There is a certain percentage of games, usually a small number, where a big-league manager has little to do with the outcome other than to script the starting lineup.
But on Thursday at Busch Stadium, Cardinals first-year manager Mike Matheny left hand prints everywhere. If he had had a control panel, he might have short-circuited the system with all the buttons he pushed.
“There was a lot going on,” said Matheny.
Most of the decisions were the right ones as the Cardinals labored to complete a three-game series sweep of the downtrodden but dogged Houston Astros, who fired 16 different position players at the Cardinals before succumbing, 5-4. A paid house of 34,788, pushing the Cardinals over the three million mark for the ninth year in a row, observed as the Cardinals ran their winning streak to four, which came after a stretch in which they had lost five of six.
Jaime Garcia, who never had beaten the Astros in five career decisions, who was 0-2 with a 13.50 earned run average against them this year, gained his first win over Houston with six persistent, if not pristine innings.
Garcia allowed three runs, walking in one himself and giving up another on Brandon’s Laird freak single, which hit the second-base bag. After Garcia got former Cardinals infielder Tyler Greene to ground into a double play to end the sixth inning, his day was done.
“I thought it was a fight (for Garcia) from the top,” Matheny said. “For him to get through that is a great accomplishment for he and Yadi (catcher Yadier Molina).”
Garcia, who was out for a couple of months with shoulder problems, said, “It probably wasn’t my best game physically, but you’ve got to keep battling.”
Once Garcia departed, Matheny’s work really began. After Bud Norris, the former Cardinals nemesis who now has lost three straight to them this season, walked both Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma with one out in a 3-3 game in the bottom of the sixth, Matheny pulled back lefthanded-hitting Skip Schumaker from the on-deck circle when Houston switched to lefthander Wesley Wright.
Matheny countered with his best bullet off the bench, Carlos Beltran. With 29 homers and 87 runs batted in, Beltran was taking a rest. Often a manager will wait until later in the game to use his top weapon off the bench, but Matheny thought this was the right moment.
The switch-hitting Beltran, who was two for two previously as a pinch hitter while batting righthanded, doubled in two runs to give the Cardinals a lead they clung to as they beat 102-loss Houston for the sixth time in six meetings here this season.
“Great at-bat,” said Matheny after Beltran extended his hitting streak to six games and nine for 19.
“The only other move was to leave in Skip, who’s had pretty good success against (Wright). But. . . that was our chance to make the most of it.”
Matheny noted before the game that Beltran’s streak may have coincided with the occasional breaks he has been finding lately for the 35-year-old, who has been bothered by hand and knee injuries for a couple of months. Beltran had slumped to .260 at one point after being over or around .300 for much of the season.
“He was having trouble finding it – probably one of the toughest stretches in his career, I would venture to say,” Matheny said.
“But we knew that sooner or later he would come through. You don’t put up the kind of numbers like he put up in the first half on a fluke. He just needed some time to get himself right physically. The mental side comes along and the confidence comes from getting some results.”
Edward Mujica had a minor misstep in the seventh hen he allowed a run on a single by Brandon Barnes and then loaded the bases with one out on a walk. Matheny had Fernando Salas warm but chose to leave in Mujica.
“I had (Salas) ready but I wanted to give Chief (Mujica) a chance because of what he’s done all season,” said Matheny.
Mujica escaped by getting a double-play ball as third baseman David Freese, who committed two misplays in the sixth, snatched a shot from J.D. Martinez.
Explaining a move he didn’t make, Matheny said, “You just kind of have your gut feel, realizing that you might need (Salas) later.”
Matheny’s only setbacks in decision making came in the eighth when, riding righthander Mitchell Boggs for the third day in a row, the Cardinals got into trouble with two walks. The manager yanked Boggs, to the latter’s discontent, and brought in lefthander Marc Rzepczynski, who did too much nibbling after getting ahead 1-2 and walked pinch hitter Matt Downs to load the bases. Now, Matheny pushed the Salas button. First, he struck out the Astros’ best player, All-Star Jose Altuve.
“He’s done really well against us but I was able to get ahead in the count and be aggressive down in the strike zone,” Salas said, with Garcia interpreting,
After fanning Altuve, Salas also whiffed pinch hitter Brett Wallace, another Cardinals’ No. 1 draft pick who has moved on.
“That’s the game,” said Matheny of Salas’ performance.
Salas was the understated ace of the Cardinals’ bullpen for much of last season, leading the club with 24 saves. But he had been wobbly this season, especially early, when he even found himself at Class AAA Memphis.
