Published October 25, 2012
ST. LOUIS – While watching the World Series on the big screen, Mike Matheny wondered how it all went wrong.
Three days after the St. Louis Cardinals squandered a 3-1 lead in the NL championship series and punished themselves with a red-eye flight home, their rookie manager said he hadn't slept much. He also hadn't had much time to dissect the precipitous fall.
"I mean, we're going into Game 5 in a really nice spot," Matheny said Thursday. "You can't help but think about 'That could be us right now.'"
Then again, it also was important to remember how fortunate they had been. The Cardinals squeaked into the postseason as the second wild card, rallied to beat the Braves in the one-game playoff and erased a six-run deficit against the Nationals in Game 5 of the NLDS.
"Guess what, when we're playing Game 1 of the NLCS there were a whole bunch of teams saying 'That could be us,'" Matheny said. "Grateful, but not content by any means."
Matheny's team failed on many levels in dropping the last three games to the Giants by a combined score of 20-1. It scored six or more runs in all but one of its postseason victories, and totaled six runs in its six postseason losses.
Matheny said it was somewhat reassuring to see San Francisco's Barry Zito shut down the Detroit Tigers in Game 1, after the left-hander carved up the Cardinals in Game 5 of the NLCS.
"Game 5 was pivotal, I mean, you guys know that," Matheny said. "You're watching the radar gun thinking 'How is this happening?'"
Frustrating, too. They almost got to Zito in Game 5. One more hit.
"Somebody gets that big hit, there's a good chance Zito's chased from that game," Matheny said. "We've got the bases loaded, we get a big hit, put up some runs, I guarantee their bullpen's hot. And if we can sack a couple on top that just got used pretty heavily the night before."
Matheny gets high marks after a season of learning on the job. Before replacing Tony La Russa last November, the former four-time Gold Glove catcher had zero managing experience.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy was impressed.
"I wish I could tell you there's a difference," Bochy said before Game 5. "Mike's done a tremendous job, and that's a tough act to follow when you're coming in after Tony and do what he's done."
General manager John Mozeliak credited Matheny for staying positive during midseason downturns.
"It could have easily gone in the other direction but instead he kept to his plan, stayed disciplined and rode it out," Mozeliak said. "I thought he was very impressive all the way across the board."
Players found it easy to shut the door in the manager's office and discuss whatever was on their minds.
"Mike, he's always positive," center fielder Jon Jay said. "That's the No. 1 thing. That's something that definitely rubs off on us."
Third baseman David Freese said Matheny wasn't big on speeches.
"But when he speaks, it's meaningful," Freese said. "He trusts his players. He's got our back, from Day 1. That's cool to see."
Now, if they can just get to the bottom of the maddening series of booms and busts.
The Cardinals scored in double digits 12 times during the regular season, and 42 times they mustered two or fewer runs. They were 76-19 when scoring three or more runs and 12-55 when scoring three or fewer.
What happened against the Giants was a repeat from any month you picked from April to October.
"I couldn't say it didn't look like us because we saw this all season at times," Matheny said. "There were just times when it wasn't there and it didn't matter what kind of batting practice, extra work, or meetings we had. This team went in ruts together and we were just hoping for that spark, somebody to get it going."
Matheny had no issues with the day-to-day effort, or the team's ability to bounce back from crushing defeats like a 19-inning loss to the Pirates, which actually was a takeoff point for the Cardinals and the beginning of the end for Pittsburgh.
"We got beat and it was dead in here and we came back the next day and it was like it never happened," Matheny said.
"Production's a different topic. Sometimes it's here, sometimes it's not. We're going to obviously try to address through the winter what could potentially be done to have a little more consistency to bring that brilliance out a little more often."
An injury to Matt Holliday factored into the NLCS meltdown. Holliday batted .200 in the NLCS with two RBIs and no extra-base hits while battling a back injury that kept him out of the lineup in Game 6.
"It was the worst I'd seen all season for him and his swing," Matheny said. "I just couldn't let him try, he wasn't going to help us.
"When we got down to the end, he was in bad shape."
Unlike last fall, when Albert Pujols, pitching coach Dave Duncan and La Russa all departed, there aren't a lot of question marks. The Cardinals aren't likely to re-sign 16-game winner Kyle Lohse, heading into free agency after the best year of his career, or Lance Berkman off an injury-plagued year.
Though Lance Lynn was an 18-game winner his first year in the rotation, the team has prescribed a strict training regimen for the right-hander. Youngsters Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal will prepare to pursue rotation spots. Utilityman Matt Carpenter will concentrate on second base in the winter to possibly challenge Daniel Descalso for the job.
Matheny will be working to get better, too. He keeps a journal detailing what went right, what he could have done better, and does more writing while revisiting an excruciating loss.
"You've got to understand when I caught probably I could have second-guessed myself 50-100 times a game," Matheny said. "There are times during the season when I'd have been an idiot to look at 'I did this and it didn't work, what could I have done differently?'
"To me, that's the only way you learn."