Mike Matheny hiring opens a few more million for Albert Pujols

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The Cardinals were 10 1/2 games back on August 25. They weren’t supposed to make it to October.

The Cardinals drew an NLDS matchup with the 102-win Phillies. They were supposed to get out-pitched.

The Cardinals faced the high-powered Brewers in the NLCS, then the higher-powered Rangers in the Fall Classic. They weren’t supposed to win either series.

But all of those odds and predictions were defied.

Now, to add a surprise cherry to the astonishment sundae, the Cardinals — kings of the old school — have hired the youngest manager in MLB. A 41-year-old former catcher with zero managing experience and barely any official coaching gigs on his résumé.

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Mike Matheny, revered for his defense during a 13-year playing career, was named replacement to Tony La Russa, the third-winningest skipper in baseball history, in a press release delivered to the media late Sunday night. He will be officially introduced at a formal press conference Monday morning at Busch Stadium.

While recent speculation presented subtle hints, the hiring was a surprise. Terry Francona, with his big name and decorated resume, seemed a better fit for the Cards’ veteran core. Jose Oquendo, some suggested, would help carve an easier path to the re-signing of Albert Pujols. Even Ryne Sandberg drew buzz.

But the Cardinals made up their mind on Matheny before they even spoke with the former Red Sox manager or the former Cubs great, according to Tim McKernan of KFNS 590 in St. Louis and InsideSTL.com.

The Cardinals had their man almost as soon as the search began, and maybe even before.

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Guessing a front office’s strategy can be an exercise in frivolity, and it often is in the case of the close-lipped Redbirds. But this sure feels calculated, and the steps ahead would appear to be shaking clear.

La Russa was earning salaries of nearly $5 million per year by the end of his tenure in St. Louis, more than any other manager in the sport today. Matheny is sure to cost less, by perhaps as much as $3 million annually. Then there’s the decision to name Daniel Descalso as the club’s 2012 starting second baseman just weeks after the end of the World Series and the suggestion that Tyler Greene might fit at as a regular shortstop, all of which leaves Skip Schumaker and his $2.7 million 2011 salary as a non-tender candidate.

Make no mistake: the Cardinals like Matheny. They consider him a born leader, and someone well-versed in what is affectionately called “The Cardinal Way.” But they’re also freeing up every bit of payroll they can.

If Pujols is going to command a yearly rate of $23 million or more over the next seven, eight, or nine seasons, the Cardinals need to be more well-oiled. They need to run more efficiently, with better structure from top to bottom and more cost control in the big leagues. It’s something that GM John Mozeliak has known since taking over the job in October of 2007, and his decisions are now clearly being led by the idea.

Matheny is efficient. Descalso is efficient. So is almost the entire bullpen. And the talent budding in the farm system — as seen in top-grade prospects like Shelby Miller, Kolten Wong, Carlos Martinez and Oscar Taveras — should keep the organization humming at econo-grade even if Pujols scores an SUV-sized deal.

Mozeliak has truly built something great, and the Cardinals are suddenly as streamlined as it gets in the capricious world of professional baseball. It would take multiple catastrophes for Matheny to screw it all up.

John Lackey stole the first base of his career

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Cubs starter John Lackey stole the first base of his 15-year career on Wednesday against the Reds. Of course, he spent the first 11 and a half years of his career in the American League, where opportunities to bat, let alone attempt to steal a base, were rare. Lackey entered Wednesday having taken 250 plate appearances, reaching base just 31 times on 17 singles, seven doubles, and seven walks for a .134 on-base percentage. One can imagine the 38-year-old is not exactly the swiftest base runner.

Still, Lackey managed to swipe a bag in the fourth inning. He singled with two outs against Homer Bailey. Then, with an 0-1 count on Ben Zobrist, Lackey broke for second even before Bailey began his windup. Tucker Barnhart stood up to alert Bailey that Lackey was running, so Bailey wheeled around and threw to second base, but Lackey slid into the bag easily safe. It wasn’t a pretty slide, but it did the job.

Lackey, however, was picked off of second base by Barnhart later that inning. Bailey threw a 3-2 fastball wide of the strike zone, walking Zobrist. Lackey had wandered too far off of second base, so Barnhart threw behind Lackey and the tag was applied by Zack Cozart. Lackey was called safe initially. The play was reviewed and the ruling on the field was overturned, ending the fourth inning.

Base Ba’al giveth and Base Ba’al taketh away.

Video: Aaron Judge sends a baseball into the upper deck at Citi Field

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Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge hit another jaw-dropping home run, victimizing Mets starter Robert Gsellman in the top of the fourth game of Wednesday night’s game at Citi Field. Left fielder Yoenis Cespedes didn’t even move. The ball traveled 457 feet and was hit 117 MPH off the bat, according to Katie Sharp of River Ave Blues.

The home run moved Judge’s AL-best total to 37, putting him two ahead of the Royals’ Mike Moustakas. Along with the prodigious dinger total, he has 80 RBI, 90 runs scored, and a .291/.421/.616 triple-slash line in 499 plate appearances. Judge is on pace for 50 dingers. If it holds, that would give him the rookie record for home runs in a season. Mark McGwire currently holds the record, having hit 49 for the Athletics in 1987.