The St. Louis Cardinals stole fewer bases than every other big-league team this season. Contrary to what Tim McCarver told you, they’re a poor base-running team. The only virtue of their running game is that it doesn’t exist, that they are so conservative on the base paths that the NL’s best OBP offense never ran itself out of innings.
It takes chutzpah, after a season of such careful comportment, to suddenly unleash two men on a double-steal attempt in Game Two of the World Series. That, though, is precisely what Cardinals manager Mike Matheny did. And it worked like a charm.
Extreme circumstances conspired to make this the percentage play. First of all, two batters reached base with one out, and Matheny pinch-ran for the lead man (David Freese, who represented the tying run, gave way to Pete Kozma). That they represented the tying and go-ahead runs ensured that a steal would be a high-leverage coup. That Daniel Descalso–whose lone redemptive quality, at the plate, is contact, who could have been a double-play mark but became a real threat once the runners advanced–was due took some pressure off Matheny. Run into an out with Matt Holliday at bat and you’ll hear about it for a while. Do so with Descalso up, and people sympathize.
The last factor might have been the one Matheny was most qualified to recognize and exploit: Jarrod Saltalamacchia is a terrible controller of the running game behind the plate. He allowed more opponent steals than any other catcher this season. It’s just not in Saltalamacchia’s skill set to stop that play from working.
After the steal, Descalso drew a walk, which could be construed as evidence that the steal didn’t really matter. I disagree. As I said, Descalso is a contact guy. Once there was a runner at third and no force out to be had, the Red Sox were wise, I think, to pitch around Descalso. That created the bases-loaded situation in which Matt Carpenter hit a sacrifice fly, one that turned into a scene from a slapstick baseball comedy, and on which scored two more runs, and on which Descalso took third, and so was able to score on Carlos Beltran’s single.
Having put his team in a position to succeed in taking the lead, Matheny then turned his attention to holding the advantage. With Michael Wacha done for the night, Matheny summoned Carlos Martinez to pitch the bottom of the seventh.
That seemed a strange choice, at first. Martinez has become the primary set-up man for St. Louis, what we’d ordinarily call an eighth-inning guy. The bottom of the batting order was due. This made it immediately clear that Matheny had tremendous confidence in Martinez and closer Trevor Rosenthal. It still looked risky, though.
Martinez headed off any second-guessing at the pass, with gas. He got six outs, and facing one of the game’s more notorious fastball hitters (Mike Napoli) with a pair of runners on, he threw a fastball to induce a rally-ending pop-up.
From there, Matheny let it be the Rosenthal show. The closer closed, striking out the side in order in the ninth. 4-2 Cardinals. Series tied.
Matheny isn’t my dream managerial hire. He got the Cardinals job with no previous experience as a professional manager, and it showed up and cost the Cardinals the 2012 NLCS. This, though, is why you always hire young. Matheny is 43. He’s not yet set in his ways. He’s learning on a sharp, steep, impressive curve, and he’s not being paternalistic or mistrustful of young players or role players. He’s taking the talent his front office assembled and looking for the best way to deploy it.
He still needs to develop a quicker hook for his lesser starting pitchers, especially Joe Kelly, and I’m not sure why Shelby Miller is in the doghouse. While his (still fairly smart) counterpart is busy starting Jonny Gomes over Daniel Nava against right-handed pitchers, though, Matheny is maximizing the value of just about every lineup spot. I hadn’t trusted him to start Shane Robinson over Jon Jay with lefty Jon Lester on the mound, but he did, and I’m betting he’ll do it again in St. Louis. Three cheers for managers who add to their team’s win probability in World Series games; they’re rare.Next post: The Accounts and Descriptions of This Game: World Series Game Three
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