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Mike Matheny Looks Overwhelmed, and I Can’t Say I Blame Him

Far be it for me to stick up for Mike Matheny; lord knows he has enough sycophants in this town. But the Cardinals manager is caught in a vortex right now.

Leave a tiring starter in the game, instead of relying on the bullpen … BOOM … the sound of a game blowing up on the Cardinals.

Remove a cruising, reasonably fresh starter a little early to put your trust in the bullpen … LIGHTNING, THUNDER … another potential victory gets zapped and burns to ash.

I’m not saying that Matheny was right to leave Mike Leake in Saturday’s game in Chicago to take on the Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber in showdown encounter instead of summoning any of his three lefty relievers from the bullpen to disarm the threat. I first-guessed Matheny’s strategy there, before Schwarber blasted a grand slam that carried the Cubs to victory.

And I’m certainly not saying I agreed with Matheny’s Wednesday-night call to yank a peeved Lance Lynn for a pinch hitter after five innings, 78 pitches and one allowed run. Counting on Dexter Fowler to come through with a pinch-hit worked out swell, with Dex slashing an RBI double to raise the Cards’ lead to 4-1. But entrusting Fowler to come up with a big hit also meant that you were entrusting a terrible bullpen to protect that lead over four innings … in a batting cage of a ballpark that creates too many cheap home runs. And sure enough, the Reds ruined Matheny’s night with a five-run seventh inning that featured homers off lefty Brett Cecil and RH Trevor Rosenthal. Final: Reds 6, Cards 4.

In deploying Fowler there, Matheny also indicated a shortage of trust in Lynn to last much longer. So Matheny wanted to be aggressive in trying to get the Cardinals some extra runs and a larger cushion. It would have helped if Fowler’s double –in addition to plating an RBI — also scored Eric Fryer. But (what else is new?) Fryer was thrown out at the plate.

In Tuesday’s loss to the Reds, Matheny didn’t trust his dormant offense to charge back from a modest 2-0 lead in the third inning; he made that clear by winning a replay challenge that took away an out  from his own team. Rather than concede a sac fly by Eugenio Suarez and that two-run lead, Matheny had Stephen Piscotty’s catch nullified through replay. The manager put starting pitcher Adam Wainwright in a position of having to get four outs instead of three. This process did not go smoothly, with Waino walking Suarez to load the bases and setting up the grand-slam homer for the immortal Scooter “Bambino” Gennett. The Reds’ 13-1 rout was on.

Matheny is in a manager’s hazard zone.

It seems like every big decision boomerangs and smacks him upside the head.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Trust Leake instead of the bullpen … bye-bye win.

Trust Wainwright instead of your team’s offense … bye-bye win.

Trust the bullpen instead of Lynn … bye-bye win.

We can debate the merit of each decision Matheny makes. He’s a shaky tactician. But to me, the larger issue is this: we’re seeing the intense stress creeping into a manager’s confidence who is supervising a collapsing team that had lost 16 of 21 through Wednesday.

We have watched him willing to try everything to make things better … only to have it all turn into a toxic spill.

Wednesday night, I think Matheny was wrong to put the ball and the game in the hands of a volatile bullpen that can burst into flames at any moment.

But even if Lynn had gone another inning, Brett Cecil was probably going to end up being a part of that game. Cecil had been pitching better lately, and the GM had signed him for $30.5 million, and at some point you just have to give Cecil a meaningful role.

Of course, Cecil was pulverized for a three-run homer that tied it at 4-4.

If you’re saying Matheny was stupid to have faith in Cecil, I understand where you are coming from.

But with the game at 4-4, still winnable, and a Reds runner on second, Matheny beckoned Trevor Rosenthal — his best reliever who’s armed with a fearsome 42 percent strikeout rate. Using Rosenthal was absolutely the correct move.

Of course … first pitch …two-run homer by Joey Votto.

Votto was only 1 for 7 in his career vs. Rosenthal before cranking the winning HR.

No, I do not think Matheny is adept at running a bullpen.

But with this particular bullpen, what the hell is he supposed to do?

The St. Louis bullpen ERA through Wednesday, 4.82, ranked 26th in the majors. St. Louis relievers have done the worst job in the majors at preventing inherited runners from scoring. Just under 41 percent have scored, and that’s a staggeringly bad rate.

Is Matheny supposed to stretch his starters out and have them go deeper into games to avoid calling on the bullpen? Yeah, and then we’ll see the starters wear down, break down, and buckle under the strain of heavy innings. That wouldn’t be smart.

Earlier this week, I gave you a sad little stat on the Cardinals’ performance late in games.

To repeat and update: from the 7th inning on, they’ve scored the fewest runs in the majors (60.) And they’ve been torched by the most runs (112) in the majors.

Once the Cardinals get past the sixth inning, they have a run-differential of minus 52.

I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this among the many teams I’ve followed or covered through the years.

The late-inning woes worsened during the Cards’ 5-16 baseball famine that they were hoping to ease during Thursday’s series finale at Cincinnati.

Consider these numbers that illustrate the wickedness of the 5-16 blight:

— In the 21 games the Cardinals were outscored  48 to 11  from the 7th inning on.

— Yes. I said 48 to 11.

— The Cardinals’ ERA from the 7th inning on during the 21 games was 7.67.

— From the 7th inning on over the 21 games, the Cardinals batted .180 with a .236 OBP, and a  .312 slug, and only 10 runs batted with their 222 plate appearances.

— From the 7th on, their park-adjusted runs created over 21 games was 71 percent below the league average.

— Yes, I said 71 percent below average.

Again: yes, Matheny makes me wacko at times, but it’s not as if there are any simple remedies or strategies that he can turn to to make everything glossy and great. He’s screwed up some stuff, sure, and owns some responsibility for these late-inning fiascos.

But Matheny has a tattered, weak bullpen.

He has hitters that get smaller late in games.

Can Matheny borrow Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances and Craig Kimbrel and put them in his bullpen? This would be against the rules, I believe.

Can Matheny call 911 and bring in Ryan Zimmerman, Jake Lamb, or Aaron Judge to take some money-time at-bats for the Cards? Sorry, but no.

When these games get late and tense, what can Matheny call on and have strong confidence in his decisions? Unless something changes immediately and drastically, I don’t see much of anything that reinforces  anyone’s  confidence.  So he’s feverishly making strategical moves that seemingly contradict the same moves he made a couple of days ago. And it all goes kablooey.

So if Matheny looks frazzled, I can understand why.

If he’s making panic moves, it’s probably because he’s … well, you know, panicked.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: For the Fans Who Want Mike Matheny Fired: It Ain’t Going To Happen