The Darkness Falls

For 29 teams, when the end of the season comes, it’s a tough thing to handle.  Even for fans with teams that were out of the race in June, you miss the companionship of the daily grind, you miss turning on the TV to see your team play ball, however badly.  For teams that make the playoffs, the loss is an extra sting, because you know how close you were to being that one team that can enjoy an offseason.

That sting is sharper or duller depending on how the loss came about.  Was it a steamrolling by a superior team?  That hurts, but you have a bit of resignation to it.  Was it a tight series that went down to the final pitch of the last game?  The sting is greater, given just how close you were, but there’s also a little bit of “that’s baseball” to it.

Then there are the series where you know your team could have won, perhaps should have won, but didn’t.  Those hurt.  Those hurt a lot.  Which is why this series, and especially last night’s game, are going to fester for a while.

First off, let’s talk about the good.  It was very, very nice to see Adam Wainwright out there looking like the Adam Wainwright we know and love.  As someone put it on Twitter, a hurt pitcher doesn’t have the best inning of his postseason deep into his third game, but Wainwright struck out the side in the sixth, mowing down the heart of the Giants order.  If nothing else, that should ease some worries that we were going to lose Wainwright to some surgery or other medical ailment, at least for a while.  An offseason of rest and a plan to limit his use next season might be just what he needs.

Of course, even the greatest of Wainwright can’t come without some controversy.  Wainwright went seven strong innings, retiring the last 10 batters he faced.  He’d also thrown 97 pitches and the top of the Giants order was coming back around in the eighth.

If the score had been anything but 3-2, I might have said send him out there.  Instead, I agree with Mike Matheny (and that happens sometimes, though we weren’t in lockstep all night at all) and I would have pulled him.  To go through an order for a fourth time tends to be courting disaster.  In most cases, it would have been better to have a reliever start with a fresh inning than bring him in with the tying run on base.  To be fair, Wainwright’s been pretty good this year when he’s gone deep enough to face a hitter for the fourth time, but it still seems like you should be able to get six outs from your pen.  A fresh arm, in theory, is less likely to give up a big hit than a tired one.

That’s theory, though, and baseball tends to frown on theories.  We’ve seen Pat Neshek struggle some in the second half, but he’d pitched five hitless innings during the playoffs since his lapse in Game 2 of the NLDS.  There was no particular reason to think that he’d fail to get this game to the ninth in the condition that it is.  Of course, that would have created its own issues, but that’s beside the point.

If there’s any solace in that tying home run by the Giants–and I’m not sure that there is any–is that it wasn’t some banjo hitter or postseason fluke like Mark Lemke hitting it out.  Michael Morse has been a large part of the Giants offense all season long and normally would have been starting had he not been returning from injury.  Neshek got beaten by a quality opponent.  It doesn’t really lessen the sting, but I guess it could be worse.

Once the Giants tied it up, it seemed almost inevitable they were going to win it.  Rallying on your home turf to tie up a game late?  Yeah, the Cardinals know a little about that.  And while you have to credit the attempt the Redbirds made in the top of the ninth, the Giants were able to make that come to naught.  I never like tie games on the road and this one set up to be just another example why.

So, season in the balance, who do you go to?  Why, of course, the pitcher that hasn’t thrown a regulation pitch since the Arizona Diamondbacks were giving him fits.  The moment Michael Wacha came into the game, I knew it was over.  That’s no aspersion on Wacha, of course.  In the ideal world, he’d have been part of the starting rotation this postseason and been just as good as we saw in the first half of the year.  However, he 1) wasn’t sharp after coming back from the stress reaction and 2) HADN’T PITCHED IN 20 DAYS!

I don’t think you can emphasize that enough.  Pitching is feel, pitching is rhythm.  If Wacha had been on the DL for 20 days during the season, he’d have likely gone on a rehab assignment, been limited to 60 pitches in the minors to start building up not only strength but sharpness.  While I realize he wasn’t necessarily going to be asked to go six innings or anything, he’s not going to have any feel for his stuff.  Which is exactly what we saw.

This thought process of Matheny’s, from Jenifer Langosch’s article, is pretty interesting to tear into.

Holding Rosenthal out for a potential save situation, Matheny had four ninth-inning choices: Carlos Martinez, Randy Choate, Wacha or Seth Maness. He did not like how Martinez matched up with the lefties coming up and preferred Wacha over Choate, given Choate’s troubles in that part of the lineup the other day. Wacha had been forewarned pregame that his role could change on Thursday, and Wacha said afterward he was not in any way physically limited.

So we’ve got a lefty specialist that we don’t trust to get lefties out, which is wonderful.  Martinez did struggle with left-handed batters some this season, so I’ll give Matheny that.  Maness had struggled with them as well and had been worked pretty hard the last couple of days.  I still think you go with Choate or Martinez over a guy that threw as many pitches in the postseason as I did until last night.

Of course, then you also have the option to actually throw what should be your best reliever.  Trevor Rosenthal would have been a dicey guy to throw out there and I fully admit he well might have ended the series the same way Wacha did.  I’d have probably been pretty worked up if Rosenthal had come in, to be fair, but he is the closer.  Which means he should be your best reliever.  So why didn’t Matheny, who obviously holds Rosenthal in higher regard than most of the fan base, bring in this weapon?

