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I’m blaming this one on Mike Matheny

Sep 15, 2012, 2:09 AM EDT

Mike Matheny Getty Images

The Cardinals were up 4-3 on the Dodgers with right-handed starter Joe Kelly weakening in the bottom the fifth inning tonight. With a man on first and the left-handed-hitting Andre Ethier on deck, I think it had already been decided that he was facing his last batter when Shane Victorino flied out to left to the end the frame. Left-hander Sam Freeman was ready to go in the pen.

A funny thing happened afterwards, though. When Kelly was replaced to start the bottom of the sixth, it was by Trevor Rosenthal, not Freeman.

The game quickly went south. Ethier singled to start the inning. Rosenthal bounced back to retire Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez, but he then hit Hanley Ramirez with a pitch. Mike Matheny came out to make the change to another right-hander, calling in ex-Marlin Edward Mujica. Mujica, the most homer-prone reliever in the pen, promptly gave up a three-run shot to Luis Cruz, a guy who hadn’t had an extra-base hit in three weeks.

The Cardinals went on to lose 8-5. Freeman eventually got into a game, retiring Ethier (but allowing a walk and a single to the other two batters he faced) in the seventh.

I imagine the Matheny figured out tonight what NL West managers have already learned; when you have the chance to bring in a lefty to face Ethier, you do it. I’m sure Matheny has confidence in Rosenthal’s ability to get out lefties — he’s done a terrific job of it in his limited action in the majors — but Ethier is just brutal against lefty specialists.

My problem with it is that Matheny didn’t see Ethier leading off the sixth inning in a one-run game as being a big situation. Ethier up with two on and two outs in the fifth? That was big, in Matheny’s opinion, and would have required Freeman’s usage. However, Ethier with no outs in the sixth is awfully big too, particularly now that he’s hitting second and being followed by Kemp, Gonzalez and Ramirez. Matheny chose to save Freeman for a more crucial situation that didn’t materialize.

(There is one other thing worth mentioning here; the Cardinals are currently going with just two left-handed relievers, even though it’s September. That certainly wouldn’t have flown back in Tony La Russa’s day.)

Anyway, the Cardinals still have their one-game lead in the wild card, courtesy of Thursday’s series-opening victory. They get to face the struggling Joe Blanton on Saturday and no one knows if Clayton Kershaw (hip) is going to be ready to pitch Sunday. They’re still in a pretty good spot.

A couple of other thoughts from the game:

Yadier Molina was terrific. He homered, picked off Nick Punto at first base (though it looked like Punto avoided the tag long enough to get his hand on the bag) and worked a 12-pitch walk. I though the walk off Stawn Tolleson was most impressive of all. However, it was immediately followed by David Freese grounded the first pitch he saw to second for a double play.

– Gonzalez seems to be heating up for the Dodgers. He entered with a .233 average 17 strikeouts in 18 games for the Dodgers, but he connected on two doubles tonight. In fact, his last four hits have been doubles.

– I thought Lance Lynn was quite a bit more impressive in his spot start Thursday than Kelly was tonight. The plan appears to be for Lynn to return to the pen with Chris Carpenter coming off the DL next week. but I’d take my chances with him over Kelly right now. Maybe the relief stint allowed him to recharge his batteries after a rough August.

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