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 the 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 NL 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 NL East with Pittsburgh in 1972 after supplanting Danny Murtaugh, though 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.
Although he is 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.
“The advantage of having a guy that has played extensively at the major league level, they understand that a four-game losing streak is just a blip on the radar screen, a bump in the road,” said Lance Berkman, in his second year in St. Louis. “He’s even keel to begin with, and even if we had run that streak out longer, I don’t think you would have ever seen any panic out of him.”
Matheny learned much of the how-tos of managing playing for La Russa as a Gold Glove catcher in St. Louis from 2000-04. He was a minor league instructor for two years before landing his dream job, so he was familiar with the organization before he was hired.
He comes from a position that should be a natural for managing, too. Catchers control the game, see the field, keep the pitcher grounded. Matheny vividly remembers coming off the field when he was with the Brewers and having manager Phil Garner ask him about specific pitches, a lesson to never let the guard down.
La Russa imparted the same wisdom.
“Something that I picked up from him as a player and now as a manager is just the preparation,” Matheny said. “Control the things that you can control. Put your time in, your effort in. “
Matheny was an effort guy as a player, carving out a nice career, even though he wasn’t much of a hitter, by paying attention to detail.
“I didn’t have the liberty to just kind of sit back and not see everything. I had to,” Matheny said. “There are different responsibilities now, but as far as being into every pitch I had to do that as a player.”
La Russa went out on top after the surprise World Series run, which began when the Cardinals overtook the flagging Braves for the NL wild card on the last day of the season. He has been back twice this year already to bask in that glory, once for a ring ceremony and again to have his No. 10 retired.
Each time, Matheny went out of his way to praise his predecessor.
“You’re looking at one of the winningest managers of all time, so anything I’ve been able to pick up is helpful,” Matheny said. “The consistent thing he kept telling me was to be myself and not to try and be him. I think that was great advice.”
There’s been no backseat managing from La Russa, aside from a wisecrack or two about the furnishings in Matheny’s office along with a suggestion the new guy should hire an interior decorator. Not long into La Russa’s 16-year run with the Cardinals, the office was chock full of books, memorabilia, framed photographs and assorted trinkets and gifts.
For now, Matheny is surrounded by prominent La Russa holdovers. Third base coach Jose Oquendo also interviewed for the managing job. Batting coach Mark McGwire returned to baseball after going underground for years during the steroids scandal at La Russa’s behest.
Some pretty good players, too.
The team Matheny inherited appears stronger from top to bottom and has been good enough already to survive lengthy absences of Chris Carpenter, Berkman and now Jon Jay. Carpenter, who starred on the mound last postseason, has yet to pitch this year while rehabbing from a shoulder injury involving nerves.
The money that would have been spent on Pujols paid for two players off to huge starts, leadoff man Rafael Furcal, who batted over .500 during a recent 12-game hitting streak, and Carlos Beltran, who hit home runs six times in six games before needing rest for a surgically repaired knee.
“It’s a good lineup, there’s no doubt about it,” Beltran said. “If we’re healthy, we feel like we can score a lot of runs.”
When healthy, Matt Holliday, Berkman and Beltran give the Cardinals one of the league’s top power trios. The rotation carried the ball early in the season and seems to have righted itself after a string of poor starts.
And leading the way is Matheny. La Russa took no prisoners in a run that left him No. 3 on the managerial victory list, trailing only Connie Mack and John McGraw. He has often been described as the master of the mind game, known to kick up a ruckus if there was an edge to be gained.
These days, opposing managers don’t have to grit their teeth before praising the man in the other dugout.
“It’s not Tony’s team anymore,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “It’s a good ballclub, and they’ve got a smart man to take Tony’s place.”