Matheny, Cardinals in a familiar spot: one win from World Series

Wednesday October 16th, 2013

For the fourth time in the past 13 months, Mike Matheny will go to the ballpark today one win away from the World Series. The first three tries didn't turn out so well for Mathney, who was then the rookie manager of the Cardinals. Up three games to one in the National League Championship Series last year, St. Louis lost three straight games to San Francisco while getting outscored 20-1. Matheny's team simply stopped hitting against Barry Zito, Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain.

This time around in the NLCS, again up three games to one, the Cardinals have to get through either Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw or Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Dodgers. They are hitting .132 against those Los Angeles starters in this series. While the Dodgers have yet to hit a home run in this series and their best hitter, Hanley Ramirez, is badly troubled by a broken rib, nothing is certain yet for St. Louis given the experience of last year.

What is certain is that one win changes everything for the profile of Matheny. He has been the rare astute and polished manager right out of the box, when St. Louis tabbed a guy who never had managed on any level to replace a legend, Tony La Russa, who had just won the World Series. One win, though, elevates Matheny to another level of public validation.

Matheny is an impressive, rock-solid person who deserves credit for developing young pitchers and a collegial atmosphere around his club. He impressed me this summer when he explained to me how well the Cardinals incorporate young talent into their major league roster. He began by complimenting the draft and development people in the organization, including the coaches at every step of the minor league system. But he also explained something I found very interesting: this team welcomes young players as full-fledged contributors. There is none of the old-school "dues-paying" requirements found in many clubhouses -- the forcing of rookies to fetch coffee for veterans, for instance, or to complete menial, degrading chores. If you're a Cardinal, he said, you belong the moment you become one. He has Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, two classy veterans, to reinforce the inclusive clubhouse culture.

Matheny had to use 25 pitchers this year, one short of the franchise record, and yet St. Louis is within one win of reaching the World Series. He has leaned heavily on rookie pitchers, but here we are in the seventh month of the season and Michael Wacha, Seth Maness, Carlos Martinez, Kevin Seigrist and Trevor Rosenthal are still throwing hard with plenty of gas in the tank. Matheny's development of Martinez and Rosenthal as his end-game pieces has been particularly impressive. He is trusting the biggest outs of the postseason to two of his least experienced pitchers, and it is working.

Just about every string Matheny pulled in Game 4 turned out to be brilliant, beginning with handing the ball to Lance Lynn when he had a 15-game winner, Shelby Miller, chomping to get into a postseason game. Lynn wasn't so much dominant as he was persistent. He left with a runner at first and one out in the sixth with a 3-2 lead. Matheny wanted a double play, so he called on Maness, a troubleshooting double play specialist. And Maness did get his double play. Martinez and Rosenthal took control from there with their high-90s heaters to close out a 4-2 win without much anxiety.

Matheny put Daniel Descalso at shortstop to inject some offense, and Descalso paid off with a single and run in the second. When Matheny went to his best defense, shortstop Pete Kozma rewarded him with two outstanding plays, one a nifty backhand of a grounder and perfect feed to second base to start a double play that ended the sixth, and then the engineering of a pickoff play at second base for the second out of the seventh.

Matheny pulled Shane Robinson off his thin bench, and Robinson rewarded him with the first-ever pinch-hit postseason homer by a Cardinal on the road.

After St. Louis played a rare stinker of a game in Game 3, Matheny's team played a crisp, smart Game 4. The manager deserves some credit for the turn of events, mostly by instilling a culture all season that promotes such resiliency.

With a win, the Cardinals will have four World Series appearances in the past 10 years, the most in baseball. It will stamp the franchise as unquestionably the best-run organization in baseball with the best fans in baseball. But it also will stamp Matheny as one of the best managers in baseball.

2. Feeble Fielder not himself in October

The postseason of Deadball baseball continued on Tuesday, with the four teams managing to score a combined seven runs in two LCS games. The rate of postseason runs per game declined to 6.88 -- a rate worse than every regular season rate in major league history except 1908 (6.76) and 1968 (6.84). Seven of the 27 games have been shutouts.

Every game turns on small matters in this depressed run-scoring environment. For Detroit in ALCS Game 3, it turned on two at-bats with a runner on third base and one out. In such critical situational hitting spots, both Omar Infante and Miguel Cabrera struck out. The Tigers lost to Boston, 1-0.

Moreover, you have to wonder what is wrong with Prince Fielder, the Detroit first baseman and former slugger. Fielder looked feeble striking out with three poor swings against Boston closer Koji Uehara with the tying run on third and two outs in the eighth. He has played 15 consecutive postseason games without an RBI and only one extra-base hit, a bloop double. He just finished a regular season with the worst slugging percentage of his career. The man who used to be known for that violent, aggressive swing is taking abbreviated hacks in which he mostly slices the ball to the opposite field.

Fielder still has seven years and $168 million left on his contract. That's a long-term worry for another day. More immediately, the Tigers need Fielder to re-establish himself as a threat to do damage in the lineup.

3. Observations and notes . . .

. . . on Tuesday's LCS doubleheader that actually saw three home runs, improving the entire output of LCS longballs to six in seven games:

• It certainly does seem like power pitching rules this time of year, but here's an interesting breakdown of starting pitchers this postseason based on velocity. The average velocity of starting pitchers this year was about 92 mph. Starting pitchers who averaged 92 or better on their heater this year are 10-12 this postseason. Starters with below average velocity are 8-6.

• Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday saw the fourth-greatest percentage of fastballs in the big leagues this year (66%), a category in which the top 10 is dominated by singles hitters who pitchers can attack without fear. But Dodgers starter Ricky Nolasco didn't get his 91-mph in enough to Holliday, who broke out of his hitless series with a two-run homer in the third that just may turn out to be the series-turning moment.

• When the Dodgers wanted confirmation that Yasiel Puig was ready for the big leagues, they sent special assignment scout Manny Mota to the minors to meet with him and provide an assessment. It was Mota who counseled Puig recently after two hitless games in St. Louis to stop trying so hard in the NLCS. Puig has been a different and better player in the two games in Los Angeles, reaching base five times in seven plate appearances.

• The Dodgers did not have a player picked off second base all year before Nick Punto was nabbed by the Martinez-Kozma pairing for a huge out in the seventh.

• Give Boston manager John Farrell credit for his pitching decisions in the eighth inning yesterday, which were based on matching up the right stuff on the right hitters. Lefty Craig Breslow obtained the first out against righthanded-hitting Jose Iglesias, righty Junichi Tazawa took care of the second with a whiff of the righthanded Miguel Cabrera and Uehara, another righty, secured the third with the whiff of the lefthanded Fielder.

• The baseball community lost a good man and a good umpire in Wally Bell, who died far too young, at age 48, on Monday. While umpires often get painted broadly as confrontational, Bell was an umpire who was willing to listen to players and brought no sense of arrogance to the job.

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