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.

Astros sweep as Twins lose 18th straight in playoffs

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
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MINNEAPOLIS — Shaken up by a scandal before the virus outbreak shrunk the season, the Houston Astros barely played well enough to reach the playoffs – with the rest of baseball actively rooting against them.

Well, they’re not ready to leave yet.

Carlos Correa hit a two-out, tiebreaking home run in the seventh inning for the Astros, who produced another stifling pitching performance and swept Minnesota over two games with a 3-1 victory Wednesday that sent the Twins to a record 18th straight postseason loss.

“I know a lot of people are mad. I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here,” Correa said. “But what are they going to say now?”

Nine months after Houston’s rules-breaking, sign-stealing system was revealed, the Astros advanced to the Division Series in Los Angeles. As the sixth seed, they’ll face the Oakland Athletics or Chicago White Sox in a best-of-five matchup starting Monday at Dodger Stadium.

“I don’t think they necessarily thought that they had anything to prove. They just had to play ball,” said manager Dusty Baker, who took his fifth different team to the playoffs and advanced for the first time in seven rounds since winning the 2003 NL Division Series with the Chicago Cubs.

The Twins are 0-18 in the playoffs since winning Game 1 of their Division Series at the New York Yankees on Oct. 5, 2004, a total of seven rounds lost. Since that date, the Astros are 43-35 in postseason play, winning 10 of 15 rounds with three trips to the World Series.

Kyle Tucker hit two RBI singles for the Astros and made a key throw from left field for the inning-ending out in the fifth.

Rookie Cristian Javier worked three hitless innings in relief for the victory in his postseason debut and Ryan Pressly pitched a perfect ninth against his former team, giving the Houston bullpen a total of 9 2/3 scoreless innings in this wild card series with three hits allowed.

“From the very beginning, we envisioned ourselves back in the playoffs and playing real well,” Tucker said. “So we never counted ourselves out at any point.”

Nobody on this Twins team has had a hand in more than six of the playoffs losses, but for the second straight year one of baseball’s most potent lineups limped through a brief postseason cameo. In a three-game division series sweep by the Yankees last year, the Twins totaled seven runs and 22 hits. Against the Astros, they mustered only two runs and seven hits.

“We put a lot of balls in play, it seemed like, but they were up in the air and, yeah, it seemed like we played into their trap,” said Max Kepler, one of four starters who went hitless in the series. “At the end of the day, we didn’t get the job done.”

Nelson Cruz gave the Twins an RBI double for a second straight game, this time in the fourth inning against starter Jose Urquidy. Luis Arraez aggressively tried to score from first base, but Correa took the throw from Tucker and fired home to beat Arraez to the plate to preserve the tie after third base coach Tony Diaz waved him in.

“I don’t know why he sent him,” Correa said.

Then in the seventh against losing pitcher Cody Stashak, Correa drove a 1-0 slider into the tarp-covered seats above right-center field for his 12th home run in 52 playoff games.

After winning 101, 103 and 107 games in the last three regular seasons, winning the 2017 World Series and losing the championship in seven games to the Washington Nationals last year, the Astros stumbled through the 2020 season at 29-31 under Baker and new general manager James Click with a slew of injuries after the COVID-19 pandemic cut the schedule to 60 games.

They had the third-worst road record in the major leagues, too, but none of that mattered this week against the third-seeded Twins, who were out of sorts in their two biggest games this year.

Jose Berrios was one of the few who were locked in with five strong innings to start, with just two hits allowed. His two walks were costly, though, issued right before Tucker’s single in the fourth.

“I don’t think anyone was ready to leave, to end this way,” Cruz said. “That’s life.”

KIRILLOFF FOR BUXTON

Already missing third baseman Josh Donaldson, the Twins held another one of their most valuable players out: center fielder Byron Buxton. Baldelli declined to confirm whether Buxton was experiencing a recurrence of concussion symptoms that kept him out of the last two regular season games. Buxton was picked off first base after pinch running for Cruz in the eighth.

Kepler moved to center, and Alex Kirilloff – the 2016 first-round draft pick – played right field to become the first Twins player in history to make his major league debut in a postseason game. Kirilloff singled in the fourth. With the bases loaded in the first, he flied out to end the inning.

FEELING BLUE

Both teams took issue with plate umpire Manny Gonzalez’s strike zone, with Astros slugger George Springer the first to visibly complain. After being called out on strikes in the fourth, Springer barked, “No way, man!” multiple times on his way back to the dugout.

Then in the sixth, the Twins lost left fielder Eddie Rosario to ejection after he argued a called strike two that would’ve given him a walk if it were called a ball. After swinging and missing at strike three, Rosario yelled again and was quickly tossed.

First base umpire Tim Timmons missed consecutive calls in the eighth inning on grounders by the Astros when he called the runners safe. Both were reversed to outs after replay review.

UP NEXT

The Astros, who have reached the AL Championship Series in each of the last three years, will play Monday against either the A’s or the White Sox. RHP Lance McCullers Jr. is the only member of their regular season rotation who did not pitch in Minnesota.

The Twins enter the offseason with 10 players set to become free agents, including the 40-year-old Cruz who led the team in home runs and batting average (among players with a qualifying amount of at-bats) for a second straight season. Their 2021 opener is scheduled for April 1 at Milwaukee.