ST. LOUIS -- Tony La Russa has presided over more than 5,000 games in his career as a major league manager, but he did not have to reach far back into his experience to find a precedent for the situation that faced his Cardinals in the fifth inning of NLCS Game 5 on Friday night, which St. Louis would go on to win by the score of 7-1, in the process taking a 3-2 series lead. The situation, in fact, was similar -- eerily so -- to the one with which La Russa had been presented just five days before.
In the fifth inning of Game 1, La Russa's starter, Jamie Garcia, had a three-run lead over Zack Greinke and the Brewers. So he did in Game 5.
In the fifth inning of Game 1, Garcia allowed cleanly struck hits on back-to-back pitches to Corey Hart and Jerry Hairston, Jr., the Brewers' leadoff and No. 2 hitters. So he did in Game 5.
In the fifth inning of Game 1, La Russa had Octavio Dotel, the well-traveled veteran reliever with strong career numbers again both Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, warming up in the bullpen as Braun strode to the plate. So La Russa did in Game 5.
In Game 1, La Russa allowed Garcia to continue pitching, and the decision cost him and the Cardinals dearly and immediately.
Braun turned the first pitch Garcia threw him into a two-run ground rule double, and then Fielder hit a two-run homer on Garcia's very next pitch, giving the Brewers the lead and eventually the win.
On Friday, though, La Russa showed that despite his long and successful track record, he is not a manager who refuses to change his ways. After Hairston's single, with the game again threatening to in short order spiral out of control, La Russa called upon Dotel as fast as he could. "They called and said, 'Think you can be ready in five more pitches?'" recounted Dotel, who was at the time just eight throws into his warmup routine. "I said, I can be ready."
"There was a lot of conversation about Game 1 and how quickly they put some runs on the board," La Russa said. "We just notice -- I'm not exactly sure what it is, maybe it's just a long season for a young guy -- but when [Garcia] starts to elevate the ball and get it in the middle, he does recover at times, but as he gets some innings in him, it's harder."
In other words, even though Garcia had thrown just 68 pitches and allowed one run, La Russa had learned that he had to act quickly to avert another meltdown. In trotted Dotel. Six pitches later and Braun, the probable National League MVP who entered the game batting .471 in the postseason, struck out swinging. "I guess I'm lucky against him," said Dotel, against whom Braun is now 2-for-10 in his career with eight strikeouts. "I would love to be the same lucky when the series is over."
While that series of events in the fifth innings was key, so too, to some degree, was a lack of luck for Greinke, as far as the bumbling fielding display his teammates -- who had to this point in the postseason been fairly sound -- put on behind him. The Brewers made four errors in the game, the most significant coming in the bottom of the second inning, when Hairston allowed a two-out grounder hit by Garcia to roll between his legs. The two runs that scored on the play would prove to be the winning ones, as they gave St. Louis an early 3-0 lead. But Greinke refused to blame his teammates for his troubles. "Those things happen," he said of the errors. "It wasn't a great game for me. I made several mistakes that cost us. I definitely should have done better. The slider wasn't very sharp at all today."
Greinke's stance was both admirable and accurate. In 2009, as a Kansas City Royal and the American League Cy Young winner, Greinke struck out 242 batters in 229.1 innings, and he actually improved his strikeout rate as a first-year Brewer this season, to a league-best 10.5 per nine innings. On Friday, though, 30 Cardinals strode to the plate against the 27-year-old, and not one struck out. Even less explicable was that Greinke's 89 pitches produced a total of two swings and misses. That meant that while Greinke's final line looked average -- he yielded two earned runs over 5 2/3 innings -- he had allowed the Cardinals to hit pitch after pitch, many of them sharply, and had given his fielders far more opportunities to bungle hard-hit balls that could be expected from him.
Doug Melvin, the Brewers' general manager, traded for Greinke last December to start games like this one. Melvin mortgaged his organization's future, leaving it the only one bereft of a single prospect on Baseball America's Top 100 list, for its present, a present in which he would, for one more season, have his unmatched offensive nucleus of Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder intact, and complimented by a pitching staff that he was sure would rank among the game's best. Where once the Brewers had a single opening day-caliber starter, they now had three, as Melvin had traded for the Blue Jays' Shaun Marcum two weeks earlier.
So it is surely troubling to Melvin that not one of those premium starting pitchers -- Yovani Gallardo is the third -- has produced a start of any quality in the NLCS. Marcum will start Game 6 on Sunday in Milwaukee, but he, like Greinke and Gallardo, has scuffled of late, allowing 12 earned runs in 8 2/3 playoff innings so far. Suddenly, a rotation for which Melvin sacrificed so much to build looks like a major weakness. The Brewers might have only one game left in this, the year in which their franchise went all-in in pursuit of a World Series title, and it will come against a manager in La Russa who is now making all the right moves.