Taking over for Tony La Russa put Mike Matheny in a tough spot.
Most of the time in sports, you don't want to be the guy that takes over for a legendary or extremely successful figure.
The Los Angeles Dodgers replaced Tommy Lasorda with a lackluster Bill Russell. Buddy Bell did nothing to make Detroit Tigers fans forget about Sparky Anderson. Joe Torre didn't succeed as Whitey Herzog's successor with the St. Louis Cardinals.
When Mike Matheny became the manager of the Cardinals this season, he was stepping into a situation that others might have shied away from.
The Cards' new manager would take over for Tony La Russa, who was in the St. Louis dugout for 16 seasons and won two World Series titles. He was also stepping into the job after winning the second of those championships. Unless the new skipper won another World Series, wouldn't Matheny be viewed as a failure?
Now that St. Louis has been eliminated for the 2012 MLB playoffs, that question may be asked among Cardinals fans, reporters and analysts. If La Russa had still been the Cards manager, would the team have collapsed in the NLCS—losing three straight games to blow a 3-1 series lead—and failed to reach a second consecutive World Series?
But was it Matheny's fault that the Cardinals lineup couldn't score any runs in the NLCS? St. Louis scored one run in the final three games of the series.
Matt Holliday hit .200 (5-for-25) with no extra-base hits, though he was fighting a back injury. David Freese batted .192 (5-for-26). Allen Craig was .124 (3-for-24) in the seven games.
Is there anything the manager could have done about that?
Should he have benched someone—as New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi did with Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson in the ALCS—and hoped for some sort of spark from his reserves? Or did he have to stay with his best players and hope they produced to their usual standard?
La Russa liked to tinker, so perhaps he would have shuffled the batting order.
Would he have moved Carlos Beltran to third or fourth in the lineup? Could he have pushed Holliday up to the No. 2 spot, hoping he might get better pitches to hit? Since Yadier Molina began to heat up later in the series, what about putting him among the top three spots in the lineup to get on base and generate some offense?
Personally, I think Matheny should have subbed in Matt Carpenter—the only other Cardinal batter besides Beltran who was hitting—for Craig at first base in a do-or-die Game 7. Carpenter was also 5-for-6 against Cain, which included a home run in Game 3 of the NLCS.
It's kind of unbelievable that Carpenter didn't even appear in the game, though it really wouldn't have mattered with the Giants jumping out to a 7-0 lead after three innings.
But there's also something to be said for sticking with what works. St. Louis won a wild-card playoff spot and defeated the Washington Nationals in the NLDS with Matheny's usual batting order. The Cards established a 3-1 series lead with that lineup. Moving players around likely would have been viewed as a panic move. Matheny apparently preferred to err on the side of stability.
Obviously, that didn't work. Yet there's no guarantee that shuffling players around for the sake of appearances—he has to do something!—would have yielded any success either. If the Cardinals' best batters got more hits, this wouldn't have been an issue.
On the pitching side, it's difficult to see what else Matheny could have done differently. St. Louis had Lance Lynn, Chris Carpenter and Kyle Lohse tabbed to start the final three games of the series. The Cards' rotation couldn't have worked out much better than that.
Perhaps Lynn could have been scrubbed from his Game 5 start after getting knocked around by the Giants in Game 1. But who could have pitched in his place? Matheny wasn't going to start Shelby Miller in a potential series clincher. Even if he had, Lynn probably would've had to piggyback onto Miller's start as a long reliever.
As with the batting order, Matheny had to go with the guys that had performed all year. Lynn, Carpenter and Lohse didn't pitch well and that's why the Cardinals lost the final three games of the NLCS.
Maybe Matheny could have taken Carpenter out of Game 6 sooner than he did, like in the third inning when his turn to bat came up. The Cards bullpen was rested after an off-day and could have pitched multiple innings.
Sticking with Carpenter through four innings almost made it look as if Matheny was conceding the game and saving his relievers for Game 7. But the damage had already been done by the third inning. Carpenter had given up five runs to put St. Louis behind 5-0.
La Russa certainly had an aura of brilliance to him after winning the World Series last year, but he didn't win every World Series he'd been in. It's likely that he wouldn't have won this one either, though he probably would have tinkered a bit more than Matheny did.
But Matheny's approach ever since getting hired was to not mess anything up and generally stay out of the way of a veteran team that had already won a championship. Abruptly changing that approach in a playoff series wouldn't have accomplished much and may have ended up alienating some players.
The Cardinals manager may employ a different philosophy next season. Perhaps Matheny has to be more reactive—or proactive—with his team. Altering his approach gradually will surely be more amenable to his clubhouse next season.
Unfortunately, the shadow of La Russa will probably hang over Matheny if he doesn't win. But a playoff spot—even if it was a second wild-card spot that didn't exist last year—and return to the NLCS was a nice debut season for the Cards' rookie skipper. Even La Russa would probably acknowledge that.
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