With Descalso knocking on SS door, Matheny clearly has Kozma’s back

ST. LOUIS — High on the list of Mike Matheny’s assets as a manager is always having his players’ backs. He is widely regarded as a player’s manager and his players know he will protect them.

What, exactly, this means is a little beyond me. It’s not like I’ve seen Matheny serving as a bodyguard for the Cardinals. But I did come across a telling example this week of the difference in managerial protection styles.

After the Cardinals beat the Astros on Wednesday night, Houston manager Bo Porter minced no words when explaining what happened when one of his young players, J.D. Martinez, was thrown out at home on a failed safety squeeze. The unnecessary out took the Astros out of a potential big inning in a game they lost by one run.

“That was a poor read on J.D.’s part,” Porter said bluntly. “We discussed it in the dugout. He understands it was a poor read.”

Porter was correct and, by pointing out Martinez’s mistake, might have been giving his team a lesson in being held accountable.

Still, I have yet to see Matheny lay such blame on one of his players. If a Cardinal had made such a base-running gaffe, Matheny would have been more likely to say something like, “We want our guys to be aggressive out there. We understand that sometimes it’s not going to work in our favor.”

Matheny, remember, was singing the praises of .158-hitting Ty Wigginton right up to the day the Cardinals cut him even though they still owe him about $3.75 million.

Matheny’s protective manner is pointed out here because of what is happening at shortstop on his team. As rookie Pete Kozma’s bat has gone quiet — his batting average is down to .234 — his playing time has diminished. Kozma has started only once in the past week as Daniel Descalso has become a regular fixture in the lineup.  

But ask Matheny if he is considering doling out playing time at shortstop any differently and he, not surprisingly, uses the opportunity to pump up Kozma.

“The shortstop position is, to me, first and foremost a defensive position, and we can’t complain for one second about what we’ve seen from Pete Kozma,” Matheny said Wednesday. “We can’t forget, either, a lot of the big hits he’s had. He’s been as productive as anybody in the league statistically in that eighth spot, which isn’t an easy place to hit.”

Kozma, indeed, leads NL eight-hole hitters in hits, runs, RBIs and at-bats.

“All that needs to be taken in consideration,” Matheny said.

Sounds like Kozma remains the clear No. 1 at the position. Defensively, his advantage over Descalso is obvious. Kozma has more range, a stronger arm and surer hands. Kozma has made a total of four errors in 81 games at shortstop; Descalso has three in 13 games at the position.

Still, if Kozma wants to be sure he remains the regular, he better start hitting again. Matheny admitted the main reason he gave Descalso the start Wednesday was because of the two doubles he had the night before.

“Yes, we’re jumping on Danny’s hot bat,” said Matheny, before again coming to the defense of Kozma.

“We talk so much about the youth in our pitching staff, but we can’t deny the fact that a (position) guy in his first full major league season needs those breaks, too,” said Matheny about the 24-year-old shortstop, who leads major league rookies in innings played this season.

“What’s going on right now, yes, we’re jumping on Danny’s hot bat but that being said, we’re also giving a young player a little more rest.”

Matheny further stated his case for Kozma by talking about how well he has been swinging the bat in batting practice — yes, he was talking about practice.

Matheny, of course, wants the youngster to know his manager is behind him. Matheny doesn’t want to give Kozma any reason to doubt his status. He wants him to remain confident and comfortable.

Yet the Cardinals are operating these days with a greater sense of urgency, and it’s fair to wonder if Kozma’s place in the everyday lineup is as secure as Matheny wants us to believe.

Kozma was back in the lineup for Thursday night at Wrigley Field and might start all four games in the series. He has earned that much.

“What he’s done at shortstop has been exactly what we’re hoping for and then some,” Matheny said.

But if Kozma doesn’t start hitting again, he soon could be sitting more and more — no matter how much his manager might protect him publicly.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.