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Bird Watching

Bird Watching: A Well-Timed Off Day and the Duality of Mike Matheny…

The St. Louis Cardinals just dropped two of three to the lowly Cubs in Wrigley Field…in September…in games that matter.

Sickening.

The team looked flat, disengaged, outta’ whack, and just generally discouraging. We’ve grown accustomed to the Cardinals playing big in big spots, but if they can’t even garner enough gumption to kick the Cubs to the curb in a pennant race in the last full week of the season, how in the world can we expect them to wake up in October?

Yes, this performance was bad. So bad, it was the home-town Cubs that looked like the team fighting for a division title, not their long-time rivals in the visitor’s dugout. Charging home with a one-run lead late in the game, diving around the infield to save ground-ball RBIs from sneaking through…it was almost as if the Small Bears were playing in their own version of the World Series, all tailor-made and tucked into the friendly confines of downtown Chicago.

Of course, Cardinals fans have grown used to this kind of performance in Wrigley. No matter how bad the Cubs are — and let’s be honest, the last few years, they’ve been horrendous — they always seem to play the Cardinals tough at home. This season is no different.

In 2014, the Cubs and Cardinals have played each other 19 times. The Cubs have won nine, and the Cardinals have won ten, despite a 17-game difference in the standings. Nine of their contests have been decided by two runs or fewer. Another four were decided by three runs. And even though the Cubs have one of the worst overall records in the National League (only Colorado and Arizona have fewer wins), they actually managed to post a winning record at home, barely, with 41 wins and 40 losses.

(You’re welcome, Chicago.)

Put it all together, and the Cubs are a different kind of opponent in Wrigley Field against St. Louis. So sure, maybe that accounts for part of what we watched happen the last two days…but not all of it. The bottom line is, these Cardinal hitters have to show up. There’s no more time. This is the end of the line.

And that makes Thursday, September 25th a great day to take a breath.

Matheny already had his options limited over the last week with the “Redbird Flu,” a stomach bug that’s been decimating the Cardinals’ clubhouse. Reports say the roster is on the mend and ready to put it behind them…finally. Match that with the losses in Chicago, and today is a perfect day for an off day.

The Cardinals can rest, relax…recuperate…and then head to the sunny skies of Arizona to finish the season against the worst baseball team in the National League. And hopefully clinch the division along the way.

Let’s hope Atlanta cooperates today and gives the Cardinals a bit of breathing room with a win against the hard-charging Pirates.

Now, let’s get into the rest of it…

The schedule favors the Cardinals. With their magic number at three and a 1.5 game lead in the division, the Cardinals can look at their job this weekend as fairly simple — do what they’ve been doing all season long and just win the series. They don’t have to post a sweep or score massive amounts of runs. Just take two out of three games and they can finish with no worse than a tie atop the division (forcing a one-game tiebreaker in Busch Stadium)…and it would take a four-game winning streak by the Pirates to even manage that. With Lance Lynn and Adam Wainwright (if needed) scheduled to start the last two games of the season, this should be attainable.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the Redbirds have a 3-0 record against the upcoming Diamondbacks in 2014.

The Pirates, however, have their work cut out for them. In 2014, only three National League clubs own a winning record against the Buccos. The Cardinals are one (8-11), the Brewers are another (7-12)…and the Reds are the third (6-10). Cincinnati has handed Pittsburgh their second worst winning percentage against all NL teams (.375)…and the Cincy starting pitchers are one reason why. Here’s a quick look at the pitchers the Pirates will face to finish the season and how they’ve faired against each one (by slash line):

Mike Leake:  .283/.327/.354
Alfredo Simon:  .195/.303/.312
Johnny Cueto:  .192/.252/.336

Only Leake provides the Pirates with any hope, and even then, one of their best performers against the right-hander — Pedro Alverez, 3 for 7 with 2 walks for a line of .429/.556/.571 — is out for the remainder of the regular season with an injury (don’t get your hopes up…he may be able to return for any postseason match-ups against the Cardinals). The other two starters, Simon and Cueto, have largely dominated the Pittsburgh lineup.

And Cueto is set to face Gerrit Cole in a final showdown on the last day of the season. Expect Kickin’ Cueto to have a little extra motivation for that game as he looks to add to his Cy Young resume for 2014.

All in all, the odds still favor your Rallyin’ Redbirds.

Mike Matheny is not all bad. Whenever things go badly for the Cardinals, fans — myself included — jump all over Mike Matheny for his in-game decisions. And deservedly so. There may be no other manager in the NL that so carelessly auditions poor performers for the postseason roster as Matheny. His use of Jason Motte has been, at best, questionable (although Motte did look good his last time out), and his willingness to nearly concede games the Cardinals happen to be loosing at the time by throwing young pitchers to the wolves is maddening. And don’t even get me started on his pinch-hitting and bunting decisions…ugh.

But I feel like it’s at least worth mentioning that the “worst manager in baseball” moniker that gets attached to Mike during those moments should, at least, come with a caveat. Matheny may be the worst strategically-minded manager in the game, but he’s far from the worst manager. When it comes to fulfilling the potential Mozeliak saw in him at the end of 2011, Mike Matheny is absolutely delivering.

Through multiple injuries, young player call-ups, on-the-job player development at the big league level — something the Cardinals SAY they don’t do — and overall clubhouse leadership, Matheny may very well be the best the game currently has to offer…on the whole. Multiple times throughout the season the Cardinals could’ve folded and sunk into oblivion — like the Reds and Brewers — but that didn’t happen. Instead, the St. Louis roster found an odd sort of maddening consistency, winning more than they lost and posting winning monthly records month in and month out. At the end of the day, Matheny’s method worked. It was infuriating at times…but it worked.

Say what you want about Mike’s tactical managing ability — again, look at my recent posts…I’ve been merciless — but no one can ignore his ability to keep things moving forward regardless of yesterday’s game or series. Yes, his post-game pressers can be less than entertaining, even after an emotional win, but that’s by design. That’s Matheny.

His message to his club sounds an awful lot like Tony LaRussa’s business-like marching orders time and time again: “We don’t get too low. We don’t get too high. Enjoy today tonight and show up ready to play tomorrow.”

And Matheny is delivering that message superbly…and more importantly, the players are receiving it.

Of course, there is hope for the other side of Matheny-as-manager. Over the last few contests, despite dropping two of three to Chicago, Mike seems to be getting himself in postseason shape with all those walks to the mound late in games. He’s making pitching decisions like it’s Game 7 of the World Series.

I like it. Let’s hope that Mike — He-Who-Manages-With-Urgency — continues to come to the ballpark every day.

— GO CARDS!!!

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Discussion

One thought on “Bird Watching: A Well-Timed Off Day and the Duality of Mike Matheny…

  1. Very nice read, really liked it. Hope the sense of urgency continues too rather than allowing a pitcher labor into the 100’s in pitches with so many arms. Probably one of the older fans around here and I’ll fight to the death for my Cardinals so I hope we see some life outta these guys this weekend. Looks like the Dodgers are rounding into form and they’ll be looking for revenge in a big way. As hopeful and optimistic as I am with my life, my family, my career, I don’t ever remember being so indifferent to hope for the Cards. This article helped change my perspective a bit. Hope it turns out as we’d all like. Thanks!

    Posted by Scott Cameron (@ScottluvsCards) | September 25, 2014, 9:54 am

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