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.

Young Blue Jays say they aren’t intimidated by top seed Rays

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) When the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays opened the pandemic-delayed season a little over two months ago, there was little to indicate the AL East rivals might meet again to begin the playoffs.

While the Rays launched the truncated 60-game schedule with expectations of making a strong bid for their first division title in a decade, the Blue Jays generally were viewed as an immensely talented young team still years away from postseason contention.

Tampa Bay didn’t disappoint, shrugging off a slow start to go a league-best 40-20 and claim the No. 1 seed in the AL playoffs that begin Tuesday.

Lefty Blake Snell, who’ll start Game 1 of the best-of-three wild-card series against Toronto at Tropicana Field, also isn’t surprised that the eighth-seeded Blue Jays earned a spot, too.

The Rays won six of 10 games between the teams during the regular season, but were outscored 48-44 and outhomered 17-11.

And while Toronto (32-28) lacks the playoff experience Tampa Bay gained last season when the Rays beat Oakland in the AL wild-card game before falling to Houston in the divisional round, the Blue Jays are building with exciting young players such as Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

“They’ve got a lot of young guys who can ball over there,” Snell said. “It’s going to be fun to compete and see how we do.”

Rays defensive whiz Kevin Kiermaier said Tampa Bay, in the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the second time franchise history, will not take the Blue Jays lightly.

“We know we’re playing a real good team,” Kiermaier said. “It’s not going to be easy, regardless of what a team is seeded.”

The Blue Jays, who’ll start right-hander Matt Shoemaker, aren’t conceding anything.

Bichette said he and his teammates respect how good Tampa Bay is, but are not intimidated by facing the No. 1 seed.

“I would say that we didn’t care who we played. I would say that we didn’t mind playing Tampa, that’s for sure. We’re familiar with them. We’ve played them well,” Bichette said.

“I think we’re confident in our ability against them. Our talent matches up well,” Bichette added. “We think if we play well we’ve got a good chance.”

NO FANS

The stands at Tropicana Field will be empty, leaving players to wonder what the atmosphere will be like for the playoffs.

Tampa Bay routinely rank at or near the bottom of the majors in attendance, but usually pack the stands in the domed stadium during the postseason.

“It will be different,” Bichette said. “Normally when you think of your first postseason you think 40,000, you think about not being able to think it’s so loud, stuff like that.”

The Blue Jays open the playoffs near where they hold spring training in Dunedin, Florida. It’s been a winding road for Toronto, which played its home games in Buffalo, New York, at the site of its Triple-A affiliate after the Canadian government barred the Blue Jays from hosting games at their own stadium because of coronavirus concerns.

CONFIDENT RAYS

Tampa Bay’s five-game loss to Houston in last year’s divisional round was a source of motivation during the regular season.

“It definitely lit a fire under everybody. It really showed us we belong. … We gave them a tough series,” second baseman Brandon Lowe said.

“We won the wild-card game. We belong in the postseason. I think that did a lot for us to understand that we should be in the postseason and we can go a lot farther. We know what to expect this time around. I think everyone in our clubhouse expects to be playing until the end of October,” he said.

CLOSE FRIENDS

Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash has the Rays in the playoffs for the second time. His close friend and former Rays third base and bench coach Charlie Montoyo is in his second year as manager of the Blue Jays, who last made the playoffs in 2016.

“Pretty special,” Cash said of his relationship with Montoyo.

“I really learned a lot from him being around him. The way he carried himself. His hand print is throughout this organization,” Cash added. “A pretty big impact and a positive one. … When they clinched I talked to him, we face-timed at 1:30 in the morning. I’m so happy for him.”