(BaseballStL) — Middle relievers don’t get a whole lot of attention. Even in St. Louis, a town known for its passionate fan base and love of all things baseball, bullpen jerseys don’t sell. If cold, strike-throwing efficiency was as captivating as three-run homers, number 61 might be the most popular uniform in town.
Seth Maness has been the team’s fixer, its cleaner, the Redbirds’ Michael Clayton. He threw 80.1 innings during the season, posting an ERA of 2.91 (2.73 in the second half). He had come in with the bases loaded, faced the hearts of orders with men in scoring position, worked multiple innings and even closed out games (three saves). He has cleaned up more messes than a middle school janitor, and he has done it in every situation imaginable and seemingly without fail.
“I wouldn’t say every time, but I just try to stay as even keel as possible,”said Maness, who turned 24 Tuesday. “You’ve got the nerves flying, and you gotta do your best to tuck those away and pitch your game.”
He may not think so, but the numbers say this October is a flawless one for Maness. He’s faced 13 batters, allowed no runs, no walks and only a solitary hit. In Game 1 of the NLDS, after Sam Freeman walked two batters and the Dodgers were one big swing away from stretching a 6-1 lead to near-double digits, he silenced the LA bats and stranded two.
In a crucial Game 2 in the NLCS, he came on in the top of the ninth with the bases loaded and the Giants having already tied the game, cooly getting a come-backer to cut short the rally and set up the game-winning home run.
“You play all year and you may get jacked up a few times, but it’s not this level of intensity at all during the regular season. It’s new to a lot of people. We have a lot of young guys and to them it’s a new experience and you just have to control that. Talk about it all you want but until you’re actually out there and feel the crowd and throw a couple pitches, it’s intense,” he said. “I think it’s just breathing. Try to breathe the best you can. It’s not going to help a whole lot but it’ll hopefully get you back to your basics and what got you there.”
Both games were business as usual for the baby-faced reliever, who held hitters to a .223 average in high leverage (game-changing) situations while striking out 4.33 hitters to every one he walked. His deceptively calm persona and warm southern drawl belies the bulldog underneath, an icy-veined assassin that threw just 3.43 pitches per plate appearance and stranded 48 of the 65 runners he inherited in 2014.
So in a pivotal Game 3 in San Francisco, it seemed criminal that he only threw six pitches with the game tied 4-4 in the ninth. With the pitcher’s spot scheduled to lead off the tenth, Mike Matheny opted to let Randal Grichuk bat (hitting eighth) in the ninth and he struck out for the final out of the inning. Maness entered and pitched a clean bottom half, and was pinch hit for by Peter Bourjos in the next frame. Had the Cardinal manager opted for a double switch, putting Bourjos in for the Pat Neshek hitting ninth and Maness in for Grichuk in the 10th after his at bat, it would have been the East Carolina University product on the mound in the final inning instead of Randy Choate.
Matheny had his reasons, and in the end the game came down to poor fielding, but one would be forgiven for wondering if things would have been different. Instead the Cardinals trail 2-1 in the NLCS, facing a must-win game lest they be forced to fight for their lives against Madison Bumgarner.
Despite being underused on Tuesday, Maness’ work is far from finished this October. Though fans will never forget the improbable string of hits against Clayton Kershaw in Game 1 in LA, Matt Adams’ three-run homer in Game 4 or the twin combo of Oscar Taveras and Kolten Wong in Game 2, playoff victories are born from precision and machine-like consistency.
If jaw-dropping moments are what you want, then keep your eyes on the offense. If you crave ruthless efficiency, then fix your gaze on the bullpen, because Seth Maness is your man.