In the bottom of the sixth inning Saturday, 54,000 fans rose as one in full-throated cheer as the Dodgers’ Zack Greinke stepped to the plate with the bases loaded in a game his team already led, 2-0. St. Louis Cardinals starter Lance Lynn was laboring after 110 pitches. One mistake there and the game could get out of hand.
But in the St. Louis dugout, Manager Mike Matheny’s face betrayed all the emotion of a man watching paint dry. His bullpen was ready, but he stuck with Lynn — who rewarded the vote of confidence by retiring Greinke on a groundout.
Two innings later, when the Cardinals tied the game on a homer by Matt Carpenter, a smile creased the manager’s face.
Six batters later, though, St. Louis trailed again after Matt Kemp led off the eighth with a home run, lifting the Dodgers to a 3-2 win that sent the National League division series to St. Louis, with the teams tied at a win each.
Three innings, three at-bats, countless emotions.
But Cardinals outfielder Peter Bourjos said Matheny’s demeanor never changed, a steadiness that explains why, three years into the job, he’s already one of baseball’s most successful managers.
“It doesn’t seem like anything rattles him,” Bourjos said. “Whether we lose, whether we win, he never shows what he’s feeling.
“He’s very even-keeled. It’s good to have that as a manager.”
That is especially true after an emotional loss such as Saturday’s, in which the Cardinals managed just two hits through seven innings, tied the game two batters into the eighth, only to fall behind again in the bottom of the inning.
Matheny’s challenge now is getting his players to put all that behind them to focus on Game 3.
“This one here is fresh on our minds, and it was there and we let it slip away,” he said. “We’ve got to let that go and figure out how to put a good game on day after tomorrow.”
Bourjos, for one, is betting his manager will make that happen.
“Mike just lets you go out and play and whatever happens, happens,” Bourjos said. “He trusts his players.”
Just by making it to the playoffs this year, Matheny made history, joining Houston’s Larry Dierker as the only NL managers to reach the postseason in each of their first three seasons. But Dierker never made it past the division series. Matheny made it to the league championship series his rookie season and the World Series last year. If the Cardinals advance past the Dodgers, he will go to the Championship Series for a third straight season.
Matheny is part of a new wave of managers who are recently retired players with no previous managerial or coaching experience.
That comes as recognition that baseball has changed and the job of manager had to change with it. Managing the game was no longer as important as managing the egos, personalities and insecurities in a big league clubhouse. And who could be better suited for that than someone who had just come from one of those clubhouses?
That’s why Matheny counseled and calmed Yadier Molina rather than scold him after the Cardinals’ catcher lost his cool, setting off a bench-clearing shoving match that nearly got Molina ejected from Friday’s playoff opener. It’s also why he was extra patient Friday with Adam Wainwright, his staff ace, and it is why he will let Wainwright help determine whether he pitches in this series on short rest.
“He knows what buttons to push and he really follows us and lets us play,” outfielder Jon Jay said of Matheny, a grinder who won four Gold Gloves as a catcher but never made an All-Star team.
Matheny stoically turned the spotlight back on his players and the Cardinals’ organization.
“I walked into a situation, a team that had just won the World Series, so obviously there was a lot going on around here before I showed up,” he said. “Just trying to keep that moving forward, figure out how we can improve.
“Special players with the right kind of makeup. It’s a pretty powerful combination.”