This, this is….weird.
For the first time since 2010, October 15 will come and the Cardinals won’t still be playing baseball. Even worse, the team that sent them packing resides on the north side of Chicago. While St. Louis has more postseason wins, many more titles, and all of that, the scorecard for the postseason head-to-head battles reads Cubs 1, Cardinals 0 and that is going to take a lot of getting used to. (Hopefully, that’s all we’ll have to get used to as most all Cardinal fans are now rooting for New York or Los Angeles to do what they couldn’t. I’m seriously not sure how to deal with “NL Champion Cubs” or, worse, “World Champion Cubs”.)
The Cardinals losing a divisional series is almost unheard of. Before this year, they were 10-2 in this intro round to the playoffs, only losing in 2001 to the eventual World Series Champion Diamondbacks (in the bottom of the ninth of Game 5) and being swept in 2009 by the Dodgers. If nothing else, losing in four to the Cubs completed the set. They’ve now experienced every possible outcome of an NLDS, which isn’t something many teams can say.
There is plenty of blame to go around here. Lots of it. But before we go into that, let me make one thing clear–the Cubs really were the better team in this series. The Cardinals had opportunities to win and they easily could have been resting today after sweeping if things had gone a little different. However, when Chicago had a chance to do something, they did it. Their power was remarkable and their pitching was better than many of us expected. I’m not sure how they match up with either of the other two teams–I still feel like either the Mets or Dodgers can beat them, though that might be my bias–but even if the Cubs lose, it’s not going to be easy for the other team. If a squad can short-circuit their power, they have a chance, but there’s just so many different power sources in that lineup that it’s hard to keep them all down.
So again, kudos to Chicago for playing a very good series. Let’s look inward a little bit, though, and see what went wrong this series, why the club won’t be playing in their fifth straight LCS.
–There’s going to be a lot of blame sitting right on Mike Matheny‘s shoulders and, to be fair, there’s definitely some that should be headed in that direction. While I can see his rationale for letting Michael Wacha start the fifth in Game 3, he really should have just taken the gift of a tied game and taken him out before he could do any more damage. We saw Wacha’s September. We saw him hardly ever survive four innings. We even saw this exact same thing in his last regular season start at Wrigley, where he allowed two runs in the first, then zeros through four. He batted in the top of the fourth (he led off with a single) but then allowed back-to-back homers in the bottom of the frame and left after five. Either Wacha is completely worn out (most likely) or he’s hurt, but he’s not the pitcher that he was in the first half of the year nor the postseason hero everyone remembers. With a full bullpen and a chance to knock off Jake Arrieta, you can’t let him go back out there. At the very least, as soon as a runner gets on he’s out of there.
–Along those lines, Matheny should have already known that Kevin Siegrist has been dealing with reverse splits all season long. Lefties had an OPS of .811 against him in the regular season. Granted, he’d only allowed two homers to left-handed batters this year and none in the second half, but he’s not the guy that you use to get lefties out. Anthony Rizzo hadn’t hit him hard in the past, so I don’t think there’s a terrible issue with him facing Rizzo in Game 3. He just got burned there. However, letting him face Rizzo in a tie game with the season on the line in Game 4 was a little more dicey. Leaving him in to start the seventh and face Kyle Schwarber was just malpractice. As soon as I heard he was still in the game (I was listening on the radio on my drive home from an out-of-town client) I knew what the result would be. Siegrist may have just picked the wrong time to be in a slump, but Matheny’s got to know that he’s in that slump and not put him in those positions.
–There was an article on Grantland Tuesday that tried to put some stats to bullpen usage by managers, figuring out if they used the right folks at the right time. Take it for what it’s worth, question the methodology and the numbers, but this is what I think is still quite telling. Out of all the managers in the big leagues this season, only Matheny wound up in the negative numbers in that study. Given that meant that, according to it, his use of the ‘pen was worse than replacement level, that literally meant that the folks on Twitter could do a better job. Over the last three years, he’s been better, but he’s still significantly worse than the next-worst manager. Again, this isn’t like we’re talking percentage points or anything. There are orders of degrees separating Matheny and the rest of the majors. Which perhaps is why the two long men taken in this series were on the field for all of two innings and that was Carlos Villanueva in Game 2. If Jaime Garcia isn’t sick, there’s a strong chance that neither Villanueva nor the Patron Pitcher of the Blog Tyler Lyons gets into a game. So why do you have them on the roster? This isn’t 2013, when all the starters are going so deep that you don’t need a guy for multiple innings. This is a series where the only starter that got through five innings was John Lackey in Game 1. Yet Siegrist pitches in three of the four games. Jonathan Broxton appeared three times. I’ll grant you Adam Wainwright, who was like a third long man, especially as he was extended in the last couple of games. But still, you can’t get Lyons in there to face some of these lefties? Perhaps him in the sixth today instead of Siegrist? It’s a tough situation, sure, but Siegrist’s arm has to be worn out from going 81 times in the regular season.
–For all that, though, Matheny did do some things right in this series. We asked for him to manage aggressively and, for him, he probably did, though as we saw with Wacha and Siegrist, he was occasionally still a batter too slow. We also saw him put together some of the best lineups of the season, lineups that most everyone didn’t question when they came out. Jon Jay got only one at bat and it was a non-vital appearance, pinch-hitting in the third inning for Lance Lynn after he’d taken over for Garcia. You could argue that perhaps he should have sat Matt Holliday for Tommy Pham, but that wasn’t going to happen no matter how much Holliday struggled. You could more reasonably argue, I think, that Holliday didn’t need to be hitting third, but given some of the other struggles of the lineup, the only other real option was maybe swapping him with Jason Heyward. We saw Matheny not start an injured Molina in the fourth game–he did originally have him in the lineup, but he should get some credit for scratching the heart and soul of the team. And while it’s was pretty questionable for him to start Lackey in Game 4 (which, honestly, I think he might have done even if the Cards had pulled out the third game), it was aggressive. Perhaps we need to be more clear when we talk about managing aggressively.
