When things aren’t going right for the Cardinals, Mike Matheny tends to take a lot of grief from the fan base. A notable lack of postseason appearances for St. Louis the past couple seasons—with fundamentals flubs and bullpen bugaboos aplenty during that time—has directed more scrutiny than ever before in the skipper’s direction.
Matheny has been accused by some of costing the Cardinals more games than he wins them thanks to controversial managerial decisions. Some of the criticism is fair, but some of it, of course, is not.
For that reason, it’s important to not only notice the manager’s influence when things go poorly, but to also recognize when Matheny puts his team in a better position to win a game—which is exactly what he did Thursday afternoon.
As he’s done so many times this season, Miles Mikolas was cooking up another gem at Busch Stadium. Through seven innings, Mikolas had not allowed an earned run. He had thrown 99 pitches and looked as though he might be good for another 15 or so more. Considering the team’s recent bullpen struggles—its 6.25 ERA over the past 30 days heading into Thursday was 3rd-worst in baseball over that stretch—running Mikolas out for the eighth seemed like the sensible move.
Except for that whole… sweating thing.
“He was at about a 100 pitches, it was hot. He’s a sweater, too—I mean, he sweats,” Matheny shared to a chorus of laughs. “Walking down in the tunnel there and he had jerseys just lined up because he knew he was gonna soak ‘em and have to replace them. He was losing some water weight today.”
While citing the importance of hydration, Mikolas downplayed the sweat factor in his possible fatigue.
“I kinda grew up in this weather down in Florida,” he said. “There was a nice little breeze today, it wasn’t as bad as I expected.”
But still, Mikolas’ spot in the batting order was due to lead off the bottom of the seventh. The Cardinals led 3-1, and Matheny wanted to play for a chance at insurance runs. He substituted Greg Garcia in as a pinch-hitter, thus ending Mikolas’ day. But the maneuvering didn’t end there.
After Garcia was announced, Don Mattingley went to his bullpen for lefty Adam Conley. That meant it was time for Matheny to counter once again.
Last season with St. Louis, Luke Voit slugged .516 off lefties, as opposed to .398 off righties. This season in Memphis, he's slugged .500 against lefties, .298 against righties. And his lone big-league hit this season? That also came off a lefty.
Though Garcia has a two-homer game to his credit against a lefty this season, his career numbers aren’t quite as strong (.191 BAVG, .298 SLG). This spot was made for Luke Voit. The manager whose affinity for chess is common knowledge was aiming to put his opponent in check in the seventh. Matheny went ahead and subbed in Voit, rendering Garcia a pawn for the day.
“How do we add on a little bit here and not wait, and take our best shot?” Matheny said. “Realizing that we still feel like we have some coverage with the guys we have on our bench still to cover us on the infield. We still have coverage in the outfield. You always love to have extra players in case something goes awry, but we felt that might be our best chance.”
That feeling proved correct: Voit launched a home run into the visiting bullpen to give the Cardinals that valuable insurance run. For his part, Voit was just happy for the chance.
“It’s the best feeling in the world, man,” Voit said. “Hitting a home run is like Christmas morning and I wish I could do it every time. But it’s a feeling you never forget.”
Even before the puppeteering in the bottom of the seventh, Matheny delivered a more subtle move in the top half. As he typically prefers late in games where the Cardinals lead, Matheny strengthened his team’s infield defense—and did so without a double switch.
He subbed out Jose Martinez for Jedd Gyorko and moved Matt Carpenter across the diamond to first, where he took part in two not-quite-routine plays to help Mikolas navigate his final inning of work.
Voit hit his bomb, and from there, the Cardinals were on cruise control.
Jordan Hicks made things a bit interesting in the eighth, but with no damage done, he cleared the way for Bud Norris to close out a Cardinals winner in the ninth. For the cherry on top, Gyorko—one of the earlier defensive replacements—got to flash his range and throwing arm on the final out of the game after the ball caromed off Norris in his direction.
St. Louis avoided what would have been an especially embarrassing sweep considering the state of the Marlins at present—and Matheny pressed all the right buttons to help make it happen.