The thing about baseball -- the thing that people who love it and people who don't can still agree on -- is that it is always happening. There are 162 games a season, smushed together over six months; the notion that there is a game tomorrow, always, is baked into the appeal of the sport. This makes every game seem, in a strange way, disposable. Knowing that there is a game tomorrow, whether you win or lose this one, makes baseball an inherently more relaxing game to watch, to play and to manage. Not every game is life-or-death. Some days you win, some days you lose, some days it rains.
This, by nature, takes a bit of the urgency out of each individual game for a manager. You can't focus on winning every single game -- because that's impossible -- so you inevitably spend time on softer factors. You rest your catcher every few days. You make sure a bullpen guy gets some work. You drop a guy in the lineup a couple of spots to pull him out of his funk. One game is just a fraction of the whole. You're always managing for tomorrow, because there always is a tomorrow. It can become ingrained in your mindset: There's always a tomorrow.
If there has been one theme in this postseason, it's that the teams that have won have been managed like there is no tomorrow, and the ones that haven't have been managed like they have all the time in the world. This is odd, in a way, because for all the talk about how this has been one of the best baseball postseasons ever, it is worth pointing out that, now that we know the World Series matchup, none of these series turned out particularly close. Sure, we've been blessed with a bounty of one-run games and wild comebacks. But the Division Series featured two sweeps, and the other two series (Cardinals-Dodgers and Giants-Nationals) only went four games. The League Championship Series also had a sweep, and the other series went five. All told, we've only had three more postseason games than the absolute minimum.
Of course, had some of these series been managed with more urgency, maybe we would have had some decisive Game 5s or 7s. Managing for tomorrow ended up depriving us of tomorrow.
As a Cardinals fan who has watched Mike Matheny manage his team for three years now, there is a certain cold comfort in seeing the consistent sense of bafflement over his decisions -- the feeling that the person driving the bus doesn't know where he's going, or where the steering wheel is -- go mainstream this postseason. We've known it for three years: Now the rest of you know.
Matheny is by all accounts a nice man, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the speed and madness of the postseason is too much for him. If you'll excuse an extension of the driving metaphor, he manages like someone used to cruising around a small rural town suddenly being thrust onto a heavily trafficked freeway during rush hour. He speeds up at the wrong times, he slams on his brakes for no reason, he'll panic and swerve from one lane to another, and then he'll slow down to a crawl just to make it look like he's calm now… it got a little crazy there, but it's all under control. When you're behind someone like this in traffic, you make sure you're as far away from him as possible and take pity on the poor souls in his car. I joked yesterday that you can actually hear him blinking, but seriously, with those dugout microphones, I really think you can.
Matheny is a frustrating regular season tactician as well, but his primary skills as a manager are ideally suited for a long season. He looks like a leader, with that jaw and that unfocused "determination," and his players love him because he was so recently one of them and therefore understands how to keep them happy. All the little things he does during the regular season, they all even out: The game doesn't move too fast on him in the regular season because it never moves too fast in the regular season. You don't have to blink too hard over 162 games. The Cardinals have made the NLCS all three years Matheny has been manager, and while he's not personally responsible, he never completely lost control of a season the way some managers have, and he deserves credit for that.
But when every single game means everything, Matheny couldn't adjust. We've seen this with other managers this postseason -- the most egregious offender had been Ned Yost, until he, sort of amazingly, suddenly started adjusting -- but Matheny may have cost his team the most. The problem with Matheny is that the trick he uses in the regular season -- putting players in predictable roles since players like their routine -- doesn't work in the postseason because you actually have to manage to win in the postseason. Matheny has generally been considered a strong manager throughout baseball because his teams have had so much regular-season success. But I suspect, after the last two days, that honeymoon is over.
In Game Four, with a staff full of relievers (and a pitcher on the mound in Carlos Martinez who looked ready to pitch 30 innings if necessary), he brought in Marco Gonzales, a 22-year-old kid, to throw two innings. This works in July, because those two innings are essentially fungible; everyone will forget about them in a week. In the postseason, though, two innings is a lifetime. Matheny formulated a plan -- Gonzales throws two innings -- and maneuvered everything to rigidly follow that plan. When the plan fell into trouble, he had no backup plan, and he was doomed. The regular season requires only one plan; the postseason requires many. Matheny is a one-plan man.
You saw this again last night. Heading into the game, Matheny had said he was hoping to finally get Michael Wacha -- who hadn't pitched in nearly a month -- some work. That was his plan. So even though he had pitchers (particularly Martinez, or even closer Trevor Rosenthal, considering this was the final inning of the season) who were rested and ready to go when the game went into the bottom of the ninth, he chose Wacha… because he'd already planned on that. Wacha had his good stuff -- he consistently reached high 90s on the radar gun -- but, as would be expected of someone who hadn't pitched in a month, his command was all over the place. Three batters later, the Giants were headed to the World Series.
After the game, Matheny's explanation of why he brought Wacha in made no sense. I don't mean that his explanation was faulty, or I disagree with it. I mean it makes no sense.
I put him in a tough spot. But you [saw] the first couple pitches come out of [his] hand and I think everybody in the baseball world asked why we had been waiting so long to let this kid throw. Just a tough spot for him to be in and not the spot we want him to be in but we'll put him out there again in a similar situation.
Lots to unpack there, but that answer is really how Matheny has managed every postseason: He goes one direction, retreats, goes another, changes course again, and then, after this confusion has ended in failure, insists that if the same thing happened again, he'd do the same thing … even if he still can't quite explain what that thing is. Oh, and also:
Matheny, when asked about not using closer T. Rosenthal in 9th: "We can't bring him in, in a tie-game situation. We're on the road."- Bernie Miklasz (@miklasz) October 17, 2014
Yes, I think Moses brought that law down from the mount.
Listen, I'm not trying to pile on Matheny here. (It's just happening! I'm just standing idly by and watching!) But this is the point: You have to be a different manager in the postseason than you are in the regular season. Bruce Bochy gets this. Buck Showalter got this. Even freaking Ned Yost gets this. Mike Matheny is a baseball man, to his very bones, and he understands the rhythms of the regular season as well as anyone who has been around the game every day for 20 years. But that experience can give you the illusion that there is always another game. Mike Matheny managed this NLCS like he had all the time in the world. Now he has none.
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