Can’t Anyone Here Play This Game?

Last night, the 2018 Cardinals looked like they could take their place along one of the most legendary teams in baseball history.  Not the 1927 Yankees.  Not the 1975 Reds.  Not the 2001 Mariners.

No, last night the Cardinals looked like they were a match for the 1962 New York Mets.

We’ve seen bad games from the Cardinals this year, seen them too often to count.  Last night, however, had almost every single ugly possibility all wrapped into nine innings.  Long stretches without a hit?  Check.  Terrible fielding, both marked errors and not?  Check.  Bad starting pitching?  Check.  Runs against the bullpen?  Check.  A position player pitching?  Check.

That last one is pretty telling.  Mike Matheny hates–hates–to use a position player on the mound.  Rusty Groppel pointed out on Twitter last night that he had done it three times in his career as a manager before this season.  Yet in basically the span of two weeks, he’s had to go to both Jedd Gyorko against Miami and Greg Garcia last night.  Without looking it up, my guess would be that’s the closest between position players pitching outings in Cardinal history save for the 20-inning game against the Mets in 2010 when Joe Mather and Felipe Lopez both had to be pressed into service.  (Running out of pitchers before the other team and double-switching out Albert Pujols‘s protection–people flipped out about the latter especially even with it being Tony La Russa managing.  If Matheny did that, computers would literally melt.)

This seems to be the state of Cardinal baseball right now.  It’s gotten away from expecting to win and gotten into hoping.  I believe I said this on Twitter recently but while rebellions are built on hope, I’m not sure that’s a great foundation for a winning baseball team.  While last night hopefully was the nadir on the season (because if there’s a worse game coming, I don’t want to be around for it), there’s no expectation that in general that was an aberration.  It’s not like that it was a strange night because the Cardinals made four errors–their defense is suspect at best most times.  It’s not that it was a strange night because Carlos Martinez couldn’t get to the fifth–the starting pitching is starting to show cracks from their great run and will moreso with Michael Wacha on the disabled list.  It’s not that it was a strange night that the offense was fairly quiet–we all know how frustrating these hitters can be.  Some nights one thing will work.  Some nights a couple of things might.  Getting everything to click, though, is a rare thing.  We saw it Sunday against the Cubs.  That’s really the only time this week it’s all come together.

I hate to put too much emphasis on a manager getting worked up.  Sometimes histrionics are overrated.  However, given how frustrating this game was, how ugly it was, it might have at least made the fans feel better had Matheny come out guns blazing in the post-game press conference.  Now, maybe he lit into them in the clubhouse and he wants to keep that in-house, which is legitimate, and you could tell he was angry in his clinched jaw and shorter words, but I think he could have gone a little stronger than this:

“Wasn’t one of those games that we like to put our name to,” Matheny said. “Things could go in the wrong direction, and they did. We’re a better team than that. That’s all there is to it. That’s the message. It didn’t look like we want to look. Call it what you want. It’s just not how we want to look.”

Is it so hard to say, “That was an unacceptable performance by a team wearing a St. Louis Cardinal uniform”?  Is it overly tough to say, “We’re not going to play like that tomorrow one way or another”?  Is it too overbearing to say, “I apologize to the fanbase that watched that one”?

Again, I have no idea how the conversation went in the clubhouse but if past history is any indication, you won’t ever be able to tell that anything happened.  There won’t be any lineup shakeup.  There won’t be anyone benched.  There won’t be any one thing that happens that you can point to and say, “OK, they understand how bad that was.”

After all, Matheny said this close to the end of his comments, which might show you that there is something to being TOO optimistic.

Now, I’ll give Matheny a bit of the benefit of the doubt.  While Zach and others feel like he was talking about the eighth, he well might have been talking about the fact that they were down 7-2 in the fifth after Yairo Munoz doubled in Yadier Molina.  Miller Park is a bit of an offensive park (at least, that’s what it seems, I don’t know the park factor) and I can understand that you might not feel out of it at five runs down with four innings to go.  Except for that small fact that Milwaukee’s bullpen is really good and Josh Hader is going to come out of that pen if you even get it close.  (If Matheny was talking about the eighth, where after a grand slam they’d still be down five, then he’s even more delusional than I thought.)

Which leads you to the clubhouse culture argument and whether it is time for a new voice leading this group.  I don’t know.  Selfishly, I enjoy talking with bullpen catcher Jamie Pogue every season and odds are a change at manager would affect his job status as well, at least eventually.  I’m never on the fire anyone bandwagon anyway because that’s a huge disruption to someone’s life, but I also know that when you become manager, you realize that a day will come when you’ll be let go.  Heck, they fired Red Schoendienst as manager once!  Upending someone’s life is sadly not a good enough reason to keep someone at the help of a multi-million dollar organization.

We’ve talked for the last couple of years about this club seems to be missing that edge.  The TLR years were full of edges, from the manager to a lot of players like Chris Carpenter and Albert Pujols.  And we tend to forget that at this time in 2011, we were starting to wonder if that hard edge had become something that was detrimental.  Since 2006, after all, the club had one playoff appearance and was swept by the Dodgers.  They had faded in 2010 and it looked like 2011 was going to be the same.  There does come a time when the managerial style and voice becomes tuned out or a change is needed.

You could make the argument that the club has gone the softer route with Matheny and it’s starting now to cost them.  We thought that Tommy Pham brought that fire and edge to the clubhouse but you don’t hear those stories this year.  Maybe because it’s not new, maybe he’s not doing it at much, maybe it’s just not enough.  However, the leadership of the clubhouse always should come from the manager.  If he’s not pushing the guys to do better, if he’s not making them realize that games like last night are unacceptable, then he definitely needs to go.

It’s starting to feel like Matheny’s coming to the end of his rope with the organization.  Greg Holland is starting to come around, but I feel like his push to sign Holland and the resultant mess may be a mark against him.  He’s missed the playoffs for two years in a row and this team has a notable downward trajectory since 2013.  I’m not saying it’s all his fault or a new manager would immediately turn things around but a manager takes responsibility for the good and the bad.  He got perhaps more credit from some quarters than he should for 2012-2015, he’s probably getting more blame than he should from some quarters for 2016-2018.  At the end of the day, though, the buck will stop with Matheny whether he wants it to or not.

Even without John Mozeliak’s recent pronouncements, I wouldn’t expect Matheny to be removed in the middle of the year.  The club will do what they can at the trade deadline to shore up issues and see how the last part of the year goes.  At the end of September, though, I feel like the odds are stronger that a change is coming (assuming no turnaround run to the playoffs) than we’ve ever had before.

All this and we’ve not gotten into the game itself, but there’s really no reason to spend a ton of time talking about it.  I’m going to give the Hero tag to Yairo Munoz due to his three hits and two RBI.  He had almost half of the team’s hits by himself, which is something that happens way too often with this squad.  The offense always seems to be focused on a player, maybe two.  Those games where everyone gets involved are great but they feel too few.

Matt Carpenter gave the high point of the game on the first pitch, belting it out of the park to dead center field.  Unfortunately, that was it until the fifth and there wasn’t much more after that.  Carpenter also was one of those with an error which bumped him out of Hero status.

As for a Goat, it’s hard to narrow it down.  Jedd Gyorko flew out in the top of the seventh and was so frustrated he dropped his bat as soon as he swung.  Then he came out and make a fielding error and a throwing error that helped lead to the last four runs the Brewers put up.  Marcell Ozuna went 0-4 and completely botched a ball in the bottom of the first, scaling the wall to take away a home run only to find the ball didn’t quite make it that far.  I can understand that Ozuna guessed where it was going, looked away to see where the wall was, and was surprised to find it didn’t carry as much as he thought, but it was still a terrible look.  (And Tommy Pham didn’t do a great job of backing him up there, which isn’t completely out of character for Pham either.)  Pham himself went 0-4 with two strikeouts and left three men on base.

However, we’re going to have to put the tag on Carlos Martinez.  Needing a big game from the pitcher that is supposed to be their ace against the divisional leaders, Martinez….well, he didn’t walk folks like he had been.  Matheny said after the game they’d been talking to him about throwing strikes.  Unfortunately, they didn’t differentiate between hittable strikes and good strikes.  Again, you can look at misplays like the one Ozuna had and realize it wasn’t all his fault, but even that ball was hit hard.  It should have been a hard out, but it wasn’t like Ozuna dropped a can of corn.

Whether things would have been different if he’d gotten out of the first with a lead, I don’t know, but I have trouble believing it would have been given how the rest of his time went.  He allowed three doubles (one of those was the Ozuna play that would have been scored an error by a different tradition of scoring) and a home run in his four innings of work.  Seven runs, five of them earned.  But he only walked two, so that’s some sort of improvement?  Probably not, especially since there were two wild pitches, including one that looked weird and painful and allowed a run, but apparently was just due to being crossed up.  (Usually you just throw the pitch, Carlos, and let Yadi worry about catching it.)

I don’t know what’s going on with Martinez.  There’s no medical indication that he’s hurt but it’s hard not to jump to that conclusion.  He’s not looked right since returning from the DL.  In those four starts, he has a 8.10 ERA, has gone just 16.2 innings total, and has given up a slash line of .333/.484/.493 to opposing hitters.  I think the STL Bullpen Twitter account said it best last night.  We’re to the point where we want him to be hurt because at least that explains things.  He may have other things going on in his life or maybe he’s just not comfortable yet, but whatever the case he either needs to get right or tell someone if he’s hurting.  This team needs consistent starting pitching and they need their ace to be the ace.

Speaking of Martinezes, Jose Martinez played last night after suffering that wrist/shoulder injury.  He still didn’t look completely comfortable, though it didn’t stop him from his normal preparatory gyrations in the batter’s box, and went 0-4 but only struck out once.  His swings didn’t seem quite as full, though, and it was tough to tell in the field if anything was bothering him, given his normal fielding prowess.  It’s going to be interesting to track his production from here on and see if he’s trying to play through an injury.  Which, of course, is a tradition around these parts.

John Gant wound up throwing 41 pitches, in large part due to the errors behind him, and got tagged for four unearned runs when Eric Thames came within inches of a grand slam.  (Credit Pham there–he did wind up knocking that down when he jumped at the wall, even if he couldn’t make the play.  Not that one run made a lot of difference.)  While Matheny wouldn’t rule him out for Monday’s start that Wacha should be taking, and another contender for that spot Daniel Poncedeleon threw 45 in Memphis, I’m not real excited about either of them starting a game on two days’ rest after throwing that many pitches.  Not saying that it would impact their stuff that much–I don’t know–but it would probably turn into a bullpen game fairly quickly as they would probably be limited to around 60 pitches or so. Dakota Hudson would be the other option and while I’m not expecting the club to go that way–the path of least resistance is always strong around here–it might be a nice kick for the team.

Last night was a mess.  Tonight surely can’t be worse.  If it is, perhaps Mozeliak needs to revisit how long he wants to keep Matheny employed.  It’s Jack Flaherty versus Junior Guerra tonight.  Guerra’s done very well against the Cardinals (and most teams!) this season so Flaherty really needs to be on his game, as do the rest of the Cardinals.  We’ll see if they can be.

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