ST. LOUIS – The trick play, a delayed double steal, had blown up moments earlier and now Mike Matheny had to face the music.
Most times, Tony La Russa would have pursed his lips, glared and growled in an attempt to cut the reporters’ interrogation short, change the subject. His rookie successor as St. Louis Cardinals manager kept his cool, took the blame and fielded more than one question about what exactly happened.
“I’ll just say,” Matheny said in a level voice, “that the play didn’t go as planned.”
The Cardinals are still a first-place team without La Russa, three-time N.L. MVP Albert Pujols and longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan.
Postgame blowups? Gone. In-game feuding? Gone. The drama that went with La Russa most of his 33 seasons? That’s gone, too.
The expectations are just as high under Matheny, who inherited a title team. But the style is much different under the new guy, who leads with polite efficiency.
“It’s just been a pleasure watching these guys go about their business,” Matheny said. “I think that’s the bottom line.”
Matheny is only the sixth manager to take over a team that had won the World Series the previous season, according to Stats LLC, and the first since Alvin Dark with the Athletics in 1974. Dark, who won the World Series after taking over for Dick Williams, is the only one of the group with previous major league managing experience.
Bill Virdon won the N.L. East with Pittsburgh in 1972 after supplanting Danny Murtaugh, although the Pirates lost to the Reds in the NLCS. The rest are Cardinals: Red Schoendienst replaced Johnny Keane in 1965, and St. Louis finished seventh. Bob O’Farrell succeeded Rogers Hornsby in 1927 and finished second.
So far, Matheny is on the right track.
Though he’s yet to hit the pitcher eighth, a La Russa favorite at times, Matheny isn’t afraid to take calculated risks.
And take the heat if necessary.
The day after the Cardinals ran into a game-ending, strike-’em-out, throw-’em-out double play against the Brewers, Matheny noted without rancor that the double steal had been described as the “cute play.” He pointed out that the team worked on the play throughout spring training, and thought the time was right with hard-throwing closer John Axford on the mound.
“You don’t practice something just to try and win the Grapefruit League,” Matheny said. “You work on your timing so you can win real games. That was an opportunity, and it just didn’t go right.”
Win or lose, players say the clubhouse atmosphere this year doesn’t change. All Matheny asks for is an honest effort.