Matheny makes first big blunder of playoffs

We'll be doing a lot of quick takes on managerial decisions in this space during the postseason. As always, ultimately it's the players who win and lose games, but it sure is fun to second-guess some of the key moves.

Mike Matheny perfectly executed the first major blunder of the postseason in the eighth inning on Sunday. The situation: The Cardinals leading the Nationals 2-1, two outs, runners on second and third, the pitcher's spot due up. With right-hander Mitchell Boggs pitching, Davey Johnson sent up lefty Chad Tracy to hit.

Matheny went to his lone lefty in the 'pen, Marc Rzepczynski.

Johnson countered with right-handed Tyler Moore, who flared a 2-2 fastball down the right-field line for a two-run, go-ahead single.

You can say it was bad luck for the Cardinals since the ball wasn't hit hard. But it was bad process. The main argument here is that Boggs is a better pitcher than Rzepczynski. The second argument is that it should have been obvious Johnson would hit for Tracy once Rzepczynski entered. The third argument is that Moore is a more dangerous hitter than Tracy. So there was really no reason for Matheny to bring in the reliever they call "Scrabble." Boggs versus Tracy or Rzepcynski versus Moore? Easy call. (And that's without even getting into the option of bringing in closer Jason Motte for a four-out save.)

Rzepczynski got some big outs in the postseason a year ago for the Cardinals, but wasn't as effective this season. Right-handers hit .259/.323/.459 against him; overall, he allowed seven home runs in just 46.2 innings. Moore hit .247 against left-handers but has big power, hitting 10 home runs on the season in just 156 at-bats. Tracy is a veteran pinch hitter who had only nine plate appearances all season against lefties; Johnson wasn't going to let him hit there.

Matheny's in-game strategy drew a lot of criticism from Cardinals fans this year: too many sacrifice bunts, ill-advised intentional walks and so on. This decision won't alleviate those concerns about the rookie manager.

Johnson, of course, was weaned in the '80s, managing against Hall of Fame skippers such as Whitey Herzog, Tommy Lasorda and Dick Williams. He played under Earl Weaver. Nobody is going to beat Johnson in a chess match. More importantly, the Nationals have multiple weapons off the bench. Like his Mets teams in the '80s, Johnson carries some guys who can hit in Tracy, Moore, Roger Bernadina and even Steve Lombardozzi. As I wrote earlier, the Nationals have a big advantage over their NL counterparts in bench strength.

There's a lot more we could write off this game. The Cardinals managed only two runs off Gio Gonzalez, despite Gonzalez walking seven in five innings. They later loaded the bases with no outs in the seventh, but the Nationals escaped with a force at home and double play.

The Cardinals will regret missing those scoring opportunities. But Matheny should regret the tactical error he made.