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Searching for a defense of Mike Matheny

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Was there a reason to use Michael Wacha in the ninth inning of an elimination game? Here's an attempt to be fair. A painful attempt to be fair.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

SB Nation 2014 MLB Bracket

If you've been reading anything I've written for a while, you'll know that I'm a painful centrist. Nothing but lukewarm takes for me, no sir. I like to assume that everything would make sense with more context. I can't write about politics because I assume on the first day in the White House, the new president is briefed about the lizard people who live under Iraq and want to take over the world. That's the basis of our geopolitical strategy. Hey, if you have a better explanation ...

It spills over into baseball, too. This manager didn't use that player because he could smell the alcohol on his breath or the singed ligaments in his knee. It's never as simple as it looks. Every player is hurting in some capacity by October, but some hurt more or inspire confidence less than others. It makes for wishy-washy writing. But fair, I hope. With this in mind, let's look at Mike Matheny's decision to use Michael Wacha in the ninth inning, as his third reliever of the night, even though he hadn't pitched in nearly a month, and was ineffective since returning from the disabled list.

Because it looks crazy from here.

Like, the decision is like something the computer would do when set to auto-manage. Also, the computer is an Apple II+ that someone spilled Sunny Delight on.

BUT. We're trying to be fair, here.

The decision

Adam Wainwright pitched seven innings. Pat Neshek pitched one. With Trevor Rosenthal warming in the bullpen, Matheny called on Michael Wacha, the 2013 NLCS MVP who missed substantial time this season with a stress fracture in his shoulder. After returning, here's what he did:


Opp Result Innings IP H R ER BB SO Batters faced Pitches
Sept. 4 MIL W,3-2 GS-3 3 3 1 1 1 3 12 50
Sept. 9 CIN L,5-9 GS-5 4 6 6 5 3 3 22 70
Sept. 20 CIN W,8-4 GS-5 4.2 6 2 2 0 1 20 78
Sept. 26 ARI W,7-6 GS-6 5 5 2 2 3 4 22 98


Since June 17, Wacha had thrown 296 pitches. I can't guess as to how many of them were quality pitches, but we know the results. He allowed 11 runs in 16⅔ innings, getting batters to swing through just eight percent of his pitches. He was put on the NLDS and NLCS rosters because of LIZARD PEOPLE UNDER THE EARTH of a very good reason we're just not thinking of. If the Cardinals got in trouble or needed a long reliever, Wacha probably made more sense than a dented Justin Masterson.

The part of that table that jumps out at you is "Sept. 26." As in, a month ago, give or take. After waiting nearly a month to use Wacha, Matheny chose to use him when one mistake, one run would end the season.

/pats on butt

Go get 'em, kid.

The options

Again, Wacha was the third pitcher out of the bullpen. This wasn't the 17th inning. This wasn't a case of fifth-inning matchups biting the manager later in the game. He didn't use a lefty for one out, a righty for the next out and then a different lefty for the third out early in the game. It was a full bullpen.

Here's who was available:

Carlos Martinez
Recent use: One inning the previous day. Two days off before that. He had allowed one run and three hits in 3⅔ postseason innings, walking three and striking out two.

Possible reason for not using him: He'd been wild, maybe? He's a rookie, too, and maybe Matheny questioned his ability to hold up in a situation in which one run meant the season.

Marco Gonzales
Recent use: 1⅔ innings over the previous two days. He allowed three runs in Game 4 and took the loss.

Possible reason for not using him: It would have been his third consecutive day without rest. He had never gone two consecutive days in his professional career before the postseason, doing it once in the NLDS and NLCS each.

Seth Maness
Recent use: Threw 2⅔ innings over the previous two days, and it would have been his third straight appearance. He had appeared in three consecutive games on two separate occasions during the regular season.

Possible reason for not using him:

?SYNTAX ERROR IN 20

Randy Choate
Recent use: Threw in every game of the series, though that doesn't mean as much for a pitcher like Choate. He threw a total of 36 pitches over four outings, including just 27 over the previous two days.

Possible reason for not using him: He's a lefty one-out guy, and the Giants led the inning off with a switch-hitter (Pablo Sandoval) and a right-hander (Hunter Pence), so there's no way he should have started the inning. But once Brandon Belt was up, or especially when Travis Ishikawa came up after Wacha couldn't throw a strike, Choate would have been a decent option. Though note that Bruce Bochy could have countered with Juan Perez, Andrew Susac or Matt Duffy against Choate, which would have been lousy matchups all around.

Trevor Rosenthal
Recent use: Was rested, having pitched three days earlier. That was his only appearance of the NLCS, and he was shaky with his command (two walks) and blew a save in that appearance. Still, he was rested and warmed up in the bullpen.

Possible reason for not using him: Conventional wisdom.

Dammit.

Trevor Rosenthal: Ready for my save now, skip.

Rosenthal: All warmed.

Rosenthal: Lemme at 'em.

Rosenthal: Ready to protect that lead.

Greg Holland: It's literally next Friday. Look, I don't want to be a jerk, but I have stuff to do.

Rosenthal: Gonna strike out the side, skip.

It's sisyphusian, in a way. Rosenthal forever warming up for a save that will never exist. It's possible that if the Cardinals got to the 10th inning, they would have scored five runs off a shaky, tired Giants bullpen, at which point a closer would have been less crucial. The Cardinals will never know. Their season ended without their best option on the mound.

I would have brought in Rosenthal. You would have brought in Rosenthal. Even if you have to, have to, have to adhere to the dumb closer-on-the-road strategy, I don't get where Maness was.

Maybe he told his manager he wasn't feeling right. Maybe Rosenthal couldn't work out the kinks in side sessions.

The reason for using Wacha

...

...

Oh, you're supposed to say something here. I mean, okay, fine, I'll try. Matheny and Derek Lilliquist both watched Wacha pitch in the month he was off. The scuttlebutt was that his changeup wasn't there, and that's one of the things that makes Wacha great. It's possible that Wacha looked progressively sharper and sharper leading up to Game 5.

Matheny looked down to the pen and saw a host of inconsistent options that hadn't worked all series. Once Neshek was tagged, the Giants had gotten to every last member, other than Wacha. Some of them were more tired than others.

If it worked out, it would have been a mini-Kirk Gibson moment. Adam Wainwright already had one of those, with a gritty performance that few expected. Wacha would have added to the legend. It didn't work out.

After allowing a liner on a 1-2 changeup that did absolutely nothing, after allowing a line-drive out to the next batter, and after walking Brandon Belt on four pitches that weren't close, though, it was time to pull the lever and use the ejector seat. The winning run was on second, so it might not have mattered.

The real mistake was letting Michael Wacha start the inning. Matheny apologized for putting him in a tough spot. It should have been Rosenthal, or if he wasn't to be trusted, Maness. Unless we're in a lizard-people situation, and there was something wrong with everyone that us regular folk just couldn't see, I'll never be able to explain the decision to let Michael Wacha be the last player to throw a pitch for the 2014 Cardinals.