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This time, Matheny making all the right moves

Manager's instinct has Cardinals one win away from trip to Fall Classic @LyleMSpencer

LOS ANGELES -- It clearly isn't in Mike Matheny's nature to point out something like this, but it can't be overlooked or overstated. The St. Louis manager managed brilliantly in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series on Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium.

Everything Matheny touched turned Dodgers fans a deeper shade of blue over the course of a 4-2 Cardinals victory that has Team Hollywood one unhappy ending away from the offseason. A Game 5 matinee on Wednesday will send the Cards to the World Series or home for a Game 6 on Friday night.

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This is Matheny's second season in charge, having taken the Cardinals to the brink of the Fall Classic last October before the eventual World Series champion Giants staged an improbable rally from a 3-1 deficit to rock the Redbirds in the NLCS.

Matheny has the solid, secure appearance of a guy who could be on the job for a decade or more. It's never easy following a legend, but the former Gold Glove Award-winning catcher has made the transition seamless. Matheny not only looks like and fills out a uniform like a young Tony La Russa, he manages like the man, exuding calm confidence and command.

"Tony La Russa leaves," Cards third baseman David Freese said, "and the St. Louis Cardinals did a great job finding the right guy. Mike Matheny's done an excellent job with his knowledge of the game and his ability to lead a team."

Matheny doesn't make decisions alone, leaning on an experienced coaching staff and a manager on the field in Yadier Molina, the premier catcher of his generation. But ultimately, the responsibility and everything that goes with it -- including the blame game -- falls on the manager's shoulders.

The Dodgers' Don Mattingly certainly is no stranger to the heat. He has felt it all through a season filled with more ups and downs and flips and spins than the rides at Santa Monica Pier have to offer.

Matheny's intuition was on target as early as the moment he filled out his lineup card Tuesday with Daniel Descalso at shortstop, taking a lively bat over the slick glove of Pete Kozma with his team struggling terribly to generate some offense. It was Descalso, whose baserunning gaffe was a factor in the Dodgers' Game 3 victory, setting in motion a three-run third inning against Ricky Nolasco with his line-drive single to right. Descalso scored on a double by Matt Carpenter, who trotted home on Matt Holliday's mammoth blast to left.

The Dodgers shaved the deficit to a run with two in the fourth against Lance Lynn before Descalso turned a double play on a grounder over the mound by ex-Cardinal Skip Schumaker, pinch-hitting for Nolasco.

St. Louis was clinging to its 3-2 lead in the sixth, when Matheny summoned Kozma to play shortstop, Descalso moving over to third to replace Freese and his bothersome calf.

After Yasiel Puig slashed his second single of the night off Lynn, Matheny, trusting his catching instincts, felt his big right-hander had done enough. The call went to Seth Maness to face Juan Uribe.

Uribe's bullet toward the hole at short was backhanded on the move by Kozma, whose perfect feed was converted into two outs by Carpenter with a pivot and throw right out of "the Cardinals' Way" handbook.

"Pete's a great shortstop," Descalso said. "I joked with him, 'When you come in the game, the ball seems to find you.' That was a great double play, a big momentum shift for us. The move [by Matheny] is something we do all the time."

With left-handed reliever J.P. Howell working the seventh for the Dodgers, Matheny had Shane Robinson bat for Maness. At 5-foot-9 and roughly 165 pounds, Robinson isn't one to strike fear in a pitcher. He brought five Major League home runs in 342 career at-bats to the plate -- and here came No. 6, his first hit in 11 postseason at-bats.

The festive partisans were stunned when Robinson lifted Howell's delivery over the wall in left for a two-run cushion.

"We have some guys that are prepared to come off the bench and take big at-bats," Matheny said, "and sometimes I think teams may overlook a Shane Robinson and what he can bring to the plate.

"But no real secret with Pete Kozma. We've done that on a lot of nights when he doesn't start. We try to figure out ways to get him in the game and help out defensively if we have a lead."

Matheny's next move was to call on Carlos Martinez, his brilliant young right-hander, to protect the lead. A one-out double by Nick Punto, replacing Hanley Ramirez and his fractured rib at shortstop, was nullified when Martinez picked off the former Cardinal with a strike to Kozma. Even Molina, who sees everything, said he was caught off guard.

"That's instigated by Kozma," Matheny said, "so great heads-up play by him. Then it has to be natural instincts and athleticism by Carlos Martinez, and I don't know many guys that pull that off. To have the guts to wheel and let it fly like that, it's off the charts."

Martinez finished the seventh and marched through the eighth.

Then it was Trevor Rosenthal time -- closing time. The crowd roared to life when Andre Ethier stroked a leadoff single, but a visit to the mound by the great Molina soothed Rosenthal after he fell behind Puig, 2-0 in the count. A bouncer to Carpenter became another double play, and when Uribe struck out, the Dodgers were on the brink of elimination.

If there's such a thing as a perfect game by a manager, here it was.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for

St. Louis Cardinals