Will Matheny find mojo?

After two come-from-behind wins against the Florida Marlins heading into the All-Star break, things were looking up for the St. Louis Cardinals. Starting pitching was performing very well, guys were getting healthy, and the bullpen was finding some semblance of normalcy. Hopes were high for after the break, with as near a healthy roster as the Cardinals have had all season, and 9 straight games within the division to start the break.

Kharma is a funny thing.

It’s like the baseball gods dumped a ying on every yang used up during the 2011 historic run. The now healthy Cardinals stormed out of the second half gate in not-so-impressive fashion, getting swept by the Reds. Then they dropped two of three in Milwaukee. And the one game they did win required a two run ninth-inning rally to take the lead. The five games lost were lost by a total of six runs.

I can not resign myself to blame solely kharma, the baseball gods, luck, or small sample sizes. Something is going on with this team. A few  observations on the team and then observations on Matheny.

1. Who is providing leadership to this team?
Much was made during the 2011 season about the right “clubhouse mix”. Chris Carpenter was the unquestioned fiery leader of the team who could give a good kick in the pants when needed. His energy on the mound during the stretch run and playoffs was desperately needed for what seemed like three months of constant elimination games.

I would contend that Carpenter’s presence and leadership has been sorely missed this year.

Also, Lance Berkman provided great leadership as well. Though funny and able to keep things light when needed, he also would stand up in the tough times and answer the hard questions . He brought about a great culture of ownership and accountability instead of blame. He has been out of action since mid-May and is struggling mightily in his return. Providing leadership is challenging while rehabbing and trying to get yourself to an acceptable level of performance.

Albert Pujols (while often seemingly aloof and privy to a separate set of rules) no doubt commanded excellence from his teammates, and hated to lose. Even during a down season, he was still a feared hitter that could carry the team on his back for stretches at a time.

Those are 3 key pieces missing this season, along with a rookie manager and inexperienced pitching coach.

Could lack of leadership, this intangible quality unable to be measured by statistics, play a key part in the reason why the Cardinals are second in NL run  differential, but have the 7th best record?

2012 National League Run Differential

Washington     +65     record 53-36

St. Louis           +64     record 47-45

Cincinnati       +43      record 51-40

Pittsburgh       +34     record  51-40

Atlanta             +28     record 49-41

Since a 20-11 start, the Cardinals are 27-34. Over that stretch, they have been held to 3 or fewer runs 33 times. Hardly the record of a team leading the league in most offensive categories, and surprising for a team that has received 14 quality starts over the last 17 games. What is going on?

I don’t know if the team is tired or Matheny’s more relaxed style has created a real or perceived lack of urgency. I’m waiting to see someone, please anyone, stand up and get angry to put a fire under this team.

It is a team of talented, yet seemingly laid-back guys. None of us are in the locker room to know what goes on behind the scenes, but we can see what is happening on the field. Which player has vocalized anger about a sustained period of mediocre play? Why is Tyler Greene telling Fox Sports Midwest that he’s not disappointed with his performance this yea?  Who among David Freese, Carlos Beltran, Yadi Molina, Adam Wainwright, Rafael Furcal, Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman, Skip Schumaker, Jon Jay, and Jason Motte is going to stand up and and say it’s time for something to change?

I don’t expect it from Freese, Beltran, Holliday, Schuamker, or Jay. They seem like pretty laid-back even keeled guys. I would suggest Molina and Wainwright realize it is their time to step up and challenge this team to play to its capability. 47-45 is simply unacceptable for the amount of talent put on the field night in and night out.

You may say I’m being unfair because of the injuries and inexperienced bullpen. The bullpen has not been the problem over the last 6 games, or this month even. The club has a 1.78 bullpen ERA for the month of June. The problem is good hitters not stepping up and getting timely hits. The team hit .178 (8 for 45) with runners in scoring position over the first five games back from the break. Think about that for a moment, 45 ABs with RISP in 5 games and only 8 hits.

Veteran defenders have been botching routing plays (which leads into my next point)….somebody needs to wake this team up.

