There’s an episode of “South Park” where the kids, at the end of a long little league baseball season, decide to stop trying so they can lose and finally go home. Only problem is their competition decides to do the same thing and the two sides engage in a battle to avoid winning.
Sometimes it feels like this World Series is following the same script.
To be clear, no one is accusing any players or decision makers on the Red Sox or Cardinals of trying to tank this series.
What we are accusing Cardinals manager Mike Matheny and Red Sox manager John Farrell of is, at best, poor strategic planning and, at worst, pure incompetence.
Farrell, whose Red Sox are up 3-2 and headed back to the comfy confines of Fenway for the final two games, has been hurt less by his decisions (or lack of them) than Matheny. But just because a move (or lack of one) works out, doesn’t make it right. Just because you win a World Series doesn’t mean you managed well.
Farrell’s most outrageous indiscretions include allowing relief pitcher Brandon Workman to bat in the ninth inning of a tied Game 3 and letting David Ortiz run during the eighth inning of Monday’s Game 5 when a pinch-runner was readily available and Ortiz wasn’t needed to play defense (and Boston was probably best served by not allowing Ortiz to run or field).
Red Sox closer Koji Uehara picked off pinch-runner Kolten Wong in a stunning play to end Game 4. But that was an unprecedented ending, not an expected outcome. Even so, Farrell had first baseman Mike Napoli holding Wong on, opening a huge hole between first and second base. The hitter at the plate? Carlos Beltran, fierce in any situation and also one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) postseason hitter ever.
But Uehara picked off Wong and Beltran never got to finish his at-bat, so the decision was never fully explored and questioned. This is what happens when you win: The questions go away.
Matheny, though, is in another position. His team trails in this series and is going into one of the toughest environs to win a game. Every move counts. Every decision carries huge consequences. And Matheny, who had no prior managing experience before taking over the Cards prior to the 2012 season, has not been impressive.
The Cardinals are essentially playing with a 23-man roster, given Matheny’s reluctance (for whatever reasons) to use relievers Shelby Miller (a National League Rookie of the Year candidate) and Edward Mujica. But Matheny chose to carry these two relievers instead of further pinch-hitting options. And so, with the Cardinals down by two runs and a runner on second base with one out in the eighth inning, light-hitting Pete Kozma was allowed to bat. Kozma is 5-for-35 this postseason. He has one hit in his last 25 at-bats. He’s 0-for-10 during the World Series. He should never come up in an important spot in a big game.
Speaking of important spots, Beltran never got to come up in the biggest one last night because Matheny decided to move him from the No. 2 hole to the cleanup spot. People who study lineups have been preaching the importance of placing your best hitters near the top of the lineup for years for one simple reason: It gives them more at-bats. Even one more at-bat can change a game – or a series.
Beltran had been batting in the No. 2 spot of the lineup this postseason. But Matheny wanted to shake things up on Monday, so Shane Robinson was inserted at No. 2 and Beltran was moved to fourth. Robinson was 0-for-3 and came up in the ninth inning with one out, the spot Beltran should have been at the plate in. Struggling Jon Jay pinch-hit and grounded out. Matt Holliday was up next and flew out to right.
Beltran ended the game in the on-deck circle, never getting the chance to hit.
Then there’s Matheny’s inability to navigate the middle innings of games. Cardinals pitchers have a 7.50 ERA in innings 5-7 of Games 2-5. The Red Sox have scored 10 of their 13 runs in the last four games during those three innings.
This World Series is nearly as maddening as it is entertaining.
And there will be some very big questions to be asked of the losing manager.
And the winning one.