Many members of Cardinal Nation became incredibly upset early on Sunday afternoon when, with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs on the line, they saw Mike Matheny’s final-day lineup.
It had Jake Westbrook as the starting pitcher, Shane Robinson playing left field for Matt Holliday, Kolten Wong at second and Matt Carpenter at third, rather than Carpenter at second and David Freese at third. The din grew louder when catcher Yadier Molina took his position behind the plate, and was ceremoniously removed to an ovation in response to his outstanding season.
The Twitterverse went crazy:
The game outcome is still TBD, but I just don't agree with giving Westy the ball today. Matheny trying to be nice, but homefield on the line
— Kyle Thompson (@KyleOKC) September 29, 2013
I don't care what the Cards do in the playoffs, I'll never be on board with Matheny, now and probably never.
— Scott (@stlredbirds85) September 29, 2013
@StullySTL if we do lose this game and lose home field I really hope the media grills Matheny. This makes no sense to me in a must have game
— Aaron Gaitens (@STLBills) September 29, 2013
@RandyKarraker matheny realizes this game counts, right?
— Ross Gordon (@BossGordon808) September 29, 2013
Well, apparently Matheny had an idea of what his team and its opposition were capable of. Westbrook pitched one scoreless inning and then, as planned, Joe Kelly came on. Kelly delivered 5 1/3 scoreless innings before Randy Choate, Carlos Martinez and then Kevin Siegrist finished up a 4-0 shutout.
After Jon Jay drove in the first run of the game, the other RBIs came from Tony Cruz, who replaced Molina, Robinson and Daniel Descalso. So, everything worked out.
During Tony La Russa’s 16 years as Cardinal manager, we would see this kind of reaction when he would sent out a getaway day lineup and many citizens of Cardinal Nation would moan, Ooh, this lineup doesn’t have a chance today.” Invariably, the Cardinals would score enough to win, and La Russa would be proven right.
There are two things about Matheny’s maneuvers on Sunday. Sure, many people didn’t agree with it. But Matheny has a better grasp of how his players feel and what they’re capable of on a particular day than any of us.
Secondly, and most important, Matheny has laid the groundwork for a long and productive career as the manager of the Cardinals, in part because players want to run through a brick wall for him. It took La Russa some time to get his clubhouse back after the way the Scott Rolen situation unfolded in 2006-2007. As great as La Russa was as a manager, he lost some players by asking them to play hurt and risking more injury, and by concerning himself with the statistics of some – but not all – of his players.
Matheny is a little different in that regard, perhaps because he played so recently. Sitting Holliday to get him a .300 average is going to be a move that Holliday won’t forget. Taking out Molina before the game started, and allowing him to take a bow after the injury-riddled season he endured so that he didn’t risk more injury before the playoffs, is going to be greatly appreciated for a long time. And pitching Westbrook, a popular figure in the clubhouse, gives players an idea of how Matheny will treat good guys who contribute to the program.
As September’s 18-8 record shows us, Matheny can count on strong performances from all of his players. The Cardinals deployed 44 guys in 2013, and almost all of them contributed at one point or another. Indeed, he got strong performances from his bench on Sunday as the Cardinals clinched home field throughout the National League playoffs.
This is a group that, like every other major leaguer playing in October, is going to be physically exhausted. But Matheny has done a great job of getting his players mentally stimulated and emotionally engaged. What we saw at the beginning of Sunday’s game may not have seemed like the smart move, but the end result is what every Cardinal fan wanted. And I kind of think Matheny had an idea had a better idea of the outcome than the naysayers gave him credit for.