2.Beltran and Furcal look tired, or are at least playing tired
Carlos Beltran hit 19 home runs in his first 198 at-bats this season. He has 1 over his last 117 through July 18th game. He looks tired. He needs a rest. Watching him run down balls in right field is not pretty. He is slow and laborious. So instead of Matheny resting Beltran after admitting he was exhausted after the All-Star festivities in Kansas City, he starts him 4 out of 5 games. Two of those starts were in center field, which takes a lot greater defensive toll on a player. It makes no sense.

On June 10, Rafael Furcal was batting .304/.358/.421/.779. Since then, he has hit .207/.309/.223/.532 with 0 HR and 8 RBI in 121 AB. He has also made several key errors in the last two series, including two in yesterday’s disastrous 4-run 1st inning. Unfortunately, Tyler Greene has not lived up to Mo’s expectations even without LaRussa and Descalso has not hit well enough to spell Furcal much at short.

This was the risk the club took filling these two spots with veterans, and although they have played in a lot of games, the level of play is starting to wane. Hopefully Beltran will not experience the same second half fade Berkman did last-season (but that is next week’s article.)

3. Matheny factor
No reasonable human being expected Mike Matheny to be Tony LaRussa during his first year on the job. But Mozeliak wanted him, and he assured Mozeliak he was ready for the challenge. He inherited a 116 million dollar payroll team, poised to make a deep run at a World Series repeat. This was not a normal gig for a rookie manager.

In evaluating managers, I tend to look at 4 key areas they provide the most contribution:

1. Player motivation   2. Game prep and planning   3. Tactical in-game decisions   4. Keeping players fresh and performing at their best

Underlying all of that is the level of innate leadership ability to be able to rally the troops and lead them in each of the 4 areas above.

We were promised Matheny had that leadership ability and everything else could be learned on the job. To me that meant #’s 1 and 2 above could be handled well from day 1. I assumed #’s 3 and 4 would be learned on the job.

In regards to #1, the players like Matheny. But there is no doubt a different pressure level than under TLR. Maybe in the long run, this will pay off. Right now, there are a lot more L’s than W’s piling up.

#2 I can’t really speak to much from where I sit.

#3 has me constantly puzzled. It’s easier to play armchair quarterback than make the tough calls in the heat of the moment, but my gosh, Matheny has made a lot of calls that have Little League managers scratching their head. The team runs into a lot of outs at home plate on infield ground balls, there have been a lot of double steals gone wrong, and very interesting roster moves where he uses up a hitter early in a tie game, or leaves a reliever in for an extended period of time for unfavorable matchups. Also, there was the decision to play Carlos Beltran in center field in back-to-back games while telling the media he is exhausted and needing some time off.

The latest in-game decision that really had me scratching my head was pinch hitting Berkman yesterday with the bases loaded, two outs, and down by a run in the 9th inning. Berkman has looked terrible since coming back from the DL. He admitted after the game that his bat speed is not back to what it used to be.

Why would Matheny put him in that spot knowing that? Worse yet if he didn’t know it and put in a player at less than full strength in a game-deciding situation? He acted like a novice roto ball manager instead of manager of the defending world champions trying to win a division.

See Beltran comment above in regards to #4. However, Matheny has attempted to give guys regular days off, and for that I applaud him. There just doesn’t seem to be any kind of rhythm to it yet. I hope it comes soon.

What bothers me the most in regards to Matheny are his comments to the media. Same canned responses night after night. “We have a good team”, “We haven’t played our best baseball yet”, “We are going to get better”….

How late in the season do you get by with the “we haven’t played our best baseball yet” argument? We are staring August in the face. I know this seems pretty harsh towards Matheny. I have been a vocal and adamant supporter since day one. He needs time to develop in-game management and getting the most from his lineup day in and day out.

But he was brought to the Cardinals to lead. Now is the time. Show us some emotion that you are unhappy with the way things are going instead of the nightly platitudes about how good you think this team is.

Instill a sense of urgency. Find your mojo, Matheny. The Cardinals desperately need it.

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