Bernie: Matheny blows it as Mujica blows saves

2013-09-21T15:10:00Z 2013-09-22T07:50:12Z Bernie: Matheny blows it as Mujica blows savesBY BERNIE MIKLASZ • bjmiklasz@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

With baseball’s regular season winding down to a precious few days, the Cardinals desperately are trying to fend off the Pirates and Reds in a three-way clash for first place in the NL Central.

This is a bad time to have a wobbly, unsure closer.

And it’s obvious that Cardinals closer Edward Mujica has lost his mojo — not to mention his formerly sharp split-fingered fastball. 

The Cardinals did themselves proud Friday night at Miller Park in Milwaukee. They refused to succumb to the Brewers in an emotional, frustrating, exhilarating, full-tilt lollapalooza of a game.

The Cardinals claimed a 7-6 victory in 10 innings, increasing their lead in the NL Central to two games over the Pirates and Reds with only eight to play. And the Cardinals prevented their manager Mike Matheny from having a sleepless, sorrowful night.  

Matheny — in exhibiting some of the most irresponsible in-game managing I’ve seen — allowed Mujica to cough up another ninth-inning lead after Matt Adams had launched the Cardinals to a 6-4 advantage with a harrowing two-run homer into the second deck. After Big City Adams went all Prince Fielder in Fielder's old yard, the Cardinals needed three outs to put the Brewers down.

Matheny went with Mujica, and the decision made no sense for several reasons. First of all, Mujica has experienced shoulder irritation. He's acknowledged fatigue. Matheny tried to ease him through the discomfort for a while by resisting the urge to overwork the weary closer.

Until this week, Mujica hadn't pitched on consecutive days since July 9-10. But here was Matheny, running Mujica out to the mound for the third straight day. Big mistake. 

Then Matheny compounded the misjudgment by allowing Mujica to slowly hang and face five batters. Four of them reached, on three hits and a walk. In the heat of a pennant race Matheny watched a 6-4 lead vanish. 

By the time Matheny belatedly made the move to hook Mujica, the Brewers had cut the lead to 6-5. The bases were loaded with one out. John Axford took over the accident scene and did a terrific job under the circumstances. Yes, Axford gave up a dinky, bad-luck infield hit that Aramis Ramirez barely fought off. That tied the score at 6-6, but Axford gave the Cardinals a chance to escape a Brewers' walk-off win by getting Carlos Gomez to hit into a double play.

The Cardinals won it in the 10th. They earned it by fighting back to overcome their manager's Mujica fixation. 

Look, I think Matheny has done a fine job overall this year. Many of you were upset when I praised him in my column last Sunday. He's guided the Cardinals through plenty of adversity. He's done a good job with a very young pitching staff. 

But I really don't understand what Matheny is thinking here.

Even if it made sense to summon Mujica for the start of the ninth — and it didn't — then you have to get him out at the first sign of a meltdown. The Cardinals can't afford to keep giving games away, as they did Thursday when Mujica squandered a ninth-inning save at Colorado.

In his last 11 appearances going back to Aug. 21, Mujica has allowed 17 hits and 20 base runners in 9.1 innings. He's been pounded for three homers and five doubles. He's lost three ninth-inning leads. Hitters have dominated him for a .425 batting average and .775 slugging percentage. His ERA in the 11 games is 7.71. 

Mujica no longer resembles the steady, composed closer who emerged as a worthy appointee to the NL All-Star squad in July. His pitches don't have much life. He looks demoralized. But Matheny keeps running him out there.

Why?

Who does Matheny think he’s helping here?

It isn’t Mujica, who looks bewildered, bothered and filled with dread. I feel bad for the guy. 

The Mujica restoration project isn't benefiting the Cardinals, who are trying to avoid being relegated to the wild-card play-in game.

And this stubborn streak doesn’t do a thing for Matheny, who looks downright foolish.