“Salas has really come along to be close to the form where we’ve seen him in the past,” Matheny said. “We could put him in any situation, whether it be sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth.” Salas also pitched out of a thorny 10th-inning spot in Los Angeles on Sunday, when the Cardinals started their win streak.
Jason Motte tied Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel for the league lead in saves (38) with a scoreless ninth, which featured three strikeouts after he had allowed an opening single. Motte has worked five games in a row (in six days) and six games out of seven.
“Looking at the end of our bullpen, these guys are really beat up right now,” said Matheny,” adding that even Motte was off a “click.”
“I’m very concerned. Fortunately, they’ve been feeling good every day but that’s not going to be able to continue.”
Boggs has worked three straight games after being unavailable on Sunday in Los Angeles because of back spasms. After the game, Boggs said he was fine, citing his three strikeouts the night before, and he was looking to go a fourth day in a row today.
“You can see Boggsy’s pretty beat up,” said Matheny. “We needed somebody to bail him out. Salas was our best guy to go to.”
Mujica also has been used with regularity, suggesting today’s seventh- eighth- and ninth-inning pitchers behind Chris Carpenter in Chicago could be youngsters.
In fact, rookie Trevor Rosenthal was warming up in the ninth on Thursday after Motte allowed the leadoff single.
“Stay tuned,” said Matheny.
Previous game story
Carlos Beltran was kept out of the starting lineup to rest a tight knee, but he came through with the game's key hit as a pinch hitter, doubling in two runs in the sixth inning to provide the winning runs in a 5-4 win over the Astros.
The Cardinals got their other runs in the first on a three-run homer by Allen Craig.
With their pursuers in the wild-card race all playing later, the Cards will put pressure on the Dodgers, Brewers, Phillies, Pirates and Diamondbacks. The Cards are, for the time being, 2 ½ games up on the Dodgers, 3 up on the Brewers.
"It shows a lot to me about these guys," manager Mike Matheny said, "especially when you look at the end of our bullpen. These guys are really beat up and still finding a way to make it happen."
The Cards start a three-game series in Chicago on Friday against the Cubs – all day games – starting with Friday's much anticipated return of Chris Carpenter to the mound.
Beltran's double came after back-to-back walks to Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma had driven Cards nemesis Bud Norris from the game in the sixth with the score tied at 3-3. Wesley Wright came on to pitch and Beltran, batting for Cards starter Jaime Garcia, lined a shot into the gap in left center for a double, scoring Descalso and Kozma to make it 5-3.
"It was a beautiful swing," Matheny said. "I thought it was out of here, he just had too much topspin on it. ... We need him, make no mistake about it. We knew sooner or later he'd come through. He just needed some time to get himself to get himself right physically and then the mental side comes along."
The Astros got a run back in the top of the seventh before a bases-loaded double play ended the inning. In the eighth, the Astros had the bases loaded again on three walks with one out – Mitchell Boggs had the first two walks, Marc Rzepcynski the third – before Fernando Salas came in and struck out Jose Altuve and pinch hitter Brett Wallace to end the inning.
"That's the game," Matheny said. "He came in and made great pitches. To me, that's the game."
Matheny admitted he was concerned about the wear and tear on his bullpen, especially the final three of Mujica, Boggs and Jason Motte, but at this point, it seems his options are limited. Asked who might throw the final three innings Friday in Chicago, he said, "Stay tuned."
The Astros got to Garcia in the first for a run and left the bases loaded. They also scored twice in third on doubles by Brandon Barnes and Justin Maxwell and a single by Brandon Laird that looked to be the third out in the inning until hit second base and caromed into left field.
Norris has long been a challenge for the Cards, but they got to him in the first inning for three runs and it could have been more if not for a brilliant diving catch of leadoff hitter Jon Jay's fly to deep center. Matt Carpenter and Matt Holliday followed with singles and Craig then hit his 22nd homer of the season, into left center.
Jason Motte gave up a leadoff single to Matt Dominguez in the ninth then struck out the next three hitters to get the save. It was his 38th save, the most by a Cardinal since Ryan Franklin had 38 in 2009. Motte has appeared in six of the last seven games.
Garcia got the win and is now 5-7.
It's been a bit of a tightrope walk for the Cards bullpen, as they pitched in and out of jams in the seventh and eighth inning.
After Edward Mujica got out of a bases-loaded one-out jam in the seventh, Mitchell Boggs walked two of the three batters he faced in the eighth, and gave way to Marc Rzepczynski, who walked Matt Downs to load the bases.
Manager Mike Matheny brought in Fernando Salas, and he struck out jose Altuve and pinch hitter Brett Wallace to end the inning.
