New Cardinals manager Mike Matheny demonstrated some clear tendencies during his team’s season-opening road trip.
He prefers rolling his everyday lineup game after game when his regulars are healthy. He sticks with his starting pitchers deep into games when he likes what he sees. He won’t hesitate to bring effective relievers back for a second inning.
But he also sees the importance of keeping his entire roster busy so players are prepared to step up as needed. Hence the lineup he constructed for Wednesday’s game at Cincinnati.
While Wednesday’s 4-3 loss was disappointing, the 5-2 excursion was not. The Cards demonstrated mostly positives while winning their opener at Miami and winning two of three games at Milwaukee and Cincinnati.
Here are some more thoughts on the state of the team after its first seven games:
--Starting pitcher Jaime Garcia looks ready to tough it out on the road. He could have imploded after Matt Holliday dropped Joey Votto’s fly ball at the left-center field wall in the bottom of the third. That double scored a run and put runners at second and third with nobody out. But Garcia bore down and struck out Ryan Ludwick and Jay Bruce before coaxing an inning-ending grounder from Miguel Cairo. Jaime wanted to pitch out of his fifth-inning jam, but Matheny yanked him after a game-tying bunt single. Oh, well ...
--Rafael Furcal’s torrid offensive start is a huge first week story. After taking a break Tuesday, he bolstered the makeshift lineup Wednesday and contributed an RBI triple. It took him weeks to get in shape this spring, to Matheny’s consternation, but by Opening Day, he was in midseason form.
--Center fielder Jon Jay continues getting the job done. Many fans and some experts refuse to believe he is a quality everyday player. Internet trolls dogged him mercilessly during the first five games of the World Series. But Jay just stays after it day after day. His two-out, two-run homer Wednesday gave the Cardinals a 3-0 lead in the third inning. He also drew a walk with the game tied 3-3 in the seventh inning.
--Much-discussed Tyler Greene is also doing solid work. After starting at shortstop Tuesday, he moved back to second base in this game. He dumped a hanging Johnny Cueto curveball into center field for a fourth-inning single. He has hit safely in each of his three starts. He played solid infield defense. Since he offers more speed and power than stellar defender Daniel Descalso, he needs to get his share of at-bats.
--Erik Komatsu is a smooth ballplayer. Watching him battle Cueto Wednesday — fouling off pitch after pitch — was interesting. He unnerved Cueto during a 14-pitch battle and set the stage for a three-run third inning. He stroked a single off Reds fireballer Aroldis Chapman. It is easy to see why he was once a top prospect for Milwaukee. But what can he really add once the Cards are back to full strength? He is a lefthanded backup for a lefthanded starting center fielder. Skip Schumaker will offer that when he is healthy. Adron Chambers could come up from Memphis to offer that as well. Can the Cards keep this Rule 5 player on the big-league roster all season to avoid throwing him back?
--Did Mike Matheny wince as Garcia got the green light to score from first base on Furcal’s third-inning rip into the right field corner. Luckily he didn’t pop a leg muscle. Luckily the Cards kept the inning going so Jaime could catch his breath before pitching again. Garcia made it into the fifth and might have kept going, but for a well-placed bunt single.
--Victor Marte looks like he appreciates the MLB-level meal money. And he earned it while stranding the bases loaded in the fifth and then retiring the Reds in order in the sixth. While he appears to be a solid depth guy, the Cards would like to get reliable veteran Scott Linebrink off the disabled list sooner rather than later.
--Kyle McClellan’s ability to work multiple innings is critical to this bullpen. He breezed through the seventh and eighth innings Wednesday, looking especially good with his curveball. Once upon a time he was a pivotal member of the relief corps. Then he wore down as a starter last season and ended up in the trade rumor mill over the winter. Can he regain his old role as a reliable relief option against both righties and lefties?
--The Cards miss Allen Craig. When Lance Berkman strained his calf muscle Tuesday, Craig could have jumped into his place and provided similar lineup clout. Instead, the Cards turned to Matt Carpenter, who is a stretch for the first base/clean-up role. Carpenter IS a handy bench player, though, thanks to his defensive versatility and improved offensive pop. He hammered a Cueto curveball into right field for a fourth-inning single.
In the end, the Cards couldn’t get anything done against Chapman in the last two innings Wednesday. Visiting teams don’t want to go into the bottom of the ninth tied at Cincinnati, especially when Joey Votto is due up.
So the Cards had to settle for winning two of three. But all things considered, the Cards — almost all of them — are right where Matheny wants them to be heading into their first homestand of the season.
Jeff Gordon is a Lee News Service columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (314) 340-8187.