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St. Louis Cardinals', Mike Matheny's Last Stand

St. Louis Cardinals Manager Faces Need for Change in Elimination Game(s)

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COMMENTARY | The St. Louis Cardinals are one loss away from the end of their season. Someone better wake up manager Mike Matheny and let him know before the start of Game 6 in Boston.

Matheny's been an interesting study as a young manager under the glare of MLB playoff games in October. His pitching changes have been dubious -- sometimes siding with matchups, other times going with "live" stuff or loyalty -- and his ability to impact a mostly ineffective offensive performance called into question.

But the manager's margin of error is now gone. The Redbirds' backs are against the giant green wall in Fenway Park, and Matheny must take a hard look at his approach heading into the final contest(s) of the season.

Here are five things Matheny must do, or not do, to keep the Cardinals' season alive in Game 6:

Don't hesitate to pull Michael Wacha. Matheny's tendency to push his starting pitchers deeper into games is an excellent practice -- if we're talking about games in June or July. In the playoffs, quick hooks can save seasons.

The Red Sox's hitters have seen Wacha now, and his devastating changeup is no longer a mystery. They will make adjustments.

If Matheny continues to leave his starting pitcher in to face ill-advised hitters -- such as Adam Wainwright against Jacoby Ellsbury in Game 5 -- the Red Sox are bound to capitalize.

Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn should be ready to go if needed.

Don't play mad scientist with the lineup. In Game 5, pulling Carlos Beltran from a normally productive No. 2 spot made no sense. I understand Matheny is looking for hits in the clean-up spot, but if Allen Craig can't hit fourth against a left-handed pitcher, why force him into the lineup at first base?

Against the right-handed John Lackey, Matheny would be smart to roll out a standard Cardinals batting order as follows:

1. Matt Carpenter 2B, 2. Carlos Beltran RF, 3. Matt Holliday LF, 4. Allen Craig DH, 5. Yadier Molina C, 6. Matt Adams 1B, 7. David Freese 3B, 8. Jon Jay CF, and 9. Daniel Descalso SS.

There's been some talk about removing Freese and plugging Descalso in at third base. The idea might have merit if Pete Kozma was hitting at all. But, for the moment, as flat as Freese looks at the plate, he's still a better offensive bet than Kozma.

Look for Matheny to go with Descalso's bat over Kozma's defense at short to start the game.

Use the lefties against David Ortiz. Ortiz looks like he's swinging a bat made from enchanted wood. Matheny should be familiar with the concept. In the 2004 playoffs, he saw the same type of unstoppable force in Carlos Beltran with the Houston Astros.

But where Beltran's switch-hitting capability made it difficult to take advantage of matchups, this time, Matheny actually has a viable solution in the bullpen.

His name is Randy Choate.

Ortiz tagged Wacha for a home run last time out, and he's fully capable of doing it again the second time around. If the two are allowed to lock horns after the sixth inning with men on base and Choate still available, Matheny will be publicly -- and deservedly -- eviscerated by the local and national media.

Find a way to reboot the offensive software that drives the Cardinals' offense. In the NLCS, we saw a Cardinals lineup that was relentless and focused on keeping the line moving. "Get the at-bat to the guy behind me" became a grinding mission statement the Cardinals were able to draft to victory.

But the pressure of the World Series has taken its toll.

Typically calm hitters have struggled to stay within themselves, attempting to win the game with one swing and "be the guy" with runners on base in the latter innings. Matheny must find a way to remind his offense of what got them here in the first place.

Patience. Working counts. Taking the ball up the middle. And smart, team at-bats that keep the line moving.

They can't go toe-to-toe with the Red Sox attack in Fenway, but they can wear it down.

Breathe. In the 2012 NLCS, the Cardinals looked overwhelmed in the final game of a three-game collapse to the San Francisco Giants. Their manager looked shocked. Some would even say he quit managing, unable to process and impact what was happening on the field in front of him.

This time around, Mike needs to be prepared. Elimination games can get out of hand quickly.

Wacha may come out and dominate yet again -- but he may not. A seasoned Boston team could very well set the young righty on fire from the outset, and Matheny must be ready to react.

Lackey is fully capable of putting this St. Louis squad to bed for the winter as well, and the manager and hitting coach John Mabry must have a response ready to go. Contingency plans are a must, as are previously discussed pitching match-ups and situational moves.

Matheny cannot afford to let this game get away from him. Not this time.

It's time to step up and show everyone -- players, fans, media and the opposition -- just how much he's learned since 2012 came to a very bitter end.

Otherwise, he'll find himself answering the same questions in next year's spring training pressers.

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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