SAN FRANCISCO — When Randy Choate lost Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on Tuesday afternoon, my first thought was about Cardinals manager Mike Matheny.
No, not that he might have had the wrong reliever in the game when the Giants scored the winning run. No, not about the blame that was sure to flood cyberspace and airwaves about his decisions. Rather, I thought about the story I was scheduled to write the next day. Great timing. Here comes a story about the excellent job Matheny has done for the Cardinals at a time when most of Cardinals Nation would be dumping on him.
But I realized that defending Matheny’s strategic moves wasn’t my objective. Thankfully so, because defending any manager’s in-game decisions is next to impossible. They all win some. They all lose some. And often, there is more behind their moves than anyone not in the manager’s office might know anyway.
There also is more to a manager’s job than filling out lineups, calling for sacrifice bunts and making pitching changes. I would argue, in fact, that keeping a clubhouse full of high-achieving, big-egoed professionals performing at their peak for an entire season is more important — and difficult — than deciding to stick with Choate when Carlos Martinez is available.
From what his players say, Matheny has handled that part of the job like a winner from the day he replaced a Hall of Fame manager, Tony La Russa, and took over a World Series champion three years ago. And the players couldn’t care less that Matheny never had even coached on a team that didn’t have one of his sons playing on it.
"He was prepared coming in," left fielder Matt Holliday says. "Anybody that keeps books on how to run a spring training when they’re playing should be fairly prepared for that role someday. His diligence and attention to detail allowed him to do it on the run without experience."
When reliever Pat Neshek signed with the Cardinals last winter, he knew little about Matheny but figured if he had reached the World Series and taken his team to the NLCS in his first two seasons, "He’s doing something right. That’s pretty special."
Neshek has not been disappointed. Though he signed a minor-league deal with no assurance he would be on the team, he was made to feel like an important part of the process from the day he reported. Neshek showed in spring training that he was ready for high-leverage situations, but when the season opened, his role still was evolving.
His players appreciate that Mike Matheny has their backs.
On Opening Day, as the first reliever in with the Cardinals up 1-0 after seven innings, he was called to face Cincinnati’s Brandon Phillips and walked him on a full count, the last pitch not far from a strike. "We’re in the dugout and he said, ‘You know what? Tomorrow night, I’m going to put you right back in the same spot," Neshek remembers.
Two games later, with the Cardinals up 7-3 on the Reds in the seventh, Neshek entered with one out and two on to face Todd Frazier. This time, again with a full count, Neshek served up a three-run homer. Matheny stayed with him. Neshek got the next four outs and the Cardinals held on for a 7-6 victory.
"He said the same thing after that one, ‘I’m going to keep going with you, keep your confidence,’" Neshek says. "A lot of times, as a guy who just made the club you’re thinking, ‘If I keep doing this, I’m going to be out of here.’ And who knows? He might have just been saying that. But he gave me the confidence to keep my head up. That felt really good."
Another newcomer, center fielder Peter Bourjos, did not enjoy nearly as much success during the season as Neshek, who would make his first All-Star team. Bourjos entered the season with considerable hoopla as the starting center fielder. He started slowly, though, and before long was saddled with a rather undefined role as Jon Jay eventually emerged as the regular center fielder.
Bourjos admitted that the job was difficult and, of course, he wanted to play more. But he never pointed a finger at his manager, in part because that isn’t his way. Bourjos, who had played for a successful manager in the Angels’ Mike Scioscia, says he appreciated the way he was treated by Matheny.
During batting practice, Matheny makes a point to walk around the field and check with his players. He asks about baseball, he asks about life. Matheny has said, half jokingly, there are guys who probably don’t like to see him approaching because he tends to spend more time with those who are struggling than those who are going well.
"He probably wants you to vent if you want to vent," Bourjos says. "That’s a good thing. If you need to get something off your chest, he gives you the opportunity. I never really felt like I needed to, but it was nice for him to come over and chat with me."
One player who had reason to vent was Jay, the incumbent center fielder who was supposed to lose his job after the Bourjos trade. But Jay says Matheny called him the day of the deal to let him know he would not be forgotten.
"That’s something that you respect," Jay says. "Things are going to happen sometimes that you might not be in favor of individually, but it’s a class act when you can have a conversation like that."
Early on, Jay had a frequent visitor during batting practice.
"I told him I appreciate him telling me all this stuff," Jay says. "But to me, as long as we’re winning ballgames and we’re at this point now, it’s all worth it."
Pete Kozma says he didn’t get a call when the club signed Jhonny Peralta to replace him at shortstop but wasn’t surprised the team made a move. He knew his .217 batting average and .548 OPS would not be tolerated on a team with World Series aspirations. Still, Kozma credits Matheny for his communication.
"He kept me on a positive note," Kozma says. "’Keep doing what you’re doing. I feel like we’re going to need you.’"
Sure enough, after spending most of the season in the minors, Kozma was called up in September and made enough of a contribution that he made the roster for both rounds so far in the postseason.
Another player who has lost playing time under Matheny is infielder Daniel Descalso, who played 148 games in 2011 and just 104 this season. But he says he has no beef with Matheny, either, and has been impressed with his consistent approach.
"He’s been like that anchor since he showed up in 2012," Descalso says. "I don’t think he’s tried to reinvent himself or do anything different. He’s stayed the course. He knows the experience and the battle-tested players we have in here. He puts guys in spots to succeed and he lets us play."
But for the most part, Matheny has left general manager John Mozeliak to critique Taveras’ play. While the manager focuses on Taveras’ ability to hit, the GM has been the one to admit that Taveras needs to lose weight and could use an offseason of conditioning more than playing winter ball.
From what I saw, Matheny visited with Taveras as much as any player in his batting practice rounds. He has said he would practice his Spanish and the 21-year-old Dominican would work on his English during their conversations. Earlier this week, Taveras did not sound like a guy upset with his manager when he told a Spanish-speaking mlb.com reporter that he has gotten heavy and has plenty to work on.
In addition to sticking up for his players, Matheny has been able to get everyone to buy into his "every day is the most important day of the season" approach. The way his players talk about grinding out at-bats and focusing on today, you’d think Matheny has passed out instructions on what to say — and not say.
The media might not appreciate how guarded he can be when talking about the team, but his consistent approach with every part of his job since Day One is impressive. He doesn’t rattle and he doesn’t rant.
"The respect that he gives to our players and also the respect that he demands of our staff is something that is really special," All-Star third baseman Matt Carpenter says. "There’s a lot of trust that has been instilled here. Guys want to win for him."
And that they have. Not only have the Cardinals reached the NLCS in each of his three seasons, they own the NL’s best regular-season record since he took over.
So rip him for his choice of relievers and bash him for his lineup selections all you want. But even the harshest critic has to agree he’s doing plenty right.