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.
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.