Last night was an evening of jubilation for Cardinals fans, as the 2017 Redbirds began to right the inconceivable wrong of the 2016 season by defeating the defending World Series Champion Chicago Cubs (it will take a while to get used to that) on Opening Day. The Cardinals battled hard in this game, and there were many things to be excited about:
1) Carlos Martinez looked electric. Posting 7 1/3 shutout innings while striking out 10 with a WHIP of .82 (no walks, six hits), the Cardinals’ young ace erased any immediate doubts about his contract or his role as the Opening Day starter.
2) Randal Grichuk looked incredible. Going 2/4 with a walk, a home run, and 3 RBI, including the walk off hit that would have plated more runs if necessary, the Cardinals’ on again, off again slugger opened the season with a bang, continuing the momentum he had toward the end of last season. If Grichuk can produce anywhere close to this well, the Cardinals’ lineup will be dangerous.
3) Yadier Molina looked ageless. Catching nine innings while collecting two hits and two walks, the newly extended Redbirds backstop looked as good as ever, and seemed as hot as he was during the World Baseball Classic.
4) Dexter Fowler looked at home. Fowler collected a hit and a walk, and scored what looked to be the game’s only run until the bottom of the eighth, but more importantly, he looked good (and was very well received) in red, squaring off against his old team.
And yet, with all of that to celebrate, I could not help but notice some of the frustrating demons of Mike Matheny’s managing rearing their ugly little heads again last night. Let’s consider a few (and you are welcome to comment, criticize, or add to these):
1) Pinch hitting blunders: The unsettled Kolten Wong has been the talk of the last week, after his comments regarding the decision to platoon him with Jedd Gyorko. So, after all of that frustration, Matheny decides to utilize Wong in relief of Gyorko during a critical AB with runners in scoring position? Admittedly, the pitcher was a right-hander (which would fit the platoon model) but if Matheny does not trust Wong as a hitter, why would he bring him out in such a critical situation?
2) Ill-Planned Double Switches: This is one of Matheny’s continual struggles. Mike clearly values offense over defense (see: above) which is a fine philosophy, even if it is one I often disagree with. But if that is the case, why does he continually make defensive substitutions for impact hitters late in close games? Last night, with runners on in the eighth and a 1-0 score, Matheny chose to make a double switch, bringing in closer Seung Hwan Oh and third baseman Greg Garcia, replacing cleanup hitter Jhonny Peralta. The Cubs would be stopped in the eighth, but would tie it in the ninth. In Garcia’s one at bat, he walked, which is fine; however, had Grichuk not stepped up twice, this game might have dragged on into extra innings, and having Peralta out of the lineup would have been a serious loss.
3) Over-working Relievers: One of the biggest problems of the last few seasons for Matheny has been his tendency to run his relievers into the ground. It is part of the reason that Seung Hwan Oh is now our closer instead of Trevor Rosenthal (which is not meant to take any credit away from Oh, or to give any undue credit to Rosenthal). It has been a constant complaint and concern of the local media, and tonight, Matheny jumped right back on the bullpen bicycle and pedaled away. In a clutch situation, it makes sense to bring out your closer; however, asking your closer to record a five out save, particularly on Opening Night, is an extraordinary request. Perhaps Brett Cecil, the lefty reliever GM John Mozeliak entrusted with a significant contract this offseason, ought to have been called upon to get out at least the lefty Kyle Schwarber, reducing Oh’s workload to four outs. If Matheny cannot trust his other relievers to get late and critical outs, then the Cardinals have a much more significant problem on their hands. Whatever the case, Oh can hardly be blamed for blowing his five out save, especially considering…
4) Critical Defensive Errors: The significant play that led to the Cubs’ three run, game tying homer involved Oh, Wong, 1B Matt Carpenter, and a whole lot of head scratching. With a runner on first, Cubs’ RF Jason Heyward hit a ball softly to the fair side of first base. Carpenter fielded the ball and looked towards second, but decided the double play could not be made. Turning to first instead, he bobbled the ball in his glove, and with Wong arriving at the bag late, and Oh holding off to allow Wong to arrive late, all runners were safe on what might have been a double play and should at least have been an easy out. With two runners on base, Wilson Contreras’ home run to left field became a game-tying home run, and without the heroics of Grichuk, the game may have had a very different conclusion. The Cardinals’ struggled defensively all last season, to the point that it was, in theory, Mozeliak’s primary concern to address in the offseason. Again, one play is one play, but we must hope it is not a sign of things to come.
5) RISP failure: Grichuk would not have had to be the hero had the Cardinals performed better with runners on base. The Cardinals were 1-12 with Runners in Scoring Position (any guesses who got the “1”?), and they left four runners stranded in scoring position with two outs. Gone are the days when the Cardinals had absurd RISP numbers for an entire season. This is the biggest immediate concern from this game, and needs to be addressed if the Cardinals want to compete with the Cubs long term.
One game in a 162 game season is hardly a big enough sample size to draw any major conclusions, positive or negative. And I am not trying to suck the air out of the Cardinals’ balloon. I am very happy to see the Cardinals back in action with a win on Opening Day. But before we start stealing W flags from Cubs fans and flying them ourselves, we had better consider some of the flaws in our victory as well. We will see if these are momentary stumbles or full-blown relapses for Matheny. Whatever the case, the Cardinals need a reliable performance from their manager if they are going to succeed this season.