I could sing Tony Bennett’s song right now as painful as he has so many times over the past few decades when thinking about this playoff exit for the 2014 St. Louis Cardinals. The playoffs are full of mesmerizing sequences. Good and bad. Unlikely heroes. Tough finishes. Painful realities. The Giants weren’t a better team than the St. Louis Cardinals this season. They were simply better than them this week. At the most important moments of a game, the Giants were smarter and more efficient.
While the knife is still fresh in my stomach, let’s recap the events.
The Cardinals were on to Madison Bumgarner from the start of the game, smoking line drives off him and putting runners on base. A freakish RBI double from Jon Jay that sailed over the head of Travis Ishikawa(he wouldn’t be a goat for long) gave the Cards a 1-0 lead. With runners on second and third, Matt Holliday hit a shallow pop up to center field, and Jose Oquendo didn’t send Matt Carpenter. That run would be costly in the end. It could have been 2-0. It was 1-0 instead.
After allowing a 2 run home run to Joe Panik, Adam Wainwright seemed to settle in. For four innings, he seemed to be decent yet close to breaking. The Giants put runners on base but couldn’t get anything other than a lucky poke from the rookie second baseman.
Wainwright got stronger and stronger. This is no surprise. When he is on, he only gets better as the innings pile on. The Giants couldn’t touch him and in the 6th inning, he struck out the heart of the order before completing a 1-2-3 seventh inning. Here is the part I hate talking about. After the sixth inning, Waino told Matheny one more inning. I wish he hadn’t done this. Maybe the ace knew something fans didn’t. He could have sensed his number of efficient pitches starting to dim. He exited the game after the 7th inning, allowing 2 runs, 7 hits, striking out 7 and walking 2. He was mesmerizing and left 2014 on a high note.
This is where things went bad.
Pat Neshek came into the 8th inning and Michael Morse was waiting for him. The big muscular pinch hitting machine in the playoffs came to the plate and truth be told, before the fatal pitch was thrown, I had a flashback to Game 2 of the NLDS where Matt Kemp blasted the first pitch off Neshek for a game winning home run. Morse blasted a poorly placed slider and the game was tied. With one swing, the strong Waino outing was obliterated, like a puff of smoke disappearing in a cold gust of wind. This wasn’t on Matheny. Waino asked to be taken out. Neshek was the setup man all year. He simply got beat.
The Cards loaded the bases in the 9th inning against Giants closer Santiago Casilla. There was hope. Oscar Taveras came in during a flurry of moves by Mike Matheny. The manager was going for it all. He pinch ran Daniel Descalso for Matt Adams. He brought in Peter Bourjos to play center in the 8th, but Oscar hit for him. Bruce Bochy countered and brought in Jeremy Affeldt. He retired Oscar on three pitches. The threat was over.
Here is where things went very bad.
Michael Wacha came in. He hadn’t pitched in a game since September 26th, a total of 20 days. He wasn’t right in September but was put on TWO postseason rosters anyway. Why not? He was so good in 2013 so what difference does 365 days mean? Wacha was bad. He was throwing mostly heat and his changeup was trash. Pablo Sandoval laced a leadoff single, and was pinch ran for. Hunter Pence lined out. Brandon Belt walked. Ishikawa came to the plate. back in the 3rd inning, he let the Jay double sail over his head. Here he was, taking three straight balls to start the count. Mike Matheny stuck with Wacha here instead of bringing in double play machine Seth Maness. Why not? The fans asked for it so let them have him. Wacha served up an inside fastball and Ishikawa cranked it over the wall in right field. Game winning, series clinching, redbird heart smashing home run.
Game. Set. Match.
A year after compiling a 2.64 ERA and a 4-1 record in the postseason, Wacha recorded 1 out and finished with an ERA of 81.00. That’s a ridiculous number to use here but it preaches the point of timing for Matheny. There was ZERO reason to go with Wacha in a tied game that also stood as a potential elimination game. He wasn’t used for two weeks and suddenly he was there tonight, in hostile ground, trying to get lucky. This, unlike the Neshek home run, was simply bad managing. Matheny doesn’t throw the pitches but he sets the stakes and the matchups. He lost big time in this series with his Game 3 Choate-Fest and in Game 5 with the use of Wacha. Wrong move. They can’t make those foolhardy calls in the Major League Baseball playoffs.
What else? Sadness is settling in. Looking back at the season, the Cards were a thrilling, frustrating and ultimately doomed team. Their plane had a clipped wing and a smoking engine. I was surprised when they won the Central. I was surprised when they outslugged the Dodgers. Reality set in against the Giants, as the Cardinals fumbled home field advantage and lost in five games.
The 2014 season is over. Analyze Matheny later. The team may look different next year or it could be the same, with a little more young blood added in. That’s bullets for another article.
For now, I say goodnight. The bittersweet thing about baseball is the minute the season ends, a small sign of relief creeps into the door. Finally, the head can settle back into normal mode.
I am going to imagine a world where Adam Wainwright stays in and pitches the 8th inning. It may be naive but I am going to do that. I’ll stay there for another few hours.
So long for just a few,
Dan L. Buffa