ST. LOUIS – Three pitches cost the Cardinals Sunday. A questionable managerial decision made things worse. The result is a 1-0 deficit to the Washington Nationals in the National League Division Series.
For a team with a decisive advantage in postseason experience, the Cardinals were handed a rough reminder in Game 1 about making the most of their opportunities. They’ve now got a hole to climb out of because of it.
The Cardinals wasted a bases loaded, no out chance in the seventh inning and committed a key error that led to an interesting decision from first-year manager Mike Matheny and two unearned runs. And the results added up to a tough 3-2 loss at Busch Stadium.
“We had our opportunities,” Matheny said. “It just didn’t work out.”
Trouble began in earnest for the Cardinals in the bottom of the seventh inning when they loaded the bases with no outs and had a golden opportunity to add to their 2-1 lead. And they had their best two hitters for the situation up in Allen Craig and Yadier Molina.
But Molina swung at the first pitch from reliever Ryan Mattheus and grounded into a fielder’s choice when Washington got the force at home. Molina swung at the next pitch and grounded into a double play to end the inning. Two pitches, three outs, no runs.
“With the bases loaded and no outs, they don’t get much better than that,” Matheny summarized.
And he was right. Craig led the National League in batting average with runners in scoring position in the regular season and Molina is arguably the hitter Cardinals fans would rather have up in that spot over anybody else.
Instead the Cardinals turned a one-run lead over to Mitchell Boggs, their eighth inning guy all season and one of the best setup relievers in baseball. And Boggs did his job on the first pitch, getting a routine grounder to short.
But rookie Pete Kozma booted the ball and allowed Michael Morse to reach first base. The error opened the door for two unearned runs – the tying and winning runs – to score later in the inning.
“Out of 100 times, I maybe miss it once,” Kozma said. “It was just one of those games.”
Ian Desmond followed with a singles to put runners at the corners with no outs for Washington. A sacrifice bunt from Danny Espinosa put runners at second and third and one out before Boggs got Kurt Suzuki swinging for the second out.
But instead of letting him work out of the jam like he had numerous times this season, Matheny decided to call on lefty reliever Marc Rzepczynski when the Nationals sent lefty Chad Tracy up to pinch-hit.
Washington countered with the right-handed hitting Tyler Moore, who blooped a two-strike, two-run single off Rzepczynski to give the Nationals a 3-2 lead. The game finished with the same score.
“I was pretty amped up and ready to go after the next guy and to see him come out there, you give him the ball and go root on your teammates.” Boggs said. “By no means did I want to come out of that game, but I understand we’ve got guys down there that have gotten the job done many, many times and they are going to continue to do that.
“Chad Tracy is a professional hitter and has been at it a long time, but by no means was I intimidated by that situation. I was ready to continue to make pitches like I had the whole inning, but we went to a guy who has made a lot of big pitches for us and it just didn’t happen today. The ball fell in.”
The move seemed puzzling to most considering that Boggs had been allowed to face plenty of left-handers during the regular season and had little trouble retiring them. Rzepczynski was used just twice in the final two weeks of the season but has been thrown into big situations in both Friday’s wild card game and Sunday’s Game 1.
Matheny also could have elected to just go with closer Jason Motte for the four-out save. He could have had Motte pitch to Tracy or walk him to load the bases for the right-handed hitting Jayson Werth. Or he could have elected to just keep in Boggs, who wasn’t pitching that poorly and would have been out of the inning if not for Kozma’s error.
But the first-year manager learned about the risk and reward possibilities that come with making big decisions and big spots in the postseason. And his first experience in a key situation didn’t go his way.
“I had faith that if they did make a move to remove Tracy from the game, that Zep would be able to get out one of their young right-handed pinch-hitters,” Matheny said. “It didn’t work for us.
“He went up there and put together a good at-bat and made it happen. That was the game.”
Explaining why he elected not to bring in Motte in that spot, Matheny said, “We do that a good part of the time if we have a double switch there because his spot would have come up in the lineup and we would have lost him for the ninth.
“That decision comes down to whether I want to take out Holliday, Craig or Molina in that situation.”
Rzepczynski got the count to 2-2 by throwing a sinker on the outside corner that Moore tipped into Molina’s glove. He tried to throw the same pitch again but even further outside. It didn’t work.
“I threw it off the plate, a little bit up,” Rzepczynski said. “It was a good six inches off but being up, he got it off the end of the bat and was able to bloop it in there.
“I saw the 2-1 pitch and he swung and missed and I think Yadi’s thought process and I agree was going further out and it was, but it was up and he was able to get to it. He probably figured I was going to throw it and probably got to it enough and was able to hit it in the perfect spot.”
In addition to their chance in the seventh, the Cardinals wasted seven walks and a hit by pitch from Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez in the first five innings of the game.
The Nationals handed the Cardinals plenty of opportunities to win the game. But in Game 1 of the best-of-five series, the defending World Series champions did nothing with them. And they lost a big chance to take a series lead in the process.
“That’s a tough team over there and they capitalized when they needed to and we didn’t when we needed to,” said starter Adam Wainwright, who had 10 strikeouts and allowed just one run in 5 2/3 innings. “We’ll take our chances going into the eighth and ninth inning with our guys every single time. They just played a good two innings and you tip your cap to them. They did a good job.
“We have very solid back end of our bullpen. I was still very confident we were going to win that game. I think Zep probably made the pitch he wanted to. The guy just blooped a ball in. it was a good swing. Tip your cap.”