Mike Matheny's not stupid. He's far from stupid. I've stood nearby while he answered questions for half an hour, and he struck me as one of the more self-assured and thoughtful men I've ever been around for half an hour.
But thoughtful men do make mistakes, and you'll find few better examples than Mike Matheny's moves in the top of the sixth inning, Sunday night in Game 4 of the World Series.
In the top of the fifth inning, Lance Lynn struggled. He threw 28 pitches, and was fortunate to give up just one (tying) run. We know that high-stress innings don't bode well for future success. We also know that pitchers are vulnerable the third time through the enemy batting order ... and the top of the Red Sox lineup -- Jacoby Ellsbury, Daniel Nava, and Dustin Pedroia -- was coming up in the sixth.
If there were ever a good time to yank your starting pitcher in a 1-1 game in the sixth inning, this was probably it.
That's what we thought, anyway. Matheny thought something else. Lynn took the mound, and retired Ellsbury. He retired Nava, too. He didn't retire Pedroia, who singled. Of course, that brought up David Ortiz. In the bullpen, left-hander Randy Choate was warmed up.
David Ortiz is such a great hitter that he's far from a pushover with a southpaw on the mound. In his career, he's got a .267/.339/.477 line against lefties. But of course he's absolutely destroyed righties, his OPS 164 points higher. You simply cannot allow Ortiz to bat against a right-handed pitcher with the game on the line if you've got an attractive alternative.
Matheny did have that alternative in Choate, who's held lefties to a sub-.200 batting average in his career. And for the first half of his career, he wasn't even much good. At 37, Choate's one of the best LOOGYs in the game, essentially designed by the baseball gods to do things like ... oh, snuff out a rally by retiring guys like Big Papi. Or Big Papi himself.
But no, Choate remained in the bullpen while Lynn pitched to David Ortiz. Sort of. Turns out Matheny didn't want anyone pitching to David Ortiz. Not Choate, who remained in the bullpen. And not Lynn, who delivered four pitches, none of them within a foot of the strike zone. Essentially, Matheny wasn't going to let Ortiz beat him ... even if that meant putting the potential lead runner (Pedroia) on second base.
And then Matheny yanked Lynn. With right-handed-hitting Jonny Gomes coming up, Matheny summoned right-handed reliever Seth Maness from the bullpen. This was a good percentage move. It just didn't work out, because Gomes -- who doesn't usually fare well against righties -- somehow did this:
Hey, there's no accounting for bad pitches or bad luck. Maness pitched well as a rookie reliever this season; before that, he was a minor-league starter with otherworldly strikeout-to-walk ratios. But when the match-up's in your favor, I don't believe you should flat-out refuse to pitch to anyone. And Choate had a great chance to retire Ortiz and get out of the inning with the game still tied.
You see this time and time again in the postseason, with managers ignoring months or years of statistics and focusing instead on what's happened in the last few days. Before his sixth-inning appearance, Ortiz had seven hits in 10 World Series at-bats, including a couple of home runs. That's what Matheny remembered, while forgetting the hundreds of times in his career that Ortiz has made outs, many of them ugly outs, against tough lefties like Randy Choate.
And so Matheny eschewed the easy out with one Boston aboard, going instead for the easy out with two runners aboard. And this time it killed him.
Matheny's got a couple of big bullpen-related problems this month. The first is that he's too often been slow to remove his starting pitchers. The second, related problem is that he's basically operating with a small bullpen. We know he doesn't trust Shelby Miller at all, as Miller's pitched exactly one inning in the Cardinals' 15 postseason games. But it's clear that he also doesn't trust Edward Mujica, who pitched so brilliantly until September. Mujica, who might not be reasonably healthy (but says he is), has pitched exactly two innings in 15 postseason games.
Maybe we'll learn after the World Series that Mike Matheny thought about all of these things, and simply thought that Miller and Mujica were in no condition to pitch. He should know better than anyone. But either he's messing up all month, or his boss has been messing up all month. Because pitching staffs in October shouldn't work this way.