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Matheny's use of closer Oh changes, part of 'evolving philosophy'

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Seung Hwan Oh

St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Seung Hwan Oh follows through on a pitch in a game at New York in July.(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

MILWAUKEE • In the ninth inning Tuesday of a tie game Cardinals manager Mike Matheny broke from convention, veered away from past practices and brought his best reliever into the spot he felt could decide the game, save or not.

Instead of waiting for a lead on the road to use closer Seung Hwan Oh, Matheny brought the righthander into the bottom of the ninth with no save to get.

Matheny called it his “evolving” view on relief use.

“Part of it is a change in philosophy,” the manager said. “We’ve got our best pitcher and, say, we’re into a situation where we don’t get that next inning if we don’t pitch him in that inning. You’ve got your best, statistically, arm down there ready to go and their best part of the lineup. When the game ends and you still have him sitting down there and he could have pitched ... those are things that you look back and you hope you learn from.”

Three times in August, Matheny went to his closer, Oh, with a tie game in the bottom of the ninth inning. All three times, the Cardinals got the game into extra innings, and twice, including Tuesday, they won.

The three previous times Matheny held his closer back for a save in extra innings, the Cardinals never saw extra innings. The game ended in the ninth.

“Those have changed,” he said, “how we use our closer on the road.”

Matheny has often mused about being free to use his closer earlier than the ninth inning or when there’s a clear late-inning situation when the game is in jeopardy. He has acknowledged that the save stat and its value to his players does govern his use of the closer. The manager said his recent use of Oh does not suggest his decisions are liberated from the save, just that he’s starting to employ an approach he’s received “push back” for in the past.

There was a time when Matheny would always hold his closer back for the save on the road. He did so memorably in the decisive inning of the 2014 National League championship series, turning to little-used Michael Wacha for the bottom of the ninth and not available closer Trevor Rosenthal.

The Giants won the pennant before Rosenthal threw a pitch.

On July 31, Matheny went to Matt Bowman during a tie game in the bottom of the ninth, saving Oh. Oh never pitched. The Marlins won. Since, the Cardinals have not had a tie game on the road that Oh hasn’t appeared in the bottom of the ninth. Matheny said there are two principles guiding this shift. One is where the opponent is in the lineup. When he went to Oh for the ninth Tuesday, the top of the Brewers’ lineup was coming up. Former MVP Ryan Braun was guaranteed to hit. The other reason is Matheny’s wish to avoid warming Oh up repeatedly for a save spot because all the pitches add up.

“Instead of continuing to get hot down there — he’s ready, big part of their lineup, it’s time to get him in,” Matheny said. “It goes against how I remember bullpens being run where you hold on to your closer and get him hot eight times if you have to and then finally when you get that lead you throw him in there. That just seems kind of bizarre to me. We have other guys who can pitch that last inning. They’re going to have to figure out how to get it done.”

PROSPECTS PICKED

Catcher Carson Kelly, an ascending talent who has been considered for a September promotion, headlines six Cardinals prospects selected for the Arizona Fall League. Kelly, infielder Paul DeJong and outfielder Harrison Bader will go to Arizona with pitchers Corey Littrell, Ryan Sherriff and Rowan Wick. The six picked for the invitation-only league reflect some of the Cardinals’ top prospects, such as DeJong and Bader, and some top performers from this season, such as Sherriff and Littrell.

Littrell, who was acquired from the Boston Red Sox at the same time as John Lackey in 2014, has split his season between Class AA and Class AAA and posted a 3.97 ERA in 51 relief appearances with 63 strikeouts. Wick used to be one of the Cardinals’ power threats in the lower level but has been repurposed as a power pitcher. He is 2-0 with a 2.40 ERA and 55 strikeouts in 42 relief appearances.

DeJong and Bader, who recently returned to Class AA Springfield, were two of the key threats for the S-Cards’ playoff run. DeJong has 21 homers and 26 doubles, and Bader hit .286 with a .837 OPS at Double-A before a 49-game promotion to Class AA Memphis.

The fall league is considered a finishing school for leading prospects or players the team believes could contribute to the majors in the following year. Being picked for the league does not preclude a player from also receiving a September promotion when rosters expand.

WAINWRIGHT ASKS TWITTER

In the afterglow of his seven reassuring innings Tuesday, Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright described how he drew motivation, at times this season, from Twitter and the vocal critics on the social media stream. His comment that he intended to “retire” the pitcher he was in August was a direct response to fans on Twitter who suggested it was time for him to retire.

On Wednesday, he returned to the stream for a more playful reason.

He asked people on there if he should stick with the high-cuffs, ringtail-stirrups that he showed for the first time Tuesday or return to the long pants that hide the stirrup. More than 4,000 fans voted, and the response was overwhelmingly in favor of high socks.

Wainwright said he’ll keep them.

“I’m a man of the people,” he said.

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