Author: Matthew Pouliot

Mike Matheny

On Mike Matheny and Michael Wacha

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“I realize that I put him in a real tough spot… Just a tough spot for him to be in. Not the spot we wanted him to be in.”

Mike Matheny decided he was using Michael Wacha on Wednesday. That much was clear. He made mention of it before the game, indicating that Wacha was available in a different fashion than in previous games this postseason. With the Cardinals up 3-2, Matheny got Wacha up in the top of the seventh, readying him alongside lefty specialist Randy Choate in case Wainwright needed to come out.

Related: Giants beat Cardinals in Game 5 to advance to the World Series

Wainwright finished that inning, and with the one-run lead intact, Matheny followed his usual script and put in Pat Neshek to pitch the eighth. Wacha got up again that inning after Neshek allowed a leadoff homer to Michael Morse, tying the game.

When the bottom of the ninth rolled around, Wacha was ready again. At this point, Matheny had to know it was use him or lose him. Wacha hadn’t pitched since Sept. 26. He hadn’t made a relief appearance all year. He didn’t have his usual stuff in September after missing 2 1/2 months with a shoulder injury, which is why he wasn’t included in the postseason rotation. There was no way Matheny wanted to bypass Wacha now and then risk injuring him by using him in the 12th or 13th inning of a tie game with the rest of his bullpen exhausted. So, Matheny made the call. Four batters later, the Giants were 6-3 winners.

Obviously, it was a bad call. Not a bad call in hindsight… a bad call at the very moment Matheny sent him to the mound. If Matheny thought Wacha was the right person to pitch in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth with elimination one mistake away… well, then there’s no doubt Wacha would have been on the mound at some point in the previous eight postseason games.

It might have worked out anyway. Wacha arrived on the mound with his best velocity of the year. He hit 98 mph on the FS1 gun. But he was rusty. He didn’t have time to find his command or his changeup. He was exactly the guy he should have been having sat for three weeks.

Matheny will survive the Cardinals’ loss. In three years at the helm, he’s guided the team to a 275-211 record, a World Series and a second NLCS. And given that the Cardinals lost their best player, Yadier Molina, in Game 2 of the series against the Giants, there’s a ready excuse for dropping the series, not that any excuse for losing a best-of-seven series should ever be needed. Still, it’ll be a long time before anyone forgets the Wacha move, and a couple of his Game 4 choices weren’t much better. The losses in the last three games of the series went to the last three pitchers on the staff (Randy Choate, Marco Gonzales and now Wacha). His decision to pinch-run Daniel Descalso in the ninth tonight only after Matt Adams got to second base might have cost the team the go-ahead run. It’s not nearly all on Matheny; the Cardinals were outplayed by the Giants. But there wasn’t any bigger mismatch on the diamond than the mismatch that was Matheny versus Bruce Bochy.

Mike Matheny had a very bad day at the office

Mike Matheny
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Game 4 of the NLCS was played Wednesday night. The managers seemed to mistake it for a regular-season game.

While more good than bad, Shelby Miller and Ryan Vogelsong are fourth starters for a reason. Miller probably wouldn’t have made the Cardinals’ rotation if Michael Wacha were healthier or if Justin Masterson had bounced back following his midseason acquisition. Vogelsong wasn’t promised an NLDS start until Yusmeiro Petit, the superior pitcher down the stretch, was needed to throw six innings in relief in Game 2 against the Nationals.

Related: Giants defeat Cardinals 6-4 to take 3-1 lead in NLCS

And both starters came out struggling Wednesday. Vogelsong allowed three of the first four batters he reached to face, holding the Cardinals to one run only because Jhonny Peralta grounded into a double play. Miller gave the run right back in the bottom of the first before likewise escaping trouble because of a double play.

Vogelsong surrendered a double and an RBI single to start the second. At that point, Petit should have been warming up. He wasn’t. Vogelsong escaped from there, and Miller threw a clean bottom of the second. However, the third was punishing to both. Even with a double play mixed in, Vogelsong gave up two runs, the last coming on a Kolten Wong homer. He was only allowed to finish the inning from there because he was due to lead off the bottom of the inning. Miller allowed a single to the pinch-hitter and three hits in all on his way to giving up two runs.

At least Giants manager Bruce Bochy had the sense to get Vogelsong out after three. Up 4-3, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny let Miller hit with one out and none on in the top of the fourth. He then pulled him with two outs and one on in the bottom of the fourth.

