Search This Blog


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Bullpen saves game, and Matheny

16 minutes ago  • 
SAN FRANCISCO • The Cardinals won Game 1 of the NL championship series, and that’s all that matters. You take the victory, and put it in the lock box, and savor the experience of coming into AT&T Park to defeat the Giants 6-4. You don’t look back. Having established an early advantage in this NLCS, the Cardinals can look forward to Game 2, and a start by Chris Carpenter.
That said, Game 1 shouldn’t have been so close, and so scary for the Cardinals. And you hope that this was a lesson for Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, who waited too long to pull fading starter Lance Lynn.
The Cardinals survived because of excellent work by the bullpen, which bagged the final 16 outs while allowing only two hits. The long line of defense was formed by Joe Kelly, Marc Rzepczynski, Trevor Rosenthal, Edward Mujica, Mitchell Boggs and closer Jason Motte.
They protected a two-run lead.
And they protected Matheny from all sorts of trouble.
Game 1 was a doozy. No surprise.
The Cardinals are facing a classy Giants team that features similar components: good starting pitching, a resourceful bullpen, a great catcher, veteran experience and coolness under fire. Both teams are mentally tough, and don’t tremble when encountering hazardous conditions.
When the Cardinals rocked Giants starter Madison Bumgarner for homers by David Freese and Carlos Beltran and RBIs by Pete Kozma and Jon Jay as part of an early barrage, it was looking like easy work for the visiting team.
Through the top of the fourth, the Cardinals led 6-0 and the feisty and festive crowd at AT&T Park had turned down the volume. The Cardinals were in prime position to take a 1-0 series lead, and hand it off to ace Carpenter for Game 2.
The Giants weren’t about to panic, and no one should have expected them to, not after watching this team win the NL West and whack the Cincinnati Reds in an NL division series.
After the All-Star break, when the wealthy Los Angeles Dodgers began throwing money around to add big names to the payroll via trade, the Giants shrugged. They were completely unfazed by LA’s attempt to buy the NL West title. San Francisco kicked in, going 38-19 down the stretch to pile up 94 victories and finish eight games ahead of the second-place Dodgers.
The NLDS began horrendously for the Giants, who were all but dunked in the San Francisco Bay by the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds won the first game 5-2, then took the second with a 9-0 blowout, and flew home to Cincinnati with a 2-0 series lead.
The Giants went back to work, and shocked the Reds by winning three consecutive games at The Great American Ball Park. The Cardinals’ heroic rally in Washington to win Game 5 was truly remarkable as a singular event. But the Giants’ sweep in Cincinnati was just as striking.
Predictably, the Giants battled back in Game 1, exploiting the fatigue of a tiring Lynn in the bottom of the fourth. With Lynn leaving fastballs over the middle of the plate, the Giants put themselves and their fans back in the game with a salvo of line drives. And just like that, the score was 6-4 with a long, long way to go.
With Lynn laboring and losing steam with each pitch, Matheny was too slow to react to the sudden emergency.
Things were quiet enough three batters in. The Giants had a runner on first, but Lynn had two outs. No sweat. Then the storm arrived, catching Matheny off guard.
Hunter Pence singled. Two runners on. On Lynn’s 20th pitch of the inning, Brandon Belt ripped a line drive single to make it 6-1. It looked like a good time to activate the bullpen and get a reliever loose, but Matheny didn’t move.
Gregor Blanco’s bullet went for a two-run triple, and the Cardinals’ lead was pared to 6-3.
Surely, a reliever would get busy in the bullpen. Lynn was still throwing hard, but his pitches were catching the fat part of the plate. Lynn was up to 24 pitches in the inning, and the Giants were feasting. But Matheny waited. The bullpen remained empty.
The next batter, Brandon Crawford, dueled Lynn during a seven-pitch engagement and prevailed by stroking an RBI double. It was 6-4, and Lynn’s fourth-inning pitch count had reached 31. The emergency had turned into a crisis, and sirens were going off in everyone’s head except for Matheny.
After the Crawford screamer, Matheny finally responded. Rookie Kelly warmed up in microwave time, and was ready to go after Lynn walked pinch-hitter Aubrey Huff on five pitches. With second baseman Daniel Descalso making a tremendous play, Kelly pulled the Cardinals out of the blaze by retiring Giants’ leadoff hitter Angel Pagan on a ground ball.
I’m not sure what Matheny was thinking. Did he want Lynn to get the win? Did he assume Lynn would find a way to get that third out? None of that fit, or mattered. Matheny is supportive of the players, and I appreciate that. I give Matheny a lot of credit for his leadership. His positive attitude has been a positive element in the team’s resilience. The Cardinals love playing for Matheny.
But there’s a lot of stake here: a chance to win the NLCS, a chance to go to the World Series, a chance for the St. Louis franchise to win a 12th World Series championship. I just think Matheny needed to be more proactive and aggressive there.
Even though the Giants are worthy of our respect and admiration, Game 1 should have been more routine. This shouldn’t have degenerated into a tension-created headache. Get a 6-0 lead, then ride an outstanding bullpen if Lynn showed signs of wilting.
That’s the curious aspect to all of this; coming into this series the STL bullpen had a postseason ERA of 2.19. They’d done superb work during the play-in game vs. Atlanta, and then again vs. Washington in the NLDS. The rookies, Kelly and Rosenthal, had combined to work seven postseason innings, allowing only one hit, no runs and striking out eight. Surely, their performances were sufficient to earn Matheny’s trust.
Fortunately for the Cardinals, the bullpen was up for the challenge of protecting the two-run lead. The boys also protected Matheny. Instead of having to answer questions about blowing Game 1 in a collapse that could have been prevented, Matheny was able to talk about the positive start to the series.
The Cardinals relievers saved Game 1. And they saved Matheny.

No comments: