Mike Matheny overmanaged, cost Cardinals Game 5 by bringing in Michael Wacha in ninth inning

I owe most of my career to my ability to write something that everybody else wasn’t writing. This was relatively easy when I started doing this, in the last century. It’s not nearly so easy any more. I still try, though.

In the wake of Game 5, I don’t think I can do it. Everybody’s going to rip St. Louis manager Mike Matheny after his surprise pitcher gave up a walk-off homer, and I’m damned if I can figure out a reason not to.

Well before Game 5, I defended Matheny’s non-use of right-hander Michael Wacha in Game 4 … while at the same time wondering why Wacha’s been on the Cardinals’ postseason rosters at all, since it seemed obvious that Matheny had no use for him. In fact, Wacha hadn’t pitched since Sept. 26, one day before the last time the Kansas City Royals lost a baseball game. If Matheny and the Cardinals thought Wacha could pitch, he should have pitched between Sept. 26 and Oct. 16. If they thought he couldn’t, he shouldn’t have been on the roster.

Speaking of Oct. 16, it was 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning of a game the Cardinals had to win, or go home. Matheny had deployed two pitchers: Adam Wainwright for seven innings, Pat Neshek for one. This left him … gears whirring, calculator humming, browser browsing … six options for the ninth (not including Lance Lynn, slated to start Game 6). Lefties Randy Choate and Marco Gonzales had thrown 11 and 16 pitches, respectively, in Game 4. Righties Carlos Martinez and Seth Maness had thrown 17 and 26. Trevor Rosenthal hadn’t pitched in Game 4 at all. And of course Wacha hadn’t pitched all month.

Here’s who the Giants had coming up in the ninth:

S – Pablo Sandoval

R – Hunter Pence

L – Brandon Belt

L – Travis Ishikawa

I stopped there because … well, you know.

Anyway, you’re essentially looking at three left-handed hitters because Sandoval is weak against lefties, strong against righties.

Matheny, surveying the field of battle with his experience of some decades, summoned Wacha from the bullpen. Hey, the guy came out throwing 98. Hard to argue with that. But Sandoval wasn’t impressed, and singled. Pence flied to right field.

Runner on first base, season on the line, two lefties coming up. Oh, and Bruce Bochy had already used his best righty-hitting pinch hitter (Mike Morse). Granted, he still had Andrew Susac available, but it seems unlikely he’d have used his backup catcher in a tie game. Not at all impossible. But unlikely.

But Matheny didn’t really have to worry about that. If he brings in a lefty to face Belt, he’s going to have the platoon edge because Bochy wouldn’t pinch hit for Belt. And if Bochy does pinch hit for Ishikawa, Matheny’s then free to bring in Martinez or Maness, and Bochy doesn’t have any lefty hitters left.

You get out of the inning or your season’s over, so there’s little reason to even think about the 10th inning and beyond.

Of course we know what happened. It wasn’t predestined to happen, and many other things were more likely to happen. But Matheny went through the whole season managing one way because he trusted his relief pitchers, and then suddenly he managed a different way because a few of his relief pitchers made a few bad pitches. Fans were actually defending the non-use of Randy Choate – who is paid good money for EXACTLY these situations – because Choate had walked one batter in each of his last three outings … ignoring the fact that Choate had walked just one batter in his 17 outings before that.

Hey, fans have short memories. There are good reasons for not hiring a guy from the parking lot to manage your baseball team, and one of them is that they often forget that a player’s skills don’t disappear overnight, unless they’re hurt. The Cardinals signed Choate through 2015, and they signed him because he’s held left-handed hitters to a .188 batting average in his long career.

We’ve got a tiny sample size for Gonzales, a rookie. But he’s been great against left-handed hitters, too.

Second-guessing is easy, and there will forever be plenty. But there wasn’t any shortage of first-guessing this one, either.

It’s entirely possible that Matheny’s so close to his team that he just knew his usual bullpen tactics wouldn’t work, because his best relievers weren’t at their best. But it’s hard to resist the conclusion, from this distance, that he was too close, and just couldn’t remember why he used to like those guys so much. So instead he went to a guy he could hardly remember pitching at all.