ST. LOUIS – Barely two days after being eliminated with a Game 7 loss to the San Francisco Giants, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny couldn’t help but turn on the TV Wednesday night to watch Game 1 of the World Series.
And when he saw Giants lefty Barry Zito fool the Tigers like he did his powerful offense a few days earlier, he couldn’t help but feel a little bit better about what had happened.
After all, it was Zito who provided the turning point in the NLCS when he came out of nowhere to shut out the Cardinals on just six hits in 7 2/3 innings in Game 5. Despite using a fastball that hovered around 85 MPH, Zito sent the series back to San Francisco where the Giants ultimately completed the comeback.
“It was almost a little more reassuring watching Zito stick it to those guys too,” Matheny said Wednesday during an end of season chat with reporters at Busch Stadium. “Because we’re watching it and you guys are watching it and you’re watching the radar gun thinking how is this happening? But he was making quality pitches and he’s not making that many mistakes.
“That Game 5 was real pivotal.”
Matheny spoke with reporters in his office for nearly 45 minutes Thursday, reflecting on a disappointing finish to what will ultimately be remembered as a successful season.
The Cardinals led the Giants 3-1 in the series before losing the final three games and by a 20-1 margin to fall just short of a second straight trip to the World Series.
“Proud of how they competed,” Matheny said of his team. “There were plenty of ups and downs. It was kind of hard to get your hands around how to classify this team because you saw flashes of brilliance and then times like how we ended the last three games where you just scratch your head.
“We’re going to obviously try to address through the winter what could potentially be done to get a little more consistency, to bring that brilliance out a little more often, but overall, I couldn’t have been any more pleased with how they went about their business.”
But as Matheny talked, the conversation kept coming back to Game 5. The Cardinals were at home, needing a win to advance to the World Series, against a pitcher who had become a shell of his previous Cy Young winning self.
With the Giants best two pitchers, Ryan Vogelsong and Matt Cain, waiting to start for the Giants back in San Francisco in Games 6 and 7, the Cardinals knew they were better off taking care of business at home and not having to travel west.
“We’ve had trouble with Vogelsong so we knew that was going to be a tough battle,” Matheny said. “That’s not our message as we’re talking to the guys, we’re saying, ‘This is our game, lets do this, we’ve hit this guy in the past, a long time ago,’ and then realizing that Game 7 is just Game 7.
“I think that Game 5 was a turning point for certain, because you could just see the frustration on everybody, knowing it was right there to be able to put it away and be able to do it at home and your not facing Cain, Lincecum, Vogelsong, but that’s the way this game works.”
The beginning of the end came for the Cardinals in the second inning of Game 5, when they put runners at second and third base with no outs for No. 7 hitter Dan Descalso. When just putting the ball in play probably gives the Cardinals the lead and the momentum of the home crowd, Descalso struck out.
After the Giants walked Pete Kozma, pitcher Lance Lynn hit into a double play to end the inning. Instead of busting the game open, the Cardinals were left scoreless. And the Giants capitalized with four runs just two innings later to take the lead – and eventually the series.
“We had opportunities like we had all season long and that’s what it all came down to, that big hit,” Matheny said. “If somebody gets that big hit there’s a good chance Zito is chased from that game. We get the bases loaded there, strikeout, double play. We get a big hit and put up some runs and I guarantee their bullpen is hot.
“Danny came through so many big times this postseason and the September stretch, you know that guy can do it. It’s just a tough game.”
Asked about not changing up his lineup late in the series despite a number of his players struggling at the plate, Matheny said, “You could try to panic and throw a different bunch of guys in there but that whole stretch we had in September and October, we were really riding a few guys and while you’re doing that, your bench is going really stale to where you cant expect them to come in in a big situation and be productive.
“Because we stuck with that lineup so long and it was being so productive, we really tied our hands to who we could use at that point. It hurt us, but you could also argue fact that we had to do what we had to do to get us where we were.”
The Cardinals inconsistent offense returned at the wrong time, combining with a suspect defense and poor starting pitching to form the perfect storm in the final three games.
But in a season where the Cardinals moved on from Albert Pujols and transitioned from Tony La Russa to Matheny, finishing one win shy of the World Series is nothing to be ashamed of.
Despite how much it stung to not finish the job.
“We were sitting here going into Game 5 in a really nice spot and you cant help but think about that could be us right now,” Matheny said of the World Series. “But guess what? When we were playing Game 1 of the NLCS, there were a whole bunch of teams saying that could be us.”
Summing up the season, Matheny added, “Grateful, but not content by any means. I think that’s probably the same feeling that all our guys have.”