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Mike Matheny’s Other Decision

In the bottom of the fourth inning of Game 4, with the Cardinals up 1-0, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny faced a choice. With two outs and men on first and second, pitcher Lance Lynn stepped up. Like most pitchers, Lynn is hardly a threat with the bat; in 137 regular season plate appearances over his first three seasons, he had just seven hits, all singles. Lynn had thrown four solid innings, so Matheny let his pitcher bat. Lynn flew out to right, and the Cardinals would score just one more run.

In the top of the fifth inning of Game 4, with the Cardinals still up 1-0, Boston manager John Farrell faced a similar choice. With two outs and men on first and second, pitcher Clay Buchholz stepped up. He may or may not be able to handle the bat, but with only four career regular season plate appearances in his seven years in the bigs, there’s little reason to think he could. Buchholz had also thrown four productive innings, but Farrell instead chose not to let his pitcher bat.

The decision didn’t lead directly to any Boston scoring, because pinch-hitter Mike Carp grounded out to end the inning, and it’s likely that both of these moments will be quickly forgotten in the wake of Matheny’s confounding seventh-inning decisions, Farrell’s choice to go with John Lackey over Koji Uehara in the eighth, and whatever it was that Kolten Wong was thinking. Yet with runs coming at a premium this October, Buchholz looking shaky at best, and Lynn unlikely to offer St. Louis a whole lot more with the top of the Boston lineup not far from coming up for a third time, it was the perfect opportunity to try to take advantage of a situation and generate some badly-needed offense. (This isn’t entirely second-guessing, either, as it was suggested by several at the time.)

We’ve read a lot about Matheny’s dangerously slow hook, but it’s hard to say that this really falls under that category, because Matheny would have had to go well against accepted tradition to yank his starter after just four innings. (That Farrell did so is in large part due to the far-from-healthy status of Buchholz, who was never expected to work deep into the game.) Then again, accepted tradition demands that if Randy Choate exists on this planet for any reason, it’s to face the opponent’s most dangerous lefty hitter, which Matheny also opted not to do.

And if I may steal from Dave Cameron’s above-linked piece about Matheny’s bullpen usage, it’s not hard at all to see that Lynn was unlikely to be successful in a third trip around the Boston lineup, as the league numbers for starting pitchers show:

League

BA

OBP

SLG

1st PA vs SP

0.250

0.310

0.390

2nd PA vs SP

0.259

0.319

0.411

3rd PA vs SP

0.270

0.331

0.429

As might have been expected, Matheny gained little from this. After Lynn flew out, he immediately then went out and struggled through a 29-pitch fifth inning, coughing up the lead on a double, two walks, and a sacrifice fly, then setting up the Red Sox for Jonny Gomes‘ huge homer in the sixth.

But then again, this isn’t all on Matheny, is it? In an all-hands-on-deck playoff world of twelve-man pitching staffs and a much higher frequency of days off than in the regular season, the Cardinals should easily have been able to eat up five bullpen innings. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t really have 12 pitchers on his staff. Game 3 starter Joe Kelly was unavailable, of course, but he’s also carrying two complete black holes, starter Shelby Miller and reliever Edward Mujica.

Miller has pitched just once in the postseason, relieving in Game 2 of the NLDS more than three weeks ago and has been eating up a roster spot since. Mujica was the team’s primary closer for most of the year, yet pitched just a single inning in both the NLDS and NLCS, and has yet to appear in the World Series. It’s possible that either or both are injured or just fatigued, and if so, you understand why Matheny prefers to avoid them. But if so, you still can’t quite comprehend why either are still on the roster, because even if alternatives like Sam Freeman or Tyler Lyons or Jake Westbrook are imperfect, they still seem better than going with what is essentially a ten-man pitching staff that doesn’t even have the benefit of the extra bench players such a situation would normally provide.

Matheny had used five pitchers to back up Kelly in Game 3, and knew that Monday would bring a Game 5 without the benefit of a day off, so perhaps not putting himself at a disadvantage behind Adam Wainwright tonight by pulling Lynn too early on Sunday night was at the forefront of his mind. Whether or not that risk takes precedence over the incredibly high likelihood that he was hurting himself in the game at hand is up for debate, but the fact that he’s trying to win a World Series with a 22.5-man roster (giving Allen Craig a half here, and that’s generously counting Peter Kozma as a full player) isn’t. Matheny, obviously, is a flawed manager in the perception of many, but you do wonder what his decision making might have been had he be given a full staff to work with.