(BaseballStL) — Mike Matheny, in his third year on the job, is still learning as he goes. Following two deep postseason runs to kick off his tenure, he began 2014 with a top-three rotation and a club expected to lead the division on their way back to another World Series appearance.
Almost immediately, it was clear this season’s victories would not come so easy. Through 96 games the Cardinals have been afflicted with injuries, underproduction and inconsistency.
What grade do you give the Cardinals' first half performance? Share your thoughts.
Joe Kelly missed nearly the entire first half with a hamstring injury, rushing back for an ineffective return Friday night. In late June Michael Wacha was diagnosed with a peculiar malady in his shoulder, forcing him to be shut down for at least a month. Jaime Garcia underwent surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, ending his season after just seven starts.
60 percent of the vaunted St. Louis rotation has missed or will continue to miss major time. Shelby Miller has remained healthy for the most part, but has been largely mediocre, going less than six innings in 11 of his 19 starts. That’s left Matheny to scramble the jets, plugging in Carlos Martinez, Tyler Lyons and even AA pitcher Marco Gonzales to eat innings. Combine the rotation turnover with a young bullpen and the Cardinal skipper had plenty to juggle for three months. 16 team shutouts say he did an admirable job.
Offense has been a different story. As nearly every part of the order has struggled to find their form (Matt Adams being a notable exception) for most of the season, Matheny has been unable to engineer a solution.
Not that he hasn’t tried.
The 43-year-old has drawn up every conceivable configuration for the lineup, even hitting Yadier Molina second to try and spur production. Allen Craig has hit in just about every spot in the order, in an attempt to lift his .244 average. To a certain degree, results are out of his hands. He can’t go out and swing the bat himself, so at some point he’s just hoping for the best.
However, he doesn’t give his ideas time to play out. In a game where success is defined by repeatability over large sample sizes, Matheny has been too quick to change course. The lineup is different nearly every night, and that may not help players who are accustomed to knowing their role when they arrive at the park.
The late charge heading into the break has done wonders for everyone’s mood, but a rising tide lifts all ships. When there aren’t home runs to bail a team out, eyes will once again fix on the manager. There were decisions early that illuminated the learning process. Trevor Rosenthal hit with a man on in extra innings, predictably striking out and then losing the game in the next frame. Yadier Molina was bunted with two out and two on to move runners up a station, again in extras, sacrificing what was then the team’s best hitter for a chance to remove the double play. There are a few others, but those stand out in particular.
Matheny has managed pitchers well and done his best with the offense, but his in game decision making has been a work in progress. When a team hits historically well with runners in scoring position, it covers a lot of cracks. With the cracks exposed for the first time, the Cardinal skipper is working out to fix them on the fly. So far, he has earned a solid B.