ST. LOUIS — Cardinals reliever Seth Maness’ work on the mound has been up and down this season, but his confidence remains steady and solid.
After the sinkerball specialist was roughed up for two runs in the 12th inning and took the loss in a frustrating 5-3 defeat to the Brewers on Monday night, Maness said, "I feel fine."
He added, "Everything is finding a hole."
Jonathan Lucroy’s leadoff double to left was hit hard enough that it didn’t need to find a hole, but Khris Davis’ RBI triple was more well placed than hard-struck. On a 1-2 count, Maness said he wanted to throw a four-seamer off the plate and thought he had. But Davis, who had struck out four times, reached for the pitch and hit a fly down the right-field line that Matt Carpenter ended up chasing into the corner.
"Probably wasn’t a strike," Maness said. "I was trying to go away and left it up a little bit, he got enough on it to get it deep enough."
Maness then hung a 2-0 slider to Mark Reynolds that was lofted to center for a sacrifice fly to give Milwaukee a two-run lead. A high-strikeout slugger-type, Reynolds is the type of hitter who can be difficult to keep out of the air. But keeping the ball on the ground was Maness’ strength last year, as evidenced by all the double plays he generated. The 16 double-play grounders he coaxed led NL relievers.
He has induced only one double-player grounder so far this season and his ground-ball rate has dropped from a major league-best 86 percent in 2013 to 65.5 percent after nine outings. But the second-year reliever did not seem happy when asked if he has had trouble keeping the ball down this season.
"I need to check the video out," he said. "I haven’t really seen that. So they’ve been up?"
He then turned a tad testy with a sarcastic, "Gotcha."
Usually a pleasant sort with an easy smile, Maness might have been masking his frustration for the media. But his ineffectiveness at keeping the ball on the ground has been noticed by more than reporters. Manager Mike Matheny admitted "there’s something there" that is different from last season, when Maness arrived in early May and quickly became an important part of the bullpen.
"It probably goes back to spring training, just having trouble finding that good groove he was in most of last season," Matheny said.
After Maness’ rough spring, Matheny did not take long to call on newcomer Pat Neshek in situations that would have gone to Maness a year ago. Neshek has thrived, too, especially lately. He has allowed only three base runners in his past seven outings and has lowered his ERA to 1.69 for the season while averaging more than a strikeout per inning.
Maness has allowed runs in five of his nine outings, including four of his past five. He is getting hitters to swing and miss slightly more, but when they make contact, they are doing more damage. Opponents are hitting .333 against him, compared to .281 in his rookie season.
Maness attributed his difficulty against the Brewers to the selection of his pitches more than their quality. He pointed out that neither of the Brewers’ hits off him came on sinkers. Even though he was beaten on pitches that weren’t his best, he knows the sinker is his specialty and said he hasn’t changed his approach. "I threw the four-seamer some last year," he said.
Perhaps hitters have become familiar enough with his sinker that they have learned to lay off it. Perhaps Maness is enduring a spot of trouble while he tries to adjust. Perhaps he’s merely been victimized by bad luck more than last season.
Whatever the reason, he has not been the same pitcher in 2014. Well, except for his confidence.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.