The Royals' Mike Matheny didn’t have a future managing career on his mind when he played for Tony La Russa and the Cardinals in the early 2000s. But if he could go back, Matheny likely would have books filled with managerial advice from the Hall of Fame manager who made his return to the dugout this year.
On Thursday, the two faced each other in a game that counts for the first of 19 encounters between the American League Central opponents this season.
“I never necessarily had this case study going, thinking I want to manage someday,” Matheny, who played for St. Louis from 2000-04, said Thursday. “I wish I would have kept better notes, but you’re just so locked in on doing your job. … If I could go back again, knowing what I know now and being in the seat I am in, I would have loved to have had more of a dialogue, asking questions. But it wasn’t the right thing to do at the time. But trying to go back through and remember a lot of the things -- you’re talking about a Hall of Famer, and there are a lot of things that he did exceptionally well.”
When Matheny took over for La Russa in 2012 as the Cardinals manager, he leaned on La Russa for advice and continued conversations with him through the Commissioner’s Office, where La Russa worked part-time after his first retirement from managing. Matheny also kept in touch as La Russa joined the D-backs front office and then the Red Sox front office.
So Matheny wasn’t surprised at all when La Russa found his way back to a dugout.
“I was actually most surprised that it took this long,” Matheny said. “There was a lot of communication, just through him being with the Commissioner’s Office. And just hearing his voice and asking him questions, it was really more about him struggling with the idea of having to be with 30 teams instead of one, where he has spent so much of his life trying to set one group of people ahead of another. And that kind of competition, I knew he was missing that.
“You could tell he was still thinking as a manager. So I wasn’t surprised because I know how he’s wired. I know how sharp he is and how he continues to think how he thought before.”
There’s no heightened focus on Thursday’s matchup -- or any against the White Sox -- because Matheny wants to win every game. But La Russa said it’s “uncomfortable” facing someone he has a good relationship with, much like when he had to face his close friend and former Detroit manager, Jim Leyland. La Russa also managed a slew of Royals coaches with the Cardinals -- pitching coach Cal Eldred, hitting coach John Mabry and assistant hitting coach Terry Bradshaw. Also, first-base coach Rusty Kuntz was with the White Sox in La Russa’s first stint with Chicago.
“Mike is part of the family, like a son, but when you’ve got a family member you want them to have a good day,” La Russa said. “But we don’t want Mike to have a good day. He has a responsibility to make decisions for his club and his coaching staff, and I have to make the same for our club. You concentrate and you get through it, but it’s uncomfortable.”
Another twist Thursday was who the Royals faced on the mound -- former Cardinals pitcher Lance Lynn, who was traded to Chicago over the offseason. Matheny managed Lynn from 2012-17.
“This guy’s a competitor,” Matheny said. “Watched Lance really take his game to another level, and got to know him on a personal level, too. You always try to with your players. But always tried to stay in touch with him. He’s a warrior. He goes about it the right way. He competes. We got our hands full today.”
Isbel vs. Bieber
Before José Ramírez’s eighth-inning home run sunk the Royals on Wednesday, the story of the game was Nicky Lopez’s game-tying single in the seventh -- but not to be lost in that sequence was Kyle Isbel’s seven-pitch walk against Cleveland ace Shane Bieber. Isbel had already struck out twice before against Bieber and went down 0-2 with a swinging strike on Bieber’s curveball and a called strike on a fastball.
But then Isbel laid off two curveballs that Bieber tried to get him to swing on outside the zone, and fouled one off in the zone. Isbel took a high fastball outside to make it a full count and then a slider down and inside for ball four.
For Isbel, a rookie who has played five games in the Majors, to work that plate appearance against the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner was impressive -- and it set up a small rally. Isbel went to second on Michael A. Taylor’s single and then home on Lopez’s hit.
“There were a couple of pitches that Bieber was trying to get to, and you could tell Kyle had a real good setup,” Matheny said. “There’s a little bit of a swing and miss, but typically, they’re pretty good pitches. He seems to have a nice idea of the strike zone. To me, what that shows is adaptability. You see a guy a couple times and have a better idea of the break on his pitches. … I thought Kyle did a nice job of recognizing the spin a little better, and, hopefully, that’s an indicator of how well he’ll be able to adjust the more he sees guys.”