Didn't Matheny learn a thing from his misguided loyalty to Mitchell Boggs early this season? Heck, if GM John Mozeliak hadn't intervened, Matheny may still be calling for Boggs. 

The Cardinals and their fans are grateful for the overall job turned in by Mujica this season. I'm not trying to pick on the guy. I don't enjoy writing this. Mujica helped pitch the Cardinals into first place. He made a vital contribution, filling an enormous void after Boggs washed out as the closer. He was money for four-plus months. But he's fading now, diminished by a heavy workload and heavy late-season pressure. 

"We're trying to get our closer right," Matheny told reporters after Friday's win. "That's what we're trying to do. And we were one ground ball away from turning the double play. If we turn the double play, he gets the save and we get the win and he's feeling pretty good about himself. It didn't happen tonight. We hurt for him, and we hurt for us, obviously." 

Hey, these aren't March Grapefruit League games against the Mets in Port St. Lucie or the Astros in Kissimmee. The stakes are high. First place is on the line. And Matheny's team is battling like mad to win this thing. 

Again, Mujica hasn't been fully healthy. He's been honest in mentioning the impact of the strain, the wear and tear, near the end of a long season. If Mujica isn't right, then why force this? It isn't fair to this organization, and it isn't fair to Mujica. It isn't a fair fight. 

Matheny owes it to his players to give this persistent team the best possible chance to win the NL Central. Pardon my drama, but if the Cardinals had lost Friday's game, I don’t know how Matheny could have faced his players in the visiting-team clubhouse. 

The Cardinals don’t have an automatic, no-doubt alternative closer. I get that. But here's what they do have: a collection of power arms that make many teams envious.

There's the veteran Axford. And rookies Trevor Rosenthal and Kevin Siegrist. And we could name other options, too. Another rookie, Carlos Martinez, made quick work of the Brewers in the bottom of the 10th to notch his first major-league save.

Rosenthal, Siegrist and Martinez are abundantly talented. And if we don’t think a rookie can handle the closer’s job, I offer this reminder: Adam Wainwright in 2006. 

This much is certain: the Cardinals can’t continue to go down this crazy path. I'm sorry. but Matheny's insistence on using the overwhelmed Mujica in high-leverage situations borders on managerial incompetence. 

It's time for Matheny to confront an unpleasant reality. He must make a change, unless he wants to see this season — and his credibility — go up in ninth-inning smoke.

Reading Time, Five Minutes:

Free Isaiah Pead. Early in the new campaign the Rams are throwing a lot of passes to running backs. The team touted Pead’s receiving skills after drafting him 50th overall in 2012.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon made a telling move Friday in appointing Kirkwood attorney Andy Leonard as chair of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission. Leonard was a member of the St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex Authority from 1990 to 1996. Here’s how I view the appointment: Nixon is lining up his team to deal specifically with the Rams-related stadium issues.

I’m intrigued by the Blues’ possible line combination of Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Tarasenko and Magnus Paajarvi. That’s a physically imposing line, with good speed and potential scoring punch. … When looking at the Blues’ breakout candidates for the new season, I’m buying a ticket on Jaden Schwartz.

I have a bad feeling about Mizzou’s chances at Indiana. Indiana was a Big Ten also-ran last season, but the offense was legit, ranking first in the conference in passing yards, second in total yards and fourth in points. A test for the MU defense. ... The Rams won’t have much of chance to win at Dallas on Sunday unless offensive tackles Jake Long and Joe Barksdale can slow the Cowboys’ berserk pass rushers.

Entering the weekend, the Cardinals’ Matt Holliday was staging one of the NL’s best second-half hitting performances. Since the All-Star break, Holliday was tied for third with 42 RBIs, was fifth with a .335 batting average, fourth in doubles, seventh in on-base percentage and 11th in slugging. He was also batting .412 with runners in scoring position since the break.

