I've already written one mea culpa for criticizing the Cardinals' hiring of Mike Matheny, who had no previous managing experience.
Here comes another.
Heck, maybe it's time for me to just go all-in on the no-experience guys. Given the respective successes of Matheny and the White Sox's Robin Ventura in their first seasons, it would be difficult to question the Red Sox if they took a chance on Brad Ausmus. I'd probably draw the line if the Rockies hired Jason Giambi. But really, what the heck do I know anymore?
Matheny, as the Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak anticipated, is growing month by month, series by series, day by day. Indeed, his aggressive decision-making in the Cardinals' 3-1 victory over the Giants in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on Wednesday night would have made Tony La Russa proud.
I didn't love Matheny's strategy because it worked; a manager looks smart only when his players execute. No, I loved Matheny's strategy because it demonstrated both urgency and an evolution in his thought process over a span of just 11 days.
Matheny, in Game 1 of the Division Series against the Nationals, lost an eighth-inning chess match with Davey Johnson when Nats pinch-hitter Tyler Moore hit a go-ahead, two-run single in a right-left matchup against Cards reliever Marc Rzepczynski.
One of Matheny's options in that spot was to insert closer Jason Motte in a double-switch, but the manager said he was not comfortable with the accompanying move -- the removal of Matt Holliday, Allen Craig or Yadier Molina from the middle of his lineup.
On Wednesday night, Matheny showed no such hesitation, pulling Craig, his cleanup hitter, in a double switch in the middle of the seventh inning. His choice was all the more surprising considering that the Cardinals had just a 2-1 lead at the time, and already had lost their No. 2 hitter, Carlos Beltran, to a left knee strain.
Different game, different circumstances.
The Giants were threatening against reliever Edward Mujica, who had allowed back-to-back singles with one out. Matheny could have stuck with Mujica, his usual seventh-inning reliever. Instead, he summoned Mitchell Boggs, knowing that a rain delay was imminent -- and that the interruption might prevent Boggs from pitching his normal inning, the eighth.
Well, Boggs struck out Hunter Pence and Brandon Belt to escape the threat. A delay of 3 hours, 28 minutes hit with two outs in the bottom half, at which point Matheny faced another pivotal decision. He couldn't bring back Boggs for the eighth after that lengthy a wait. Motte was his best remaining option.
Not that the choice was simple; Motte had never earned a two-inning save, though he did pitch two innings for the win in Game 5 of the Division Series against the Nationals. What's more, Matheny risked overextending Motte and losing him for at least one of the next two nights.
So, Matheny decided that Motte would enter the game only in a save situation -- that is, if the score remained 3-1 (St. Louis added a run in the bottom of the seventh before the delay began) or if the Cardinals extended their lead to 4-1 after play resumed with two on and two out. Once Jon Jay made the final out of the inning, the issue was settled. Matheny made his second double-switch of the night and put Motte in the game.
As it turned out, Motte's save required relatively little effort -- he retired all six hitters he faced, throwing only 19 pitches, 16 strikes. When I asked him in the postgame interview on FOX if he could work another two innings in Game 4 on Thursday night, he said, "Sign me up!"
In hindsight, Matheny's moves may have appeared obvious -- his bench was short after the Cardinals lost Beltran, so his double-switches were necessary to keep his pitchers from hitting. Matt Carpenter, whose two-run homer in place of Beltran made him the game's offensive hero, offered positional flexibility, enabling Matheny to move him from right to first after pulling Craig.
Still, a manager who sacrifices his cleanup hitter in the seventh inning of an NLCS game with a one-run lead cannot exactly be described as meek. Matheny said afterward that he often managed his offense aggressively during the regular season, but rarely was as forceful with his defense and pitching. In this case, he acknowledged, the situation required a stronger hand.
No manager is perfect, and Matheny arguably stuck too long with Adam Wainwright in Game 5 of the Division Series, falling behind, 6-0, and also with Lance Lynn in Game 1 of the NLCS, allowing a 6-0 lead to be reduced to 6-4. But while Matheny's inexperience still will show on occasion, he is far from overmatched.
During games, he leans heavily on his coaches, communicating with them frequently -- "if something goes wrong," Matheny says, "it's a bad move on account of the fact that I did it on my own." And here's something that will really make you hate Matheny: The stress of the job barely registers on his face.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland uttered a memorable line Wednesday, saying, "Show me a manager that looks like Paul Newman after 162 games, and I'll show you a manager who didn't do a very good job." Well, Matheny still looks like Paul Newman -- and maybe better, according to some members of the opposite sex.
Last November, I described the respective hirings of Matheny and Ventura as dangerous gambles, saying, "The job is too difficult. The game is full of more qualified candidates. The risk involved with hiring a newbie is simply too great."
I believed it at the time, still believe it to a degree. But I was wrong about Ventura, and I was wrong about Matheny. Both turned out to be quite good, and as the games grow in importance, Matheny is getting better still.