La Russa loses his magic touch as Rangers even tense World Series
ST. LOUIS -- Late in World Series Game 2, as the Cardinals were trying to win a 1-0 game for the first time in their 107-game World Series history, and every pitch and managerial move carried the consequence of legendary disaster or fame, St. Louis first base coach Dave McKay turned to Texas first baseman Michael Young and said, "Competition at its finest."
Replied Young, "It's fun, isn't it?"
The Cardinals and Rangers have succeeded in giving us the best kind of World Series possible: the one you didn't see coming that keeps you on the edge of your seat. After whiz-bang League Championship Series in which runs came by the boatload, there hasn't been a lower-scoring two-game start to a World Series in 61 years. Only eight runs have crossed the plate -- fewer than what Texas put up in a 38-minute barrage in just one inning in its ALCS clincher. It ties the 1967, 1969 and 1972 World Series as the lowest-scoring two-game start since 1950.
The two teams have taken 36 turns at bat, and 35 of them have ended with them either tied or separated by a single run. What this tautness means is that we have a series in which the managers have been put on stage as much as the players. And the day after St. Louis outlets were referring to manager Tony La Russa as La Genius, La Russa's postseason run of rolling hot dice came to a cold end.
Game 2 put La Russa in the cross hairs that had been trained on Texas manager Ron Washington after Game 1. La Russa's magic touch with his manic bullpen usage finally came under question. The Cardinals were in position to win when the trap door finally opened on their charmed bullpen.
As the Rangers had the tying run on third and go-ahead run on second with no outs, this is what La Russa scripted: he yanked his closer, Jason Motte, and in a situation in which he needed a strikeout, brought in his relief pitcher least likely to get a strikeout, Arthur Rhodes (career-low 5.7 strikeouts per nine innings as a reliever). And behind Rhodes, rather than veteran righty-killer and troubleshooter Octavio Dotel, La Russa wanted rookie and converted starter Lance Lynn to finish the game -- the same Lynn who has finished precisely three games in his professional life.
This World Series is reproving why baseball, when you take away the obsession with ratings and payrolls and the annual bleatings of how to "fix" this American institution, is the best kind of competition. This kind of baseball is a second-guesser's delight. Everybody wakes up the next morning a better manager than the guys in the dugout the night before. Great baseball games have an afterlife unlike those of any other sport. The games go on eternally. Tommy Lasorda still has to hear about why he didn't walk Jack Clark.
Nobody wakes up slamming Bill Belichick for going to a Cover 2 on third-and-long early in the fourth quarter. Heck, football coaches themselves routinely issue the disclaimer, "I've got to look at the films" to understand what really happened. Football games are disposable. Great baseball games get preserved in our mental amber.
When I asked Young, a potential manager some day, if he managed along in these nail-biter World Series games, he said, "During the season I do. Here, I'd drive myself bananas. Playing in these games is hard enough. That is not an easy job."
Baseball demands responsibility to the point that mistakes are not only given official status but also counted in big, bright lights along with runs and hits. And in Game 2, the biggest play of the game was an error not by either manager, but by Albert Pujols.
Ian Kinsler was on second base with no outs, having reached on a bloop single and stolen second base, with the Rangers down 1-0 in the ninth. Elvis Andrus then smacked the one bad pitch Motte threw (a cutter over the plate) for a hard one-hop single to center field, where John Jay immediately fired home.
Kinsler had no chance of scoring on the play and was properly held at third. As he came to a halt and as the throw came toward Pujols, the great Cardinals first baseman needed to secure the ball to keep Andrus at first -- keeping a double play in order and keeping the potential winning run out of scoring position.
What happened next was a mistake of mysterious origins. Pujols reached for the throw -- which was low and not terrible -- and whiffed, failing to stop it with what looked like a distracted effort without conviction. Andrus, who had stopped at first base, alertly bolted for second on the misplay, arriving barely ahead of a throw by catcher Yadier Molina.
"Elvis had stopped," Young said. "So give him credit for reacting as quickly as he did. If he hesitates a little bit, he might be out. That play was huge."
It was huge because now Andrus could score the winning run on two outs -- tagging on the fly ball by Hamilton and then another by Young.
