Clutch hitting: Matheny believes there's more where that came from
Aug 21, 2014 at 4:30p ET
ST. LOUIS -- Mike Matheny refuses to give in. Nearly 80 percent through the season and the Cardinals' manager still doesn't admit that the historic success the Cardinals enjoyed last year in the timely hitting department was little more than a historical outlier.
You can be sure he's familiar with the numbers, too. He knows that this year's .246 average with runners in scoring position is about right for a team hitting .254. He must know the difference between last year's .330 average with RISP and the team's overall .269 was as statistically improbable as going 106 years without winning a World Series.
But any Cubs fan knows the latter is possible. Matheny talks like someone who still believes the Cardinals should be the best clutch-hitting team in the game. He did so again the other night during a 6-1 homestand when the team did its best hitting with two outs.
"I keep going back to the fact that what we did last year wasn't a fluke," Matheny said. "Same approach, lot of the same characters. We just had a tougher time making that happen early in the season."
And now? "Guys are going about it the same way," he said. "I'm starting to see the benefits and the rewards of keeping that good approach in those situations. More than doing something drastically different, they're just staying the course."
He is right, partly so. In the long baseball season, bounces tend to even out. The Cardinals had more than their share of bad ones in the first months, so they're due for some to fall in their favor.
His players agree. Jon Jay, the catalyst to the team's just-completed homestand, doesn't see any difference in how the Cardinals are approaching the game.
"We're just continuing to play hard," he said Wednesday night. "We've been getting breaks. That's just the way the game goes sometimes. We just have to continue to do that, play hard and finish strong."
Whatever the cause, there's no disputing the results. The Cardinals hit .292 with runners in scoring position on the homestand and averaged 5.4 runs a game. They also won six out of seven games for one of their best homestands of the season.
If the Cardinals continue to hit close to .300 with RISP over the final five-plus weeks, you can count on them hosting a playoff series. But so many times this season the Cardinals have looked like they were about to reel off a long winning streak, only to turn around and lose three in a row. On the flip side, numerous times they have appeared ready to swoon -- the first two games in Miami just last week, for example -- only to quickly get back on the playoff path.
Besides the recent success with RISP, there are other reasons to believe the best part of the Cardinals' season is still to come. Here are four to watch:
-- Their health is improving. Yadier Molina swung a bat -- lightly -- on Wednesday for the first time since his surgery nearly six weeks ago and had reduced the amount of protection on his right thumb. The initial best-case scenario put Molina back by Sept. 10. Don't be surprised if he beats that by a week.
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Michael Wacha also is progressing steadily from right-shoulder stress reaction, and the club hopes he can make a minor-league rehab start. Since the regular seasons end for Memphis and Springfield on Sept. 1, the Cardinals must think Wacha is getting close.
If Wacha somehow returns to his level of last fall, he could be part of an October rotation that would be stronger than the Cardinals had last year. Adam Wainwright and John Lackey provide proven big-game success. If Lance Lynn hasn't joined their level, he's on the way. And after not pitching for well longer than two months, Wacha would not have to worry about an innings limit.
-- The offense has picked it up. Perhaps it is as simple as improved production with runners on base. Whatever, the Cardinals rank sixth in the NL in runs since the All-Star break after ranking next-to-last in the first half.
-- A better bench. Even if they are unable to bring in a right-handed power threat for the bench, reinforcements from Memphis could be arriving as soon as Sept. 2. Xavier Scruggs and Randal Grichuk have been showing good power for the Redbirds. Also, when Molina returns, the bench will benefit. Pierzynski has been a tough at-bat in late-game situations and when he starts, Matheny would have Molina to offer as a pinch-hitter.
-- Favorable schedule. Of their 36 remaining games, as few as 13 could come against winning teams. The Cardinals have two series left with the Brewers and Pirates but do not face another playoff contender. The Cardinals essentially knocked the Reds, now five games under .500 and 10 games out, from the race with this week's sweep.
Timely hitting made the difference, just as their manager believes it can do for the rest of the season.