COMMENTARY | Maybe the St. Louis Cardinals should worry less about the home-plate umpire's strike zone or exuberant player celebrations and focus more on actually playing the game.
After treating fans to an evening of The Redbird Follies, complete with dropped-ball hijinks and strike-zone whining, the Cardinals players then decided to further play up their popular villain status by engaging in a bit of passive-aggressive finger-pointing.
Yasiel Puig did a little dance, showed a little fire, eh? Did he hurt your feelings? Here's an idea, then -- how about actually keeping him off base? Or, I don't know, catching the ball?
Or how about we get really crazy and actually score some runs?
The Cardinals' efforts against the Los Angeles Dodgers of the Semi-Theatrical Cuban League were little more than pathetic. Sure, hitting hasn't been much of a strong point in the St. Louis squad's previous October contests, but that little problem could be explained away by the presence of purely dominant pitching in the postseason.
Pitching, at least in 2013, is dominating October.
But not catching the ball? Making baserunning blunders in scoring position in a two-run game? Failing to communicate in the outfield?
And so is whining to the umpire about the strike zone while you're getting your collective you-know-what handed to you in the field.
The zone is the zone is the zone. Deal with it. Focus on playing the game. And while you're at it, let's try making solid contact at the plate once in a while.
Honestly, I'm shocked by the lackluster play of the Cardinals in Game 3. This is not the team that took the field for 162 regular-season games. This is not the team that shined in October, from 2006 to 2011. This is not the team that -- oh, but wait a minute.
Let's think about this for a moment. It seems to me we've seen this Cardinals team fumble away controlling position in the NLCS before, right? We don't even have to look that far back, just one season ago, in fact.
In 2012, manager Mike Matheny's battling birds fought their way to a three-games-to-one lead over the San Francisco Giants. Through the first four games, the Cardinals scored a total of 18 runs and could feel the Fall Classic calling their names.
And then the wheels fell off.
Matheny's Redbirds scored a total of one run for the rest of the series (three games) and lost the NLCS to the eventual World Series champions in San Francisco.
Let's be clear here -- the players, not the manager, are ultimately responsible for what takes place on the field. At the end of the day, it's the hitters, fielders and pitchers that have to answer for the results of any baseball game, a few questionable managerial calls aside of course.
But at this stage in the game, the question must be asked: Does Mike Matheny know how to get this team to the finish line? Can he close the deal?
The former Cardinals catcher is well-known and respected for his ability to lead men and maintain an even-keel atmosphere that's been called welcoming and comfortable while also professional. That culture has been credited more than once for helping the Cardinals endure a long and grueling season that ended with 97 wins, tied for the best mark in all of baseball, and an NL Central title.
Is it also to blame for a less-inspired, professionally apathetic clubhouse in series-clinching situations? Is it possible that the very strength of a Mike Matheny clubhouse is also the Achilles heel of the Cardinals in the postseason?
Sure, Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS was an inspired comeback, but was that the result of Matheny's presence or the presence of players hardened by their experiences in the 2011 World Series run? For that matter, is it individual pitching performances, not culture, that has propelled the Cardinals even this far in October?
This team is showing the professionalism and consistency that carried them through the long months of summer. But what this team needs is a little bit of fire, a little bit of focus and fight that can carry them across the finish line. To get them there, Mike Matheny is going to have to shift gears a bit and encourage his players to treat these games a bit differently than game 87 of the regular season.
It's time to dig deep and show some grit, not lie down and treat every game as if it's just another game in June. No one will ever accuse the St. Louis Cardinals players -- or their manager, for that matter -- of not caring. But the business-as-usual approach is not getting it done.
Game 3 had the look and feel of a game being played by players told not to screw up, not to make mistakes -- "Be careful," Matheny may have said, "and just play the game."
All well and good for games being played in May. But this is the playoffs. Matheny needs to find a way, within his message, to give this team permission to go after it, to play aggressively and to reach out and grab an NLCS winner.
Otherwise, the Cardinals may once again find themselves answering questions about what might have been and the NLCS loss that "sticks with them" in spring training next year.
Matheny's team has run the marathon. The question now is, can he get them to sprint?
Kevin Reynolds is the author of Stl Cards 'N Stuff and host of The State of the Nation Address podcast at Stl Cards 'N Stuff. He's been writing and podcasting about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2007 and can be found chatting about baseball on Twitter (@deckacards).
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- Mike Matheny