One game down, blasters on full

Yes it may be just the first game of the season and there are still 161 more to play. And maybe he was just playing around a little bit, seeing how it would work. However, anyone who follows me on this blog, through the Cards Clubhouse, and listens to my takes on UCB Radio knows that my biggest issue with Mike Matheny has been his bullpen management. Of course, I used to complain about Tony La Russa’s too, so he is in good company.

Yesterday evening the Cardinals roll into the 8th inning with a 1-0 lead thanks to a solo shot by Yadier Molina off Johnny Cueto. With Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, and Jay Bruce coming up to bat.

Matheny brought in Pat Neshek to face Phillips. Neshek, making his first regular season appearance with the Cardinals, made the discussion as a “righty specialist” during spring training. Last year he held right handed hitters to a .219/.282/.362 slash line while getting lit up by left handers. Neshek eventually walked Phillips on 7 pitches.

Then Matheny goes back out to the mound to bring in Kevin Siegrist. Siegrist, who had a nearly historic debut season last year in the bullpen, is one of the two left handed relievers in the bullpen. Obviously he was in to face Votto and Bruce, two left handed hitters. Last year he held left handed hitters to a line of .118/.241/.147.  Siegrist got Votto to serve up a double play ball on a platter for Kolten Wong at second, but he misplayed it. That put Phillips on third and Votto safe at first.

Siegrist then got Bruce to ground to Matt Adams, who charged the ball and caught Phillips in a run down between third and home. But it all happened quick enough that Votto was unable to advance to third.

Matheny went back to the mound to bring in Carlos Martinez. Martinez, the so-called loser of the fifth starter competition, is the regular eighth inning guy. Former Cardinal Ryan Ludwick was coming up to bat. Martinez had a slash line last year of .250/.333/.328 last year against right handed hitters. Hardly impressive. He served up a double play ball to get out of the inning, but Matt Adams was unable to hold onto the ball for the third out of the inning, Ludwick would be safe at first with Votto on third.

He then wasted no time, striking Todd Frazier out on four pitches to escape the inning.

First things first, credit to the Cardinals’ relievers for staying locked in regardless of what the defense did behind them. It’s not often you give a team five or six outs and escape the inning unscathed, but that is exactly what the team did.

However, I have some questions here.

Number one, Mike Matheny himself talked about the problems with using Neshak in a “Righty One Out GuY” (or ROOGY) during spring training. Talking about the stresses it would put on a bullpen. Yet the first opportunity he got, out came Neshek in exactly that role.

Number two, if Carlos Martinez is your “eighth inning guy” as well as a highly touted starting pitching prospect, why can’t he get left handed batters out? That’s something he’s going to have to do as a starting pitcher. “Hey Carlos, you’re our eighth inning guy. Oh by the way, we don’t trust you to get the 2-3-4 of the Reds lineup out.”

And number three, Kevin Siegrist was your best reliever last season against left handed hitters and right handed hitters. So why couldn’t he face Brandon Phillips?

Bryan Price, the new Reds’ manager, was met with  a similar situation a half inning earlier. With Bourjos, Wainwright, and Carpenter due up (and Wong after Carpenter), he went with left handed reliever Manny Parra. He knew that if Bourjos (and then most likely Shane Robinson pinch hitting for Wainwright) caused problems that Carpenter and Wong were due up next and would then be met with a left handed pitcher and he would have the advantage.

That’s the strategy that should be done. If you have two lefties, go with Siegrist with the thought that if Phillips does get on, Siegrist can pitch you around it because he has the advantage over the next two hitters. Going to Neshek was unnecessary at that point.

Price’s strategy also illustrates a couple problems with the way the Cardinals are currently built.

If Matheny desires to use Carpenter and Wong as the 1-2 hitters in the lineup, that places the team at a disadvantage once the bullpen comes into play later in games as the common strategy is to split up like-handed hitters. That’s why Molina or Peralta (or my preference, Holliday) would be a much better selection in the two hole.

When you have a situation like we did when the lineup comes up 9-1-2 in a late inning, you take away your ability to use strategy with the pitcher’s spot. If you want to do that, you need Bourjos hitting 9th to protect your ability to play strategy with the pinch hitter for the pitcher. (Not to mention that it’s also just good practice statistically to hit the pitcher eighth.)

It also illustrates the lack of fear our bench poses. Jay is about the only hitter on the bench worth giving any respect to do damage, and even then it’s limited to the occasional extra base hit. When you have Carpenter and Wong leading off and the pitcher hitting 9th, you aren’t going to go with three lefties in a row in a late game situation unless the other manager is cluelessly letting you hit against a right handed reliever.

That’s one of the reasons I would have much rathered Grichuk (and to a lesser extent Piscotty) on the Cardinals’ bench instead of Robinson. The reason I say Grichuk is because he has that power and he’s not clearly in the future plans of the organization. So you can afford to be aggressive with him. I’d be willing to bet he could hit better than Robinson right now in the majors.

It is just game one. But already we’ve seen a potential weakness exposed. Those of us who follow the team knew it was there. Seems like our opponents do as well.