And keep in mind, Holliday missed time while on the disabled list in July. Holliday was at it again Friday, pelting the Brewers for three hits, a walk, a run and two RBIs. Since returning from the disabled list on July 27, Holliday is batting .342 with a .429 onbase percentage and .528 slugging percentage. His post-DL assault includes 44 RBIs and 23 extra-base hits and a .418 average with runners in scoring position. 

I wanted to mention the recent deaths of two notable yesteryear athletes from the St. Louis area. Condolences to family and friends of Jack Frier, 86, a longtime Wesbter Groves resident who played football and baseball at Mizzou in the late 1940s, and Guenther Reinholdt, 85, who was inducted into the St. Louis Soccer Hall of Fame in 1993.

The Rams’ enhanced speed is showing up in a number of ways on offense. But the thing that jumps out is the percentage of total passing yards that were accumulated after the catch. Through two games the Rams have gotten 61 percent of their passing yards after the completion; that’s the third-highest rate in the NFL.

The Cardinals had to be pumped up to see right fielder Carlos Beltran come back with a big night in Friday's game. Two RBIs, a dramatic throw-out of Norichika Aoki at home plate, and the game-winning sac fly in the top of the 10th. Since Allen Craig went down with a sprained foot, Beltran was batting .191 with a .255 slugging percentage and had left 30 runners on base in 14 games. But that was before breaking out Friday. 

St. Louisan Bradley Beal is gearing up for his second NBA season with the Washington Wizards. But he made time earlier this month to visit his alma mater, Chaminade Prep, to have his No. 23 jersey retired.

Beal described the experience to the Washington Post: “It was tremendous. It was very emotional, because just a few years ago, I was in high school. I can basically remember every game I played in, and everything the school did for me. The support they’ve given me, it really truly meant a lot. It just shows the hard work that I put in," ... ESPN.com recently named Beal as one of the five top candidates to have a breakout season this year.

It will be difficult for the Rams to realize their full offensive potential unless they can pose a threat with their running game. Not counting QB Sam Bradford’s scrambles the Rams have averaged 2.9 yards per rushing attempt and are last in the NFL in the percentage of runs that produce 4 yards or more. Only 35 percent of their running plays have gained more than 3 yards.

Since Sept. 4 Adams is batting .333 with six homers and a .667 slugging percentage. He's going to be a scary big-league power hitter. He's getting there already, with 15 homers in 264 at-bats this season. 

I had the pleasure of seeing one of the former St. Louis football Cardinals on Thursday night at Lo Russo’s cucina: Joe Bostic, a great guy who started at guard for the Big Red from 1979 through 1988. Bostic was in town for a wedding. He lives in Greensboro, N.C. and is a successful contractor, specializing in building apartment communities in the Southeast. Glad to see him doing so well.

The Nice Section

Heritage Auctions soon will offer a special collection of Stan Musial items. The live auction is set for Oct. 24-26 in Dallas, but online bidding will begin earlier in the month.

There are some unique pieces available, including a 1952 handwritten letter from Ty Cobb to Musial; his game-worn U.S. Navy baseball team uniform from 1945; the signed baseball from his 2,500th hit (a home run) in 1959; the signed ball from his 2,000th hit; a signed photo of Musial and President Lyndon B. Johnson; a handwritten letter from Branch Rickey to Musial; Stan’s traveling trunk and equipment bag from the 1950s; and autographed team baseballs from the Cardinals’ 1942, 1944 and 1946 World Series winners. And a vast assortment of personal items.

To view the collection, visit HA.com. For more information call 1-800-872-6467.

Watch "Breakfast with Bernie," each weekday, sponsored by Papa John's, where you get 40 percent off regular price menu items the day after a Cardinals victory. Use promo code "CARDSWIN" at checkout. 10% of purchase price benefits Siteman Cancer Center.

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Bernie Miklasz

You've read Bernie Miklasz in the Post-Dispatch since 1989. Now check out a new video "Breakfast with Bernie" every weekday morning. You'll also see more "Bernie Bytes" around the clock as he posts quick-hit commentaries on a variety of topics.

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