The game of managerial chess unfolded in brisk fashion, one move forcing another, until both Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts and Mike Matheny, his St. Louis Cardinals counterpart, could meddle no longer.
With two runners on in the seventh inning Sunday, control of a 1-1 game left the minds of the managers and entered the hands of the players. Joe Blanton stood on the mound for the Dodgers. Yadier Molina hunkered in the batter’s box for the Cardinals. This, Roberts would insist later, was the matchup he desired.
“I wanted to make the righty beat us,” Roberts said.
After giving up three runs, Blanton will receive blame, but the offense was toothless for most of the evening. Only Corey Seager supplied production. He hit a pair of solo home runs. His teammates mustered three hits.
The Dodgers (20-18) missed a chance at a sweep and failed to extend a winning streak to a season-high four games. The three-run rally by the Cardinals in the seventh ruined six innings of one-run baseball from starter Alex Wood.
The trouble started when left-handed reliever J.P. Howell lunged for a grounder up the middle, rather than let it bounce toward his infielders. Howell deflected the ball but could not make a play, and Cardinals outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker had a one-out infield single. Howell does not study the infielders behind him when he pitches, so he was unaware Seager was in position for an easy out, a fact he learned when he went into the dugout.
‘They were like ‘Man!’” Howell said. “I was like, ‘Cool. That’s cool. Great to hear. Would have been an out every way, except for what I just did.’ So that’s cool. Cool to hear.”
A ground out moved Hazelbaker to second base and activated the managers. Roberts could have allowed Howell, who entered the game with an 8.31 earned-run average, to face backup catcher Eric Fryer, a journeyman playing in only his 79th major league game. Fryer swings from the right side. Howell struggles to retire right-handed hitters.
In came Blanton, which caused Matheny to counter. He sent up Brandon Moss, a left-handed hitter. Moss carried a .224 batting average to the plate, but he possessed intimidating power. He had already hit seven home runs in 2016. Roberts ordered Blanton to intentionally walk Moss.
Back to Matheny: He removed pitcher Mike Leake, who had allowed one run in six innings, and sent up his regular catcher. Molina was hitting .371 against right-handed pitchers coming into Sunday.
Molina entered the on-deck circle as Blanton walked Moss. Roberts trusted Blanton, who had held right-handed hitters to a .143 batting average and an .481 on-base-plus-slugging percentage this season.
“He’s faced numerous, great right-handed hitters,” Roberts said. “And since he’s gone to this role in the ‘pen, he’s dominated them. You look at this season, what he’s done, he earned the right to pitch in the back end of the game. He’s been great in these situations.”
A few hours before the game, Wood lay on a clubhouse couch. A television screen above him showed a replay of the previous night’s game, when Scott Kazmir carried the Dodgers into the ninth inning and provided a blueprint for how a left-handed pitcher could disarm the Cardinals.
Wood found similar success. His only mistake was an elevated fastball in the third, which St. Louis third baseman Matt Carpenter bashed for a homer. Seager tied the score in the bottom of the inning with an opposite-field homer to left.
Neither club manufactured much offense until the top of the sixth. Carpenter led off with a walk. Wood hit Piscotty in the foot with a curveball. Out in the bullpen, a pair of Dodgers relievers warmed up.
Roberts left the dugout to confer with Wood. Waiting to bat was Matt Holliday, St. Louis’ most accomplished hitter. A discussion ensued.
“He was going to yank me,” Wood said. “And I pretty much asked nicely to stay in. And he let me stay in.”
It was Roberts’ best decision of the night. The rest unfolded in less tidy fashion.
“Obviously, Yadi’s a great hitter, clutch hitter,” Roberts said. “But the way Joe throws the baseball against right-handed hitters, that was the decision I chose to make.”