Matheny’s choice to keep Miller in had no immediate ramifications. The Cardinals escaped the fourth without damage. But the whole process was just nutty. It took Matheny until runs were already in to get anyone up in the third, even though he had a completely rested Wacha ready to go long if needed and Marco Gonzales a possibility for multiple innings. Also, the Cardinals were in no position to just give away outs at the plate while up one run. The decision to let him hit, even though there was no confidence that he’d last much longer, was one of the worst any manager has made this postseason.

Matheny pulled off another doozy in the sixth, when he set up a double-switch with Gonzales entering the game and Tony Cruz replacing A.J. Pierzynski behind the plate. The pitcher’s spot was due up first the next inning, but now Matheny wanted to use Gonzales for multiple innings. In theory, it might have worked out, but Cruz hits like a pitcher anyway and it would have been better to lead off the seventh with another bench option, while still keeping the stronger Pierzynski in the lineup. As it turned out, Gonzales wasn’t going to pitch multiple innings anyway. Gonzales didn’t even last the one, giving up three runs because first baseman Matt Adams botched two throws.

By the time Matheny finally did use his best bench bat, Oscar Taveras, there were two outs and none on with the Cardinals down 6-4 in the eighth. That was in Pierzynski’s old spot. Taveras singled, but No. 8 hitter Randal Grichuk flied out. Matheny could have instead used Taveras in Cruz’s spot in the ninth, hoping to start a rally then, but it was left to Daniel Descalso. That went just as well as expected; he popped out to start the frame, and the Cardinals managed just a single before Santiago Casilla shut the door.

(Matheny also “wasted” his challenge on a successful steal by Hunter Pence in the fifth. I’m not going to complain about this, since I’m guessing the postseason umpires are going to be very lenient when it comes to letting managers request challenges, not that it’s been a factor so far.)

At the end of the day, it’s impossible to say Matheny cost the Cardinals’ this game. He wasn’t responsible for Adams’ miscues, and as shaky as Miller was, St. Louis still had the lead when he left. All the manager can do is put the team in the best position to win. Matheny didn’t do that. He also didn’t do it when he let a lefty specialist lose Game 3. Now with Giants ace Madison Bumgarner set to start Game 5 on Thursday, it might not matter at all what Matheny does next.

Against all expectations, Ned Yost figured it out

Ned Yost
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Credit where credit is due: Ned Yost managed a great series against the Orioles.

By all rights, the Royals should have been dead in the wild card game. Down 7-3 against the A’s after the surprising move to have Yordano Ventura, pitching on one day of rest, relieve James Shields in the sixth, the Royals needed to score four runs in two innings against Jon Lester and one of the best bullpens in baseball. They did that and won it in 12, though between the Ventura call and the four sacrifice bunts (in a 9-8 game), Yost seemed to do more harm than good.

Related: Royals sweep Orioles to advance to first World Series since 1985

The sweep of the Angels? That was a better, easier series for Yost. About the only criticism one could lay down at his feet is that he declined to use his closer in tie games on the road. Of course, it didn’t hurt him one bit. The series included just one sac bunt (by Alcides Escobar in Game 2; it didn’t lead to a run). There weren’t really many tough decisions at all. All three of his starters pitched well, and none needed to be removed mid-inning. The relievers were great, because they’re Royals relievers and it’s required.

Against the Orioles, Yost seemed to learn from everything that had come before. There were two sac bunts in the series, and the first of those was left-handed hitter Mike Moustakas bunting against a left-hander in a tie game in the top of the ninth. No one is arguing against that one. The only starter he seemed to keep in too long was Ventura in Game 2. In Game 3, he patted Jeremy Guthrie on the backside after five innings of one-run ball and went right to the pen. In Game 4, Jason Vargas came out after allowing one run in 5 1/3 innings, even though he was at just 73 pitches.

As for his bullpen decisions… well, he had it pretty easy. His relievers allowed two runs in five innings in Game 1, but pitched 11 scoreless innings the rest of the way. There were no tough calls on when to use Wade Davis and Greg Holland. My only criticism was that he used Jason Frasor in the sixth against the heart of the Orioles order in Game 3, when it would have made more sense to go with Kelvin Herrera then and let Frasor face the bottom of the order in the seventh. But it didn’t matter. Yost went to Herrera during the sixth in both Games 1 and 4. That was the move he didn’t make in the wild card game. The one that nearly knocked his team out of the playoffs before this whole incredible run had a chance to get started.

