis hadn’t gotten the job done twice. Why would he think he could do it this time? Maybe because Ellis had seen more pitches against Chapman in the last three days than any Cardinals hitter…? That would actually make some sense in the “familiarity breeds success” category. But he pinch-hit Matt Adams to do it, the bat Matheny JUST called a special bat with a chance to do something significant in one of these games. The same Matt Adams that nearly took Cueto deep earlier in that same game if not for a spectacular leaping catch by Jay Bruce to rob him of a home run. I get the logic…I really do. Adams struggles with lefties and Chapman is a flame-throwing left hander. But let’s not pretend righties have a better chance against Chapman. In fact, LH hitters are hitting .143 against him versus .124 by right-handed hitters. Yes, I understand the one home run was to a RH hitter…but come on. Ellis wasn’t in that game to hit a homer. Matt Adams should’ve taken that at-bat, if for no other reason than because of Adams’ potential to tie the game with one swing on a 103 mph fastball.
I’m sure there are more that I’m forgetting, but the bottom line is this: Mike Matheny, for some odd reason, stopped managing the team with urgency after the Milwaukee series and started managing as if the Cardinals had already clinched. As a result, games suddenly turned into auditions for the postseason roster. Let’s see what this guy has, and let’s see if this guy can show us something we can use.
Now, the question becomes, let’s see if the Cardinals can show us some life again and avoid the same fate as the Brewers before them — a late-season collapse in the Central.