Not all games are created equal in a seven game series.
Game Five, if needed, is the most important as it means either elimination for one team, or having to face two such games should they lose. Game Five of the NLCS, weather permitting, will take place on Friday, where the Cardinals have been declared to have terrible luck – ignoring the play-in game in Atlanta and that unbelievable comeback in Washington.
Game One is next since both teams are eager to start the series off with a win and force the other team to win four of the next six. The visiting team has to win one away game and the home team wants to head into Game Two with a lot of momentum.
That brings us to Game Three. This will be the only time the lower seed has home field advantage in the series, and it is important for them to take advantage. If they are trailing 0-2 in the series, it is important to get a win and “hold serve”. If they lead 2-0, the higher seed can all but be knocked out with a win (see the Yankees/Tigers series for an example).
Or the two teams could be tied at one game apiece, as is the case so far in this series. That is not lost on Mike Matheny. Nor is the importance of getting a lead and keeping pressure on the opposition. While not a must win game, it would certainly rank as very important.
That brings us to the bullpen sequence that Matheny chose to use in this “important” game.
The first 5 2/3 innings might have been the best pitching performance in Kyle Lohse’s time in St. Louis, and that includes taking a no hitter late on opening day. It is one thing to dominate when you have your best pitches working, but the real measure of a pitcher comes when they aren’t. In this game, for the most part, they weren’t. But the veteran right hander was able to make his pitches when he needed them most, and held the Giants to one run.
With two quick outs in the Giants sixth inning, it appeared that Lohse would be able to carry the game until the inevitable rain delay, just moments away. After giving up a single to Brandon Crawford, Matt Cain would be the last hitter he would face either way. Unfortunately for Lohse, Cain singled putting the tying run in scoring position and the top of the Giants order coming up to bat. We’ve seen this happen to Lohse before, so it was no surprise when Mike Matheny went to his bullpen and handed the ball to the young flame thrower, Trevor Rosenthal.
As he had been throughout the second half of the season, and especially in the playoffs, Rosenthal was electric. Now that the fans are aware of his arsenal of pitches, the crowd roars with every delivery, especially when he reaches 100mph on the stadium radar display. 6 pitches and the Giants threat was over. Not so for the weather, which would factor in Matheny’s next decision.
Round one goes to Matheny.
When Matt Cain set Cardinals down in order in the bottom half, it created something of a challenge for Mike Matheny. The rain was approaching, but still minutes away. Rosenthal or Mujica to start the seventh inning? If you asked Cardinals fans, Rosenthal would have been the answer, but Matheny chose Mujica. It was a combination that has been working like clockwork since the trade deadline, so it makes sense that Matheny would go that way now.
Unfortunately, the Mujica magic was not working and the Giants quickly had a scoring opportunity. And the rain began to fall. With runners at first and second base, and just one out, Mike Matheny makes the decision of the game – bringing in Mitchell Boggs. Boggs is as good as he’s ever been and strikes out Hunter Pence and Brandon Belt, stranding the tying run at second. It should be noted that Belt’s strikeout was on a 1-2 slider that could not have been hand placed any better on the outside corner. Mitchell Boggs reaction to the call was priceless.
The Cardinals would add an insurance run just before a 3 hour rain delay, but there were still six outs to go.
How many times have we heard, “why save Motte for the ninth inning, this is the game right here!”. Al Hrabosky is fond of telling us how the save rule needs to be rewritten to consider critical game situations in earlier innings, rather than the last guy standing. Or, just the general, “Mike Matheny doesn’t know how to manage a bullpen.” This is why our mothers always taught us to say things sweetly, so that we don’t choke on our words when we are forced to eat them later.
Stop the presses! After the rain delay, Mike Matheny calls Jason Motte into the game for a 2 inning, six out save. Before Motte could make the first pitch, we were reminded that he gave up a run in the eighth inning earlier in Washington (while forgetting to mention he got the win). We also learned that Motte has never recorded a six out save. And the general, “I have a bad feeling about this.”
HELLO – HAVE YOU BEEN WATCHING THIS TEAM SINCE EARLY SEPTEMBER ?
Motte was brilliant. Not only did he set down the next six batters, he only needed 18 pitches to do so. The key to Motte’s success – first pitch strike. The Giants had a good plan against the Cardinals closer – they were going to make Motte throw strikes. All six batters took the first pitch. Motte hit the strike zone in five of those at bats. Ahead 0-1 in the count, Motte controlled the horizontal, and he controlled the vertical. And he ended the game in just 18 pitches.
For all of the criticism that Mike Matheny has taken for bullpen management, we have to be just as quick to applaud him for Game Three. He recognized the importance of these moments in the game, knowing that the Giants had just sat for 3 hours in a rain delay knowing they were down by at least two runs, and went all in with his A guys in a series of win-or-lose moves.
Too bad that Motte won’t be available for Game Four.
Ahhhh, don’t be too sure about that. If it is a close game late, expect Matheny to stick to Mujica in the seventh, Boggs in the eighth and Motte in the ninth. You should also know that Motte threw 18 or more pitches 29 times in the regular season. While none of those were six out saves, most were in more stressful game situations (runners on base, not hitting the strike zone) than he had in Game Three. In cases where he also had to pitch the next day, there was little correlation to the previous game’s pitch count.
The most important thing to learn from Motte’s 2012 campaign – the man is a big game pitcher. From September 16 to the end of the season, when the Cardinals were trying to earn the second wildcard, Motte pitched on consecutive days 4 times. In each case, he earned a save. In 3 of those 4, he threw 18 or more pitches the previous day. If the Cardinals have a lead in the ninth inning of Game Four, Jason Motte will be back on the mound.