The St. Louis Cardinals entered Game 5 of the NLCS with a commanding 3-1 lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers. A win in Game 5 would send the Cardinals on to the World Series and provide a few days of much-needed rest for the players. A loss would send the series back to St. Louis.
The Dodgers jumped out to an early lead, and Mike Matheny decided to stay with starter Joe Kelly despite warming up Shelby Miller multiple times. Kelly labored through five innings, surrendering four runs and leading Matheny to some questionable decisions with his bullpen.
The Cardinals' lackluster offense had only posted two run through the first five innings despite big opportunities early. Based on their performance in the series to date, it was hard to believe that they would rally for more runs in this game. Down by two runs, Matheny turned to his bullpen to keep the game within reach.
Randy Choate would start the sixth inning and retire Adrian Gonzalez and Andre Ethier in succession. Matheny would then turn to his former closer, Edward Mujica, to finish off the inning. Cardinal fans may have been holding their breath as Mujica faced Yasiel Puig, but Mujica was successful in this instance as he induced a groundout to third base.
Inexplicably, Matheny decided to stick with Mujica in the seventh inning. Using Mujica beyond the one out in the sixth suggested that Matheny was trying to save his bullpen for Game 6 and Game 7 back in St. Louis.
The opportunity to let Mujica retire Puig and leave the game with confidence that he did his job was there, but Matheny ignored that opportunity by returning Mujica to the mound for an additional inning. That additional inning proved to wreck Mujica's positive outing as he surrendered a home run to A.J. Ellis and left the game without completing the seventh.
Matheny preached a message of urgency to the Cardinals prior to the game, according to Bernie Miklasz of StlToday.com. Bernie goes on to question that message, specifically concerning the use of Mujica:
You know the story on Mujica: demoted closer, worn out by a long season. He lost his split-fingered pitch. He’s been sadly vulnerable and beaten down. Since Aug. 21, Mujica has an 8.25 ERA and has been torched for five homers and seven doubles in 12 innings. And Matheny — with so many power arms in the bullpen and a day off Thursday — opted to bring spontaneous combustion into a game that could have sent the Cardinals to a World Series.
Kevin Seigrist would finish the seventh inning by striking out Carl Crawford, leaving the Cardinals with a three-run deficit and two innings to play.
Seigrist would be lifted for a pinch hitter in the top of the eighth inning, and Matheny would turn to John Axford to pitch the bottom of the inning. Similar to Mujica, Axford has been building confidence in games during low-pressure situations. Also similar to Mujica, Axford would not escape the inning unscathed as he surrendered a home run to Adrian Gonzalez, his second of the game. Axford would complete the inning, and the Cardinals would come to bat in the ninth down by four runs.
The Cardinals offense decided to make a rare playoff appearance in the ninth inning, producing two runs before being retired by Dodgers' closer Kenley Jansen. The 6-4 victory claimed Game 5 for the Dodgers and ensured at least one more game in St. Louis.
Matheny's use of Mujica beyond the single out in the sixth inning and Axford in the eighth inning seemed to suggest that the Cardinals' manager felt the game was out of reach. He appeared to be managing his players to prepare for the next game, showing a lack of confidence in his offense to overcome the small lead the Dodgers had built up.
Ultimately, the end of the game would show that the Cardinals' offense was capable of overcoming the small lead but not able to climb back into a game that had seen the lead grow. The Cardinals scored two runs in the ninth inning and threatened to score more. Mujica and Axford surrendered two runs in the game, ensuring that the comeback would fall short.
Matheny seemed to be playing with tomorrow in mind instead of trying to win the game in front of him. It gave the Dodgers life in a series that had been demoralizing for them until that point. It may have provided the Dodgers with the momentum they need to overcome the odds.
In the postseason, a manager has to play to win every game at every moment. Matheny did not have that edge in Game 5. He waved the white flag and chose to fight another day.
How the team responds in Game 6 will be extremely important now.
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