–While I wasn’t a fan of Lackey going in Game 4, the more I thought about it, the more I think I saw it from his perspective. That perspective was that Matheny really didn’t trust any of his pitchers. He didn’t trust Lynn to go against this team, with good reason. He didn’t really trust Wacha, I don’t think, but he didn’t have a lot of choice there. He didn’t trust Lyons to be up for the moment, which seems a little silly given how he handled the clincher in Pittsburgh. So I think he tried to make the best of a bad situation. Run Lackey in Game 4, then you have a fully rested (and hopefully healthy) Garcia for Game 5, with all these long arms to help out so he could yank Garcia at a moment’s notice. It didn’t work out that way and I’m not sure I’d have done it, but I do get the gist of what he might have been thinking.
–The starting rotation really, really missed Carlos Martinez. A healthy Martinez in Game 2, perhaps Garcia is healthy in Game 3 and you can go with Wacha in four knowing that you have Lackey and Martinez for the deciding game. There’s no guarantee the outcome would have been different, but it seems so likely that they could have taken both games in St. Louis had he been available.
–For all the talk about the manager, let’s be frank: the players really didn’t get it done. It’s amazing that the club hit eight home runs over this stretch, but it came at a high cost. St. Louis struck out 48 times in four games. 48! They were one strike away in the last game from twice having two on and nobody out only to see three straight strikeouts. Only Tony Cruz‘s double spared them of that fate. The Cubs actually struck out 48 times as well, but with their power game, that’s the trade off they’ve had all year. The Cardinals, on the other hand, don’t have the power Chicago does. St. Louis hit eight homers in four games, as I said, but the Cubs hit six in Game 3 alone. They wound up with 12 in the series, many at key times. Power can make up for a lot of things. St. Louis seemed to try to play at Chicago’s game and, not surprisingly, they weren’t able to do so.
–Holliday went 2 for 16. Jhonny Peralta, 2 for 14. Kolten Wong, 2 for 14. Matt Carpenter, 4 for 17. The big bats weren’t able to consistently provide offense. It’s tough to keep things going when outs are up and down the lineup. It also means that most folks don’t have a lot of faith in your ability to come back.
–That said, kudos to Heyward and the man who was team MVP in my book, Stephen Piscotty. Piscotty hit three of the eight homers, batted .375, and didn’t look at all like a rookie. He did lead the team in strikeouts (with eight) but I’ll give him a pass for that because of the rest of his all-around game. He also played first like a pro and was a rock for this team. While that two-run homer to lead off Game 4 didn’t last, it sure did wonders for some Cardinal hearts for a couple of innings.
–Coming into this series, the idea was to get into that Chicago bullpen because there was some soft meat in there that could be used for expanding leads or rallying the cause. Instead, the Cubs got 14.1 innings out of their relievers and saw them allow just five runs, two of which just were icing in Game 1, two of which made Game 3 a little closer but still not vital. Their relievers walked one batter–just one!–in the whole entire series while striking out 21. The Cubs bullpen had the better ERA (3.14 to 3.63), the same number of strikeouts (21) in three less innings, and blew just one save opportunity which would have been today when the Cards tied it up in the sixth. This was not the way we drew it up, was it?
–There wasn’t much to like on the pitching side, save Lackey’s Game 1 start of course. It was good, however, to see Wainwright throw 5.1 innings, including coming out of the pen on back-to-back days, and really seem to show no ill effects. He did get touched for a home run in Game 3 which loomed large, but since basically everybody in that game gave up a home run, it’s hard to place a lot of blame on his shoulders.
It’s late and I’ve got to get to bed (I’ll set this to post in the morning) but I think that pretty much encapsulates this series. It’s frustrating to know that a decision here or a better executed pitch there or a even a groundout instead of a strikeout in a certain spot could have at least extended this to five games or perhaps given the Cardinals a series win. It would have been an upset, I think, which is strange given the Cards were a 100-win team, but it could have happened. I don’t know that it would have mattered, given the worn-out pitching staff. When you have trouble finding pitchers for a five-game series, a seven-gamer is even more problematic. Toss in the staffs that the Mets and Dodgers have to a lineup that was striking out so often and it’d have been stunning to see St. Louis in the World Series. Perhaps it is just as well to go out here, to let people start resting and start planning for 2016. If it wasn’t for it being the Cubs that won, I’d probably be able to be at peace with it much sooner.
When the offseason begins, posting tends to be a little more sparse around here. I’ll have the Exit Interview series either at the end of October or the beginning of November. The United Cardinal Bloggers will be doing a roundtable, so we’ll have some of that here. The Cardinal Blogger Awards are in November and I’ll have my ballot for that. I’ve got a huge stack of books, some read, many unread, that I need to do reviews on so you may see a lot of those. And don’t forget, the Cardinal Twitter follows project is still going on, so please participate in that and you’ll see those posts sometime in November as well.
When there’s news, I’ll usually get around to commenting on it. We may look at the 2016 roster, but I’m never very good at those sort of machinations. And there’s a little movie coming out in December, so you never know when that might get the creative juices flowing. I appreciate all of you that have been along for the ride and your comments here and on Twitter make my day and encourage me to keep going. We live in a wonderful era of Cardinal baseball. This latest season might have ended with a sour taste, but the World Series window is still open. We are blessed!