It certainly helps that Yost has been able to stick to the script. He’s started the same lineup every game of the playoffs. He hasn’t had any pitching meltdowns to throw things off. Every starter has pitched between five and seven innings. Somehow, the Royals have had two pitchers leave with potentially season-ending injuries (Herrera in the ALDS, Ventura in Game 2) and turn out just fine. Yost never worries about pinch-hitting, only pinch-running and having Jarrod Dyson replace Norichika Aoki late in games. His players have made it simple for him, and he’s done absolutely nothing lately to muck it up. Admittedly, that might sound like a backhanded compliment, but as anyone who has watched the National League postseason can attest, not having a manager muck things up is really all there is to it.

Orioles have calls to make on hitters this winter

Nelson Cruz
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The Orioles took care of one key piece of business last week, signing shortstop J.J. Hardy to a three-year extension through 2017. They’ll have some decisions to make on the rest of their lineup this winter, though.

– Nelson Cruz, signed to a one-year, $8 million deal last winter, is a free agent.

– Nick Markakis can be brought back on a $17.5 million option (which includes a $2 million buyout) or the team could negotiate a new deal with him.

– Chris Davis is arbitration eligible after earning $10.35 million this year.

One imagines the Orioles will work something out with Markakis, who has been in the organization since the team picked him seventh overall in the 2003 draft. The soon-to-be 31-year-old Markakis is no longer a star, but he did have a better season offensively and defensively this year than in 2013. Ideally, the two sides could do a two- or three-year deal at a lesser salary than the option is worth.

Related: Royals complete sweep of Orioles in ALCS

Unless owner Peter Angelos really loosens the purse strings, retaining both Cruz and Davis seems unlikely. Cruz established new career highs with 40 homers and 108 RBI this year, but he’s 34 and a liability defensively in the outfield. He’ll probably ask for a four-year deal worth at least $15 million per season. Davis, nearly the AL MVP in 2013, probably won’t get much of a raise in arbitration after struggling and getting suspended for Adderall. Since it’d just be a one-year deal, the Orioles should keep him and hope for the best.

Fortunately, the Orioles’ pitching staff, Andrew Miller excepted, will return intact. Five of Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, Miguel Gonzalez, Kevin Gausman and Ubaldo Jimenez will comprise the rotation, and Zach Britton, Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter will all be back in the pen. Top prospect Dylan Bundy, who spent this year rehabbing after Tommy John surgery, could also help next summer.

With Matt Wieters and Manny Machado due back healthy, the Orioles have the potential to be better next year than they were in winning the AL East this season. They’ll almost surely enter the spring as the favorites in the AL East no matter what the Red Sox and Yankees do.

The recipe for an unlikely Orioles’ comeback

Adam Jones, Nelson Cruz
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As if overcoming a 3-0 deficit to win four consecutive postseason games wasn’t hard enough, the Orioles are going to have to try to do it in four straight days, since Monday’s rainout took away the schedule Thursday travel day.

That’s problematic, since the Orioles have a rotation of six-inning guys and will need to rely heavily on the bullpen to mount a comeback against the Royals. Maybe they’ll survive Game 4, but expecting Andrew Miller, Darren O’Day and Zach Britton to carry the day four times in a row, without any sort of break… well, eventually someone is going to break.

Most likely, it won’t come to that anyway. The Royals are at home these next two days. They had to use their most important relievers in Tuesday’s win, but none threw more than 14 pitches. All will be ready to go again on Wednesday.

But, what if…

The ALCS has been an even matched series thus far, with the Royals just finding a way to win in the end. If there’s a recipe for an Orioles miracle, it would probably involve a late-inning come-from-behind victory against Greg Holland on Wednesday. If they can pull that off — with Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis also having worked — they’ll have the benefit of the Royals’ bullpen being tired in Thursday’s Game 5.

A stellar outing from Chris Tillman then could send the Orioles back home with new life, ready for Games 6 and 7. Scheduled Royals Game 6 starter Yordano Ventura left Game 2 with shoulder tightness and his velocity was down before his departure. He could be tired and beatable. Toppling him would set the stage for a Game 7 on Saturday in which neither team would have any planned starters available on normal rest (the result of the rainout). Anything could happen that one. Ideally, it’d mean a whole lot of Kevin Gausman for Baltimore, if he hasn’t already been burnt out in the previous victories.

First, there’s Game 4. They’ll be sending seven or eight right-handed hitters up against Jason Vargas, with Delmon Young making his first start of the series. The Orioles have been beaten, but they don’t appear beaten. Let’s see what happens with their backs up against the wall.