BELTRAN PINCH DOUBLE GIVES CARDS LEAD
Carlos Beltran was kept out of the starting lineup to give him a break, but he came to the plate as a pinch hitter in the sixth and doubled to give the Cards a 5-3 lead. The Astros scored in the top of the seventh to make it 5-4
With Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma on second and first respectively after walks by Bud Norris, whose pitch count had gone over 100, Beltran came in to bat for Cards starter Jaime Garcia. Houston manager Tony DeFrancesco brought in Wesley Wright to relieve and Beltran, who had eight hits in his previous 18 at-bats, doubled to left center, driving in two runs.
Beltran has hit in the past six games, but manager Mike Matheny has been looking for chances to give him days off down the stretch after riding him pretty hard most of the season.
Edward Mujica came on in relief of Garcia in the seventh and gave up three singles to lead to a run. Matt Dominguez had the RBI single to center to score Scott Moore. The Astros had the bases loaded with one out and J.D. Martinez hit a sharp grounder to David Freese, who started a 5-4-3 double play to end the inning and save the lead.
FLUKE BOUNCE LETS ASTROS TIE GAME
A fluke bounce off second base allowed the Astros to tie their game with the Cardinals at 3-3 in the third.
Down 3-1 to start the inning, the Astros got a run on doubles by Brandon Barnes and Justin Maxwell. It looked like Jaime Garcia would get out of the inning allowing only one run when he got Brandon Laird to hit a grounder up the middle that it looked like second baseman Daniel Descalso would get but the ball struck the base and caromed off toward left field, allowing Maxwell to score from second to tie the game.
Carlos Corporan struck out to end the inning.
CRAIG HOMERS IN FIRST
Bud Norris' mojo may be gone.
The Cardinals teed off on their longtime nemesis, scoring three times in the first and getting four hits and would have had another if not for a great defensive play. The Cards lead 3-1 after one inning.
After Brandon Barnes made a spectacular diving catch on Jon Jay's leadoff fly to deep center, Matt Carpenter singled to left, Matt Holliday blooped a singled down the right field line that found the spot between three fielders. Allen Craig then hit his 22nd home run of the season on an 0-1 pitch, clearing the wall in left center. (407 feet for those counting.) David Freese added a single but finished the inning at first.
GARCIA WALKS IN RUN IN FIRST
Jaime Garcia walked Brandon Laird with the bases loaded to force in a run and give the Astros a 1-0 lead after the top of the first.
Garcia gave up a leadoff single to Jose Altuve, and after an out, gave up a single to Matt Dominguez to put runners on the corners. Justin Maxwell walked to load the bases and J.D. Martinez came about a foot away from a grand slam but his fly down the left field line was just foul. Martinez went on to strike out, but Garcia missed low on a 3-1 pitch to give the Astros the lead.
Carlos Corporan grounded into a force at second to end the inning.
Jon Jay led off the bottom of the first with a fly ball to deep center that Brandon Barnes made a sensational diving catch on.
The big news this morning for the Cardinals getaway game against the Astros is that Bud Norris is apparently feeling fine.
Norris, the scourge of the Cardinals, had been feeling sick this week, and though the Astros lineup has not been seen yet, the team's pregame notes this morning list Norris as their starter for the 12:45 game. Norris has a 7-4 record and a 2.61 ERA against the Cards in his career.
It's a fairly typical Cards lineup taking the field, with Carlos Beltran not in the lineup after starting last night and coming out in the ninth inning. Beltran has hit safely in his past five games, going .444 with 8 hits in 18 at-bats.
"Beltran's fine," manager Mike Matheny said. "He's a little tight in his knee (on Wednesday) but he was ready to go this morning. I think what we've done lately is paid real close attention when those little things are bothering him and he can still play. We try to be smart about it. We pushed him and really had him grind for the bulk of this season and I think it put him in a bad spot."
Matheny said Beltran could have played today "but we need to be smart with him and find opportunities for a player like Matt Carpenter to get in there." He thinks the extended rest Beltran has gotten could be playing a part in his recent streak.
* The Cards have the fourth best home winning percentage in the NL at .610.
* The Cards will pass the 3 million mark in attendance today, the ninth straight season they've hit that milestone and the 16th time in franchise history.
1. Jay cf
2. Carpenter rf
3. Holliday lf
4. Craig 1b
5. Molina c
6. Freese 3b
7. Descalso 2b
8. Kozma ss
9. Garcia p
1. Altuve 2B
2. Barnes CF
3. Dominguez 3B
4. Maxwell RF
5. Martinez LF
6. Laird 1B
7. Corporan C
8. Gonzalez SS
9. Norris P