Every manager must go through his first pennant race, and at times nearly impossible decisions need to be made, for better or worse, when a team faces adversity. Cardinals manager Mike Shildt found himself in a difficult situation on Sunday against the Brewers. Closer Carlos Martinez was dealing with respiratory problems, according to Shildt, which was known before the game. Martinez had spent Saturday night in the hospital. John Gant started the ninth inning with a one run lead. And Junior Fernandez finished the inning after allowing a grand slam. That just can’t happen in a pennant race. Junior Fernandez can’t be facing Ryan Braun with the bases loaded and a one run lead. But it happened.
With all due respect, how is a guy pitching in his ninth big league game, a guy who has five walks in eight and a third innings, on the mound with the bases loaded and a 4-3 lead in a key September game? That, to me, is incomprehensible.
Shildt got five shutout innings out of Michael Wacha, and he left the game with a 1-0 lead. Five innings out of Wacha with a chance to win the game is a win for Shildt, and he did the right thing by pinch hitting for Wacha and going to Genesis Cabrera, who pitched a 1-2-3 sixth but allowed a hit to his only hitter in the seventh before being replaced by Ryan Helsley…again the correct move…even though Helsley gave up a two run homer to Cory Spangenberg.
Geovanny Gallegos finished the seventh. Andrew Miller gave up an unearned run in the eighth. And the problems started in the ninth.
Miller could have faced Hernan Perez or lefty pinch hitter Ben Gamel to start the ninth, but Shildt had apparently designated John Gant, who had been terrific lately, as his closer. Gant had allowed a run in just one of his last six outings, so relying on him seemed reasonable. The problem was, Shildt didn’t rely on Gant. He lets Martinez work his way out of trouble all the time, but didn’t do that with Gant.
After walking the first two hitters, striking out the third and then walking the bases loaded, Shildt rushed Tyler Webb into action to face Mike Moustakas, who flied out. Two away.
John Brebbia had thrown a nineteen-pitch inning on Thursday and an eighteen-pitch inning on Saturday. In September, he MUST be available to face Ryan Braun, even though Braun is 2-5 against him. Brebbia or Fernandez? Daniel Ponce de Leon, who was well rested with seven days since his last outing? Braun was 1-2 against him, but he had more experience and better control than Fernandez.
As you know by now, it wasn’t Brebbia. It wasn’t Ponce. It was Fernandez who came on. He got ahead 1-2, then threw two straight balls and got Braun to foul one off. Then, boom. Grand slam for Braun into the left center field bleachers.
This was simply a bad choice by Shildt. Yes, I know Fernandez has been immune to the gopher ball, allowing just fourteen in 392 2/3 minor league innings. But it was September 15, in the majors, with a three-game lead about to shrink to two.
That was not the place to pitch Junior Fernandez. If it’s Brebbia or even Ponce de Leon, you could work up an excuse. But putting a rookie in his ninth major league game in that spot? That’s a loss that’s on the manager.