ST. LOUIS -- In the 2011 National League Championship Series, the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Milwaukee Brewers in six games, and all told, it wasn't all that close. St. Louis outscored Milwaukee 43-26, and in the last two games after a 2-2 tie, they outbashed the Brewers 19-7. In Game 6, the Cardinals took an 11-4 lead, and the final five innings were a valedictory benediction for what may be the last Milwaukee postseason appearance in a long time. This is to say: The Cardinals won, and they won handily. When you think about the 2011 Cardinals' postseason, the NLCS against the Brewers is the last thing that enters your brain.
Here's the thing, though: The Cardinals' starters in that series were barely a factor. Here are the starters' innings pitched per game:
Game 1: Jaime Garcia, 4 IP
Game 2: Edwin Jackson, 4 1/3 IP
Game 3: Chris Carpenter, 5 IP
Game 4: Kyle Lohse, 4 1/3 IP
Game 5: Jamie Garcia, 4 1/3 IP
Game 6: Edwin Jackson, 2 IP
It is impossible, looking at those numbers, to even tell which games the Cardinals won. (Games 2, 3, 5 and 6.) It's not that the Cardinals' starters were inherently terrible in that series. Quite the opposite, in fact. Here are the ERAs of the four Cardinals starters in that NLCS:
Kyle Lohse: 3.39
Chris Carpenter: 3.45
Jaime Garcia: 3.56
Edwin Jackson: 3.79
The reason the Cardinals won that Series is the same reason those ERAs were so low: St. Louis manager Tony La Russa managed that whole series like someone being chased by bees. He managed like it could be the last series he ever managed. (It almost was.) The minute any starter so much as twitched, La Russa yanked the hook. In Game 2, the Cardinals had a 7-2 lead in the fifth inning … and La Russa pulled Jackson after a one-out double. La Russa wasn't messing around. He was leaving nothing to chance.
Now, much of this is unique to La Russa's personality: La Russa wanted to win, but he also wanted absolute control. By pulling the starter, La Russa made sure everything that happened every game had something to do with him. It's his signature instrument, Mozart on the piano, Coltrane on the sax, La Russa with his scorecard and black magic marker. But the lesson remains: La Russa managed every game that postseason like a man trying to land a plane in a tornado. He didn't care if a pitcher got a win, or "finished what he started." He had baseball games to win. We didn't know it at the time, but the reason for this was simple: His career was over at the end of the year, he knew it, and he wasn't going to go out regretting anything. Everything he did was all-in.
But back to present time. The Cardinals lost Game 5 of the World Series 3-1 to the Boston Red Sox on Monday night, and the reason was simple: Jon Lester was outstanding. In 7 2/3 innings, he struck out seven, walked none, gave up four hits and only really had one scary inning. In the fourth, Matt Holliday blasted a homer, and the next two batters both hit the ball hard -- Carlos Beltran just missed a homer that would have given the Cardinals the lead, and Yadier Molina ripped a liner that Stephen Drew leapt to catch. After that inning, it looked like the Cardinals were about to break through. But Lester turned into Steve Carlton: He set down the next 12 batters, and the Cardinals had only one more baserunner the rest of the game. The way Lester and Koji Uehara were pitching, this game might have gone 15 innings and the Cardinals still wouldn't have scored.
But Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright was just as good as Lester … after two doubles in the first inning, arguably better. He ended up striking out 10 and was snapping his curveball under Red Sox bats all night. He was so good that he even retired David Ortiz. (Once.) That was in the sixth inning, when he shut down the meat of the Sox order and made Cardinals fans feel like he could pitch all night. One of those Cardinals fans, apparently, was manager Mike Matheny.
Now, I gave Matheny a hard time on Monday, but affectionately: This is a smart guy with a hard job who is getting better every day, just perhaps not as quickly as a team trying to win a World Series right now might like him to. Matheny is a young manager with a long, fulfilling career ahead of him. But that's sort of the issue with Matheny's handling of Wainwright in the seventh inning: He managed like he had all the time in the world.
Wainwright was approaching 100 pitches heading into the seventh, and it was clear that it would be his final inning. And it was just as clear that Matheny intended on letting him finish that inning. No one was warming in the Cardinals bullpen when the inning began, and no one started until after Wainwright gave up a one-out single to Xander Bogaerts. By then, though, it was obvious that Wainwright was starting to run out of gas. Now, Wainwright has succeeded when he was out of gas in the past: If Matheny had not let Wainwright come out to finish Game 5 of the NLDS against the Pirates, I'm pretty sure Fredbird would have tackled him. But certainly the situation warranted close monitoring.
Instead, Wainwright walked Stephen Drew, who is batting .067 this Series. This is when the alarm bells should have been going off: It's time. It was a heroic effort, but the Cardinals had Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist and Trevor Rosenthal in their bullpen, all of whom reach near 100 mph and none of whom were tired. Instead, Matheny let Wainwright pitch to David Ross, who had just singled in the fifth and looked as locked in as David Ross can possibly be. On a 1-2 count, Wainwright hung a curveball, and Ross smashed it for a ground-rule double. Wainwright's great night of work was ruined. Boston manager John Farrell did Matheny a favor by allowing Jon Lester to bat and strike out -- in the three games in St. Louis, Red Sox relievers had more at-bats than Mike Napoli; maybe Farrell just finds the act of watching American League pitchers bat funny? -- but Matheny didn't accept the favor: With Randy Choate warm in the pen, he left Wainwright in to face Jacoby Ellsbury, who singled home another run. The Cardinals ended up losing by two, but imagine how different the eighth inning is -- in which the Cardinals had a runner on second with one out -- if that's a one-run deficit, rather than two.
This feels like less a mistake by Matheny than indicative of a mindset that keeps holding him and his team back during this World Series. In Game 3 it was letting Joe Kelly pitch at least an inning longer than he should have; in Game 4 it was not putting your best relievers in the game because you theoretically might need them more later in the game; in Game 5 it was letting Wainwright leave the game on his own terms, and work through it. "We liked the way he was going about it to get us out of that," Matheny said about Wainwright afterward, which is a strange combination of magical thinking and casual passivity. Some of these moves are more easily second-guessed than others, but the one thing they all have in common is a lack of urgency. Matheny manages the postseason like it's a getaway day game in the middle of July.
Tony La Russa wasn't always like he was in 2011: He liked control, but he also liked to trust veterans, much like Matheny did on Monday night. But in 2011 he kept flooring the gas pedal and bashing his face against the windshield. It didn't always work: Had the Cardinals lost the World Series in 2011, his bullpen-phone fiasco would have branded him as addled and confused, maybe for all time. He did push too hard a few times. But he grabbed every game and throttled. He knew that this, at the end, was all there was.
Mike Matheny and the Cardinals -- who breezed through some of their at-bats against Lester on Monday night like they were eager to catch a charter to Fenway -- have played these last two games like this is a training exercise for the real World Series. Like there are tons more World Series to come, that this is just one of many, that they are young and beautiful and the world is limitless and they are never going to grow old and die.
Matheny and the Cardinals spent these last two games acting like they have all the time in the world. Now, down 3-2, their time has run out. They are being chased by bees. They are trying to land a plane in a tornado. It's about time that they notice.