LOS ANGELES -- Mike Matheny was a hard-nosed catcher during his playing days, winning four Gold Gloves for the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants. It was a job that required brains as much as brawn, which explains why Matheny has been able to make a seamless transition to managing, guiding his team to the National League Championship Series twice in his first two years as a manager.
On Tuesday, Matheny was more like a chess grandmaster than a baseball manager, though, deploying his pieces slowly and methodically. And when Game 4 of the NLCS was over, his Cardinals had pushed the Los Angeles Dodgers close to checkmate with a 4-2 win that left St. Louis a victory away from the World Series and the Dodgers a loss away from the off-season.
"We just have some players put into position to do what they do," he said. "And they did it well tonight."
Like Pete Kozma, who entered the game at shortstop in the sixth inning and three batters later backhanded a sharply hit ball from Juan Uribe to start a rally-killing double play.
Or reliever Seth Maness, the ground-ball specialist Matheny brought in to face Uribe.
"That's the way we've been doing stuff all year," infielder Daniel Descalso said. "Those are the moves that he's made throughout the year. And nobody's really surprised by those.
"Mike makes a move, guys are ready to execute when their name's called."
Guys such as Shane Robinson, who hadn't had a hit in the postseason and hadn't hit a home run since mid-June. When Matheny called his name in the seventh inning, he bounced the second pitch he saw from J.P. Howell off the top of the left-field wall for a homer that gave the Cardinals an important insurance run.
"The preparation has been big for us as bench guys," Robinson said. "The playoffs is a different kind of game than regular season, but as young guys we're learning and understanding how to keep our emotions in check and go out there and do what we've done all year."
For Robinson, that meant trying not to do too much.
"I was looking to do damage up the middle," he said. "Coming off the bench late, facing the nastiest pitchers that the league has to offer, you've got to be aggressive early and get that pitch. When you do get it, you've got to put a good swing on it."
He did all of that.
"The Dodgers, at their place, all the things stack up and it makes it one of the top moments in my career," Robinson said.
Every call the Cardinals and Matheny made Tuesday seemed to be the right one. Their final chess move came in the seventh inning after Nick Punto doubled to center field with one out, bringing Carl Crawford to the plate representing the tying run. But before reliever Carlos Martinez even made a pitch to the plate, he wheeled and threw to Kozma at second to pick Punto off.
"That was unbelievable," said Matheny, who credited Kozma with starting the play by making eye contact with Martinez. "Great heads-up play by him."
A day earlier, the Cardinals couldn't make the easy plays, watching easy fly balls drop untouched for extra-base hits and making lackadaisical throws that allowed Dodger baserunners to take extra bases en route to their only win of the series. On Tuesday, however, they made plays that even their manager couldn't believe.
"That's more indicative of the type of ballclub that we are," Descalso said. "We execute."
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