I have seen the offense of the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals, and first impressions are that this lineup is every bit as fierce on the field today as it has been for months on paper. Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, and Carlos Beltran all hit solo home runs, and David Freese added a 2-run bomb for good measure on their way to an 11-5 pounding of the Brewers’ for their home opener (with the windows and roof closed, no less!). It’s the second team the Cardinals have beat on the road to spoil that team’s home opener. Two games into a season doesn’t tell us much about what the next 160 games are likely to be, but better to be 2-0 after two than 1-1 or 0-2.
As we all know, the Cardinals are under new leadership, as Mike Matheny’s inaugural season as a Major League manager sets sail. So far, I’ve not seen anything that makes me question his ability to perform in this role as a high level–he certainly had little trouble being a leader during his playing days. I did, however, see something out of Ron Roenicke during Friday’s game that left me scratching my head.
Taking a look at the bottom of the 5th on Friday, the Brewers had a chance to make some noise, and score a couple of runs to get back in the game. The Cardinals were up 6-2 at that point, a nice lead, but 4 runs in Miller Park in the 5th is far from “in the bag”. The Brewers had the bottom of the order coming up, and Garcia had pitched very well, after giving up a couple of runs in the first. Jamie faced only three batters in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th innings, and after Cards went down 1-2-3 in the top of the fifth, the Brewers came to bat.
Mat Gamel led off and hit a ball hard to center, for a single. Jonathan Lucroy followed with a single of his own. Marco Estrada, who replaces the shelled Yovanni Gallardo was due up next, and Roenicke decided (as most mana…er, um…as most National League managers would) to pinch hit for him. Runners on first and second, nobody out, bottom of the fifth against the opposing team’s [only left-handed] starter (whose pitch count was low, yes, but it’s game #2 on the season)–this is a huge moment in the game. Roenicke pulled Estrada back for…Norichika Aoki, who bats left-handed.
There were five guys on the bench (Brewers players, not burgers & fries) that Ron Roenicke could’ve gone to in this situation: Kottaras, Ishikawa, Izturis, Morgan, and Aoki. Of the group, Caesar Izturis is the only switch-hitter, the other four are lefties. Roenicke chose the only rookie in the group, Aoki, to face Garcia, for his first career at-bat in the big leagues. Somehow, it seems, Roenicke expected this to continue the rally.
Perhaps he was thinking that if sent a lefty up there (not that he had a lot of options), he might be able to get Matheny to go to the bullpen, and end Garcia’s day. Personally, I’d say that’s highly unlikely, given Jamie’s 2nd, 3rd, and 4th inning performances, though, though I guess you never know. But, in that case, wouldn’t you have sent a left-handed batter (or any of the 5 I listed) to the on-deck circle during Lucroy’s at-bat to get Matheny thinking that way? (side note: with Lucroy’s base-running blunder, perhaps going with Kottaras makes sense, in hindsight) In any event, after this spot in the lineup, you’re back to the top of the order: Weeks-Gomez-Braun.
This was going to be the Brewers best chance to catch the Cards until probably the 8th inning, or maybe the 7th in a best-case scenario…which also would’ve increased the chances that they’d not have another opportunity as good when the bottom of the 9th rolled around. Given that, plus it’s the home opener for the National League Central champions, whose opponent that day beat them in that very building to eliminate them from the NLCS, and advance to the World Series, this is a game Roenicke should’ve really wanted to win. (Obviously, you try to win them all, but this one is special)
He chose Aoki. Garcia started him off by showing him a slider for a ball, then promptly used the next three pitches to strike him out. Rickie Weeks then stepped in, and hit a ground ball towards (second baseman) Daniel Descalso, who was unable to field the ball, given that he was mauled by Jonathan Lucroy, prior to Descalso being able to field the ball*. In the boxscore, this is a fielder’s choice–Lucroy is out, Weeks reaches on the FC. On the field, however, it’s an idiot move at best–Gamel would’ve scored, bringing the game to within 3, making Braun (on-deck) the tying run, and assuring the middle of the Milwaukee order one more at-bat in this game. But instead, Gamel has to stay at third, Weeks reaches first, placing runners at the corners with two outs and Carlos Gomez due up. Gomez swings at the first pitch he sees (really?) and flies out to Holliday to end the inning.
Brewers rally? Dead as dead gets.
The Cardinals would go on to score again in the 6th, 7th, and 9th innings. The Brewers came up with a few runs in their half of the 9th as well, but fell well short of the ten runs they needed to win their opener.
Had Roenicke sent pitcher (and right-handed batting) Estrada to the plate to bunt the runners over in the 5th, then the Brewers probably end up sending the top of their lineup to the plate with 1 out and two runners in scoring position for Rickie Weeks. If Weeks can work a walk (say that five times fast), the bases are loaded for Gomez, with Braun to follow. If he gets a hit one run (maybe two) score, and it’s a one-run game. Obviously, any number of combinations are possible, but it starts with making the right decision for who to send to the plate in the 9th spot. God, I love National League baseball.
*In a completely unrelated story, Kyle McClellan would enter the game in the 9th, and bean Jonathan LuCroy.