photo: John Gant and Mike Shildt (Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports Images)
Brian Walton shares his three take-aways from Mike Shildt’s first game as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, held on Sunday, July 15 at Busch Stadium against the Cincinnati Reds, a 6-4 St. Louis win.
One is regarding the lineup and the other two are related to pitching deployment.
— KMOXSports (@KMOXSports) July 15, 2018
As announced several hours prior to the contest, Shildt’s first batting order had a different look. It seemed to highlight defense over offense, with the only possible exception being Dexter Fowler starting ahead of Tommy Pham in the outfield.
That doesn’t mean offense was ignored, however. Multiple changes from a typical Matheny lineup stood out.
Yadier Molina, perhaps the club’s most notable batsman for modifying his approach based on the situation, was moved up to the second spot. Emerging power hitter Paul DeJong took the third place in the batting order. Kolten Wong batted sixth.
Molina had batted sixth (early on) or fifth (later) for the vast majority of the 2018 season. Yet, in the last 10 days as Jose Martinez’ shaky defense put him on the bench more often, the catcher batted third three times.
The second spot had been the almost-exclusive domain of Pham. That used to be a good thing, but as the center fielder’s strikeouts piled up and his batting average dropped over 100 points over the last two months, Pham remained in the no. 2 spot day after day after day despite his obvious struggles – until just two days ago.
DeJong began the season on a prodigious strikeout spree then missed almost two months due to injury. The shortstop had been placed mostly seventh and then sixth in the order. Ironically, he finally ascended to the third spot for his last two games prior to his May 17 fractured left hand.
Until Saturday, when he batted second, Wong had never started a game this season above seventh. Perhaps this change was in recognition of the second baseman having added 20 points to his season average over the last 2 ½ weeks to a still-modest .216.
Whether the Cardinals scored six runs and won the game or were the victim of a no-hitter, there should not be great significance attached to one particular lineup, especially considering the long haul remaining ahead.
However, having said that, it suggests to me that had Matheny asked his bench coach for his lineup suggestions against a right-handed pitcher, the Sunday batting order is along the lines of what he may have received. It is clearly different from prior lineups we’ve seen.
The short starter
There is no doubt in my mind that Miles Mikolas was St. Louis’ most dependable starting pitcher of the first half and very deserving of his National League All-Star Game selection. However, the right-hander did not have his normal pinpoint control on Sunday and as a result, labored through 85 pitches over four innings.
At least 30 of those pitches were made during the fourth, as the Reds plated three to take the lead. This is what the Cardinals call in the minor leagues a “stress inning” – a mandatory requirement for the pitcher to be removed from the game.
In the bottom of the inning, the Cards immediately stormed back to recapture the lead, 4-3. With the rally in mid-swing, two were in scoring position with one out, and it was Mikolas’ turn to bat. It was a crucial juncture – with the move taken that seemed most non-Matheny-like.
Instead of keeping Mikolas in the game for another inning in hopes of getting him a win, Shildt went to extend the rally. He called on Jose Martinez, his best bench weapon, to pinch hit for his starter, even though it was only the fourth inning. Though Martinez grounded out, Wong came in to score. The big inning continued as Molina plated run number six.
The starter did not get his victory, but the team did. It appeared giving the struggling offense its best chance to score enough to win was the priority on Sunday.
The long, long reliever
With a nine-man pen, three off days just ahead and five remaining innings to cover, a normal Cardinals game would have led to an endless parade of match-up relievers and head-scratching double-switches.
Take Matheny’s final game, on Saturday. The manager double-switched out his clean-up hitter for the final three innings of what was at the time a one-run contest.
Instead, Shildt let John Gant pitch four masterful scoreless innings of relief, during which he allowed just two baserunners (on walks) and fanned four. The defense remained on its toes, completing an error-free afternoon.
Gant was even allowed to bat for himself and delivered a sacrifice, but more importantly, the right-hander had taken control of the game and became the deserved winning pitcher.
I knew the length of Gant’s Sunday relief stint was unusual, and with the help of researcher Tom Orf, I can now share just how rare it is.
Gant is the first Cardinals reliever to go four innings or more in the last season and a half – since September 21, 2016.
Over his six and a half years as St. Louis’ manager, Matheny’s use of a four inning-or-more reliever had dropped off precipitously. He did it 16 times from 2012-2016, but none since.
Granted, one hopes long relief is never needed, but the situations do present themselves periodically. Still, Matheny did it just 16 times in his first 800 games managed but not once in his final 265 contests as the Cardinals skipper.
Shildt did it in his very first day on the job.
Relief outings of four or more innings, St. Louis Cardinals under Mike Matheny, 2012-2018
|Year||# long relief outings||Pitchers|
|2013||5||J Kelly (3), Westbrook, Wacha|
|2015||3||Lyons , Villanueva, C Martinez|
|2016||5||Lyons (2), Alex Reyes, J Garcia, J Williams|
If nothing else, it is already clear that acting manager Shildt, despite having been Matheny’s bench coach, is not going to be a clone of his former boss in terms of lineups and in-game management.
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