Questioning Matheny's bullpen strategy

By Stephen Nations

ST. LOUIS (KSDK) – Let's get the qualifiers out of the way. I like Mike Matheny. I like his hard-nosed attitude, and how he always has his player's backs. He was the second best catcher I've ever witnessed in person (and yes, I saw Pudge Rodriguez play). He's also a good guy and a fine face for the franchise.

Now if only he could manage a bullpen.

I'm being a little bit harsh. Matheny isn't incapable. The players seem to like him, he says all the right things, and although I've never been in the clubhouse for a pre-game speech, he seems like he's a good leader. It's Matheny's ability to navigate his way through a ballgame that I question. More and more lately, I'm finding myself wondering if this is the right guy to be calling the shots. There were several times last week that I wanted to sprint down to the dugout and ask Mike "WHY!!!???" but instead I'll just highlight two big examples here.

Example No. 1: Monday, May 12th, bottom of the 2nd. The Cardinals are already trailing the Chicago Cubs 7-2, but showing signs of life. Mark Ellis just singled home two runs and advanced to third when Cubs left fielder Junior Lake overran the ball in the outfield. The pitcher's spot is up and Ellis is on third representing the third run of the game for the Cardinals, a big run, as it puts the Cards within slam-distance, should he score.

Tyler Lyons, having already allowed seven runs over the course of the first two innings and obviously laboring without his best stuff, is allowed to bat. Not only is the young lefthander allowed to bat, but also Matheny doesn't even have anyone throwing in the bullpen. Not only does Lyons strike out to end the inning, he coughs up two more runs over the next two innings and is mercifully pulled after allowing two more runs by the end of the 4th. The Cubs would go on to give the Birds their worst drubbing of the season, a 17-5 loss.

Not that St. Louis could have won this game, but maybe they could have. By leaving Lyons in to bat with a runner on third and then letting him go get pounded on for two more innings, Matheny sends the message that he's just trying to get through the game without burning too many bullpen arms. He uses the inexperienced Eric Fornataro for two innings, Seth Maness for one, Pat Neshek for one, and brings in Randy Choate for the 9th to pitch a full inning.

Of course, Choate gets lit up for six runs while only recording two outs, ballooning his ERA to almost 7.00, a hill he's going to be climbing for months if he wants to looks respectable on the back of his baseball card in 2014. This happened because Choate is not that kind of pitcher. He doesn't work his way through a full inning facing lefties and righties. He's the quintessential lefty specialist, and for some reason Matheny wanted to see if he could get a full inning out of him. If Matheny hits for Lyons, the Cardinals possibly score their third run in the second inning, Martinez comes in for multiple innings (like he needs to be doing if he's going to start by season's end) with a purpose, and the Cardinals feel like they have something to play for, only down four runs with seven innings left to play.

Example No. 2: Sunday, May 18th. Matheny sends out closer Trevor Rosenthal with the Cardinals leading 5-4 to start the 9th. Rosenthal gives up a single to Freddie Freeman, gets a strikeout and a pop-up, then allows a two out double to Ryan Doumit before intentionally walking Evan Gattis to load the bases. The light-hitting Jordan Schaefer then walks on a 3-2 pitch to bring in the tying run. Carlos Martinez is finally brought in; he throws a wild pitch, the Cardinals lose 6-5.

I don't argue with bringing in Rosenthal here. He's your closer and you have a one-run lead in the 9th. No better time to use him. What I do take issue with is in the days leading up to this, Rosenthal was used three days in a row, and one of them was a five out save. I could have kissed Matheny when he brought in Rosy for five outs. I thought he was finally going against conventional wisdom to do what he thought needed to be done to end a game.

But then on Friday and Saturday, Rosenthal comes in to pitch the 9th with three run leads both times. This is where the "save" stat gets us in trouble. Rosenthal was not needed for those three outs on Friday and Saturday, but since it was a save situation, he came in and threw 26 pitches and wasn't sharp for when he was actually needed with a one-run lead on Sunday.

I took found Matheny's post-game explanation a bit troubling, too. "We were one pitch away. He's a tough kid and he wanted the ball today. As soon as he got to two outs, it's his game. Today it just did not work out." This was Matheny's explanation for why he stuck with Rosenthal without his best stuff. That's troubling to me. That basically says that he put no weight on the fact that Rosenthal has thrown 55 pitches over the weekend already and countless more warming up in the bullpen. He just gave him the ball because he "wanted" it and it was "his game". That's the kind of blind loyalty that will get the Cardinals in to trouble as the season wears on.

Don't be blindly loyal, Cardinals fans; question everything, including your manager's use of his bullpen.

Stephen Nations is an aspiring sports and Cardinals columnist. He will be contributing his commentary to during the 2014 season. You can follow him on twitter at @Nayshface.


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