“We can’t bring him in, in a tie-game situation. We’re on the road.”

That’s the answer Bernie Miklasz got from him.  That sound you hear is millions of palms being slapped into millions of foreheads.

Mike, you’ve got to GET to a tie situation before you can worry about it.  Sure, it’d be great if you could just let Rosenthal sit out there until the Cardinals scored a run, but it’s unlikely the Giants are just going to go along with that plan.  You’ve got to stop them while you can.  It doesn’t do you any good to score in the 10th when the game ends in the ninth.

Again, I’m not saying he should have brought Rosenthal into the game there or that the results would have been any different.  The thinking behind that decision, though, is what’s troubling.

It goes, somewhat, to what we’ve said about Matheny for a long time.  I can’t find it now, but I believe it was someone over at Viva El Birdos that said Tony La Russa thought so far ahead that he started battling demons that weren’t there, while Matheny seems to make decisions ten minutes after he should have.  It so often seems Matheny makes the choice for that moment, not worrying to much about what might happen down the line.  Save for the times, like with Rosenthal, that he looks for contingencies on things that well may not happen.

How different would last night have looked, for instance, if John Lackey goes deeper in Game 3?  Say he just pitches the seventh.  Is Marco Gonzales available last night since he would have not pitched in both the last two games?  Having Gonzales to be able to face the lefties in the ninth would have been nice.  What if Martinez had thrown more than one inning last night, leaving Gonzales fresher for today?

This isn’t hindsight, at least not much.  Most of those decisions were ones that fans were questioning at the time they were made.  They are ramifications that Matheny might have considered, but the evidence doesn’t appear to lean that way.

As Christine wrote over at Aaron Miles’ Fastball this morning, nobody is going to say that Matheny has improved in his third season as manager.  If anything–and this seems to be the most likely scenario–he’s taken a step back, at least tactically.  Honestly, some of his player interactions seem to be undermining his “leader of men” qualities as well, though we don’t really get to see how that works in the clubhouse.  His calling out of Oscar Taveras in the press a few times and burying him and Peter Bourjos on the bench in favor of Randal Grichuk would seem to be conflict starters, not calm sailing waters.  Again, though, we aren’t in that locker room so we don’t know how Matheny sells it to those players or if they’ve bought into it all.  There’s not been any public upheavals, really, so you’d think he’s still doing OK in that regard, even if it seems that quality of his has been tarnished.

Matheny will be back next year, of course.  It’s tough to get rid of a manager who has three NLCS and one World Series berth in his three years on the job.  You do wonder, though, if the Cards are ever going to win the title with him at the helm.  Tactics can be learned, of course, but right now it doesn’t look like Matheny really wants to learn.  I think that the offseason conversations between him and John Mozeliak will be interesting.  At least, I hope they are.  I’d hate to think Mo is just going to pat him on the head and say, “Hey, great work getting us there.”

Of course, coming up with a run in extras last night would have been extra hard without Matt Holliday and Matt Adams in the lineup.  Adams’s removal made sense–you needed the extra speed in the ninth when he was on second representing the go-ahead run.  You could also argue that swapping out Holliday improved your defense at a time when you had a one-run lead, so I’d say that was a defensible (no pun intended) move.  So I’m not saying that Matheny didn’t make the right moves there, but taking that much combined firepower off a lineup that struggles to score anyway was probably not going to work in their favor either.

There were some good performances last night.  Wainwright was superb, save the two-run homer to Joe Panik, which proved to be a big deal.  Without that home run, Wainwright probably at least goes eight innings.  Adams not only had the hit in the ninth to start things off, he had the tying home run earlier off of Madison Bumgarner, which is only his second-most impressive homer off a lefty this postseason.  As much as Adams had his issues with those that throw with a different hand this year, he can still get up and play against them at times.  Some were calling for a platoon at first for 2015, but I’m still convinced that Adams can do OK against lefties with experience and exposure.  I wouldn’t mind a right-handed backup, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t know that I’d want a straight platoon.

Let’s give it up for Tony Cruz as well.  After being throw into the fire in Game 2 and not necessarily looking great, he played a solid game behind the plate in Game 5 and also hit what should have been the game-winning home run.  While having Yadier Molina for the last three games would have been nice (and might have been the difference in Game 2 if he’d stayed in), Cruz and Pierzynski picked up a good deal of the slack, to the extent that I don’t know that much, if anything, in the series would have been different with Molina back there.

I started this postseason by tweaking the words to “The Sounds of Silence”.  Now, the darkness falls, the silence of the winter approaches us.  The Rogers Hornsby quote is all too accurate.  As you know, I’m a fairly reactionary poster, writing about the last game and what’s going on with the Redbirds.  Which means that in the winter, this place gets a little quieter.  I’ll still try to write fairly regularly when news and rumor circulates, but it won’t be every day.  I’ll be starting work on the Exit Interview series soon, so you’ll have that to look forward to.  It’s always fun for me to go through each player and try to sum up their season.

Congrats to the Giants, who if nothing else earned the wins by keeping close and being able to take advantages of mistakes, then winning a fairly clean game by the Cards by finding their power for the first time all postseason.  I’m not necessarily rooting for either side in the Series, but it could be an interesting one to watch.

As the Starks say, winter is coming.  It’s going to be a particularly cold one in Cardinal Nation.

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