And then after the game, Pujols whiffed again. He left without talking to the media. This was, given his impending free agency, potentially the last game he ever played in St. Louis as a Cardinal. He is an icon and a true franchise player, and yet he was out the door without any accountability. A World Series game was decided in the last at-bat on an unearned run because of his error -- even his manager wasn't sure what had happened -- and he was nowhere to be found. Comfortable exits like this can happen in little towns like St. Louis. Pujols can hardly be blamed when it's been like this for years. What Pujols did was leave it to a young kid like Jon Jay to pick up the broken dishes of Game 2.
Jay did his best to cover for Pujols, saying, "I need to make a better throw and keep the ball down."
But it was down. But when I asked him if he discussed the play with Pujols after the half inning, he said yes, and that, "We both pretty much said we could do a little better" on the play.
La Russa, too, went into protection mode, saying about his take on the play, "I didn't have a real good shot at it. I heard Albert talking to Yadi about it later. I'm not sure exactly what happened. He's a heady player, and obviously we don't want the back runner to go to second base. I don't know exactly what happened there, but that was an important extra base."
There is probably a simple explanation for the costly mistake. Perhaps, given La Russa's reference to Molina, Pujols misheard an instruction from Molina about whether to cut the ball or not. Perhaps Kinsler, who rounded third base hard, distracted Pujols into thinking maybe he could have caught Kinsler off the base. Maybe the ball, with some cut on it from Jay, took a hop that Pujols did not anticipate.
All of those reasons are possible, but because Pujols bolted the premises none are known for sure.
This is a series, with no air space between the two teams, for hard questions. There is no reason to think the questions will get any easier. The Cardinals and Rangers have played only two games, and already it seems one long, hard series. It is exactly what baseball needs -- the game itself rising up and captivating us with the unique magnetism of its strategies.
• Andrus did have that key single, but he really is a No. 2 hitter by profile only, not in performance. He is fast, therefore he bats at the top of the lineup. The guy has hit .196 with no extra base hits this postseason and his manager keeps asking him to bunt as if he's the pitcher -- including weirdly playing for a tie on the road in the ninth inning (before the stolen base by Kinsler). Tell me if this makes sense: Andrus, hitting .196, has taken six more plate appearances this postseason than Nelson Cruz, who is slugging a gazillion.
• How good was Cardinals pitcher Jaime Garcia (seven shutout innings) at changing speeds? In his first 79 pitches, he threw pitches at 16 different speeds -- hitting every integer between 72 and 91 mph except 77, 78, 79 and 80.
• Suggestion to Texas: check those scouting reports on Freese when it comes to the first pitch. Pitch to him like the count is 0-and-2. Freese hit .406 in the regular season on first pitches and is hitting a ridiculous .667 on them in the postseason (8-for-12).
• Washington is lucky his team came back in the ninth inning, otherwise the World Series would continue to be about him trying to manage under NL rules. The game was scoreless in the seventh inning when Nick Punto was batting with Freese at first base and two outs. Freese is no threat to run. Punto was batting left-handed. The Rangers decided to have Young hold Punto on the bag and play no doubles. No doubles is fine, but with two outs and Freese at first, he should be playing off Freese's hip pocket, not on the bag, allowing more range. Of course, Punto hit a ball that ate up Young and that would have been a routine out if Young was playing slightly behind Freese. Instead, it went off his glove for a hit, and Allen Craig followed with a single that put St. Louis ahead, 1-0. Asked why he was holding the runner on, Young bit his fist and then said with a smile, "Coaches' room. That's a question for the coaches' room."
• I told you one streak would end if St. Louis won Game 1, and it turns out it's the Cardinals' Happy Flight streak. They were 16-0 on their last 16 getaway days before they had to take an Unhappy Flight to Texas. As for the Rangers, they are now 13-0 after losses in their past 42 games -- no back-to-back losses for a month and a half.
• Just how rare was that win by Texas? They won a road World Series game without benefit of an extra-base hit. There were only 16 such previous wins in history, the last by the Marlins at Yankee Stadium in 2003 World Series Game 1.
• MLB VP Joe Torre might as well forget any effort to cut down on pregame fraternization among opponents, especially after the ballpark gates are open. Fifteen minutes before the first pitch of World Series Game 2, ballpark full, in the center of the field behind second base, Albert Pujols, Nelson Cruz and Adrian Beltre held a nice meet-and-greet session, replete with hugs. It's obviously a nonissue among players.