How to mismanage: La Russa gives a clinic in Cards' Game 5 disaster
ST. LOUIS -- Tony La Russa is the father of the modern specialized bullpen, the guy who popularized multiple layers of relief specialists to create a bridge between his starting pitcher and his closer. It is such a prime identifier for who he is as a manager that it should be included on the inscription of the Hall of Fame plaque that he has earned. And now, because of the mess he made out of World Series Game 5 on Monday, it is his very invention that has cast him in a most unflattering light, as well as having St. Louis on the brink of losing the series.
Marie Curie died of anemia caused by her exposure to the radioactive elements she discovered. Jim Fixx wrote The Complete Book of Running to promote its health benefits, and dropped dead at 52 from a heart attack after a daily run. Now here is La Russa desperate for two wins to keep the monster he invented from turning against his reputation.
Unless his Cardinals can win Games 6 and 7 and hand him the world's biggest hall pass, La Russa might be remembered for the grossest mismanagement of a Fall Classic game. On the day after Phonegate, his story changed and morphed and twisted some more from its gelatinous phase immediately after the game. But La Russa also did something Tuesday that he had failed to do in the immediate wake of Game 5: he took ownership of a job poorly done.
"When there's stuff that went on in that inning with the bullpen and who's up and who's not, that's miscommunication," La Russa said. "In the end, that comes totally on the coach -- or the manager. I explained yesterday what was going on, and to the extent that what I wanted to have happen wasn't happening, didn't happen, yeah, that's my fault. I don't need to dodge that, ever."
In 1947 Bucky Harris of the Yankees intentionally put the winning run on base with two outs in the ninth with Bill Bevens throwing a no-hitter. The next batter, Cookie Lavagetto, drove in both runners to beat New York. Bobby Cox brought in lefthander Charlie Leibrandt to face Kirby Puckett in 1991 World Series Game 6, only to lose when Puckett homered. Darrell Johnson of Boston gave the ball to Jim Burton, Dick Williams of San Diego pitched to Kirk Gibson and Tom Kelly of Minnesota once ran out of bench players. But nobody in a World Series dugout ever botched a game in more ways than La Russa did in Game 5.
Fittingly, it was upon La Russa's 63rd pitching change of the postseason -- a record for the most manic bullpen usage in postseason history -- when the game blew up on him. (His relievers-used odometer is now at 65.) What is apparent now is that La Russa, 67, like a power pitcher without his fastball, did not run the game in a manner fitting of his usual care, attention and reputation. What came through Tuesday, in what can be described as his explanations of his explanations, was that Game 5 was a breakdown not in bullpen telecommunications equipment, but in process. His strategy was weak but his execution was worse.
What we found out Tuesday as the story changed was that ballpark noise was not as important a factor in a World Series game of playing telephone as he first led us to believe. Now La Russa said that when he first called bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist to get Jason Motte warm along with Mark Rzepczynski in the eighth, Lilliquist wasn't even on the phone when La Russa said, "Motte."
La Russa explained that his intention was to get Rzepcynski "hot" and to have Motte play catch in anticipation of a full-blown warmup if needed.
"I thought yesterday the first mention of Motte was probably after he had hung up," La Russa said. "Maybe I didn't say it quickly enough."
There was a new story, too, about the second time La Russa tried to get Motte up. La Russa said he didn't speak Motte's name clearly enough.
"Maybe I slurred it," he said.
Wait: you already were stunned to find out your first bullpen order was miscommunicated, and now you're not bothering to give the next order with absolute clarity and repetition? Spell it out if you have to: M-o-t-t-e. Shout. Bark. Anything to make sure it doesn't happen again.
How does this happen? How does a master of detail not give orders clearly? How is there not a fail-safe system of protection, such as the coach repeating the orders to the manager to verify them? How does the coach not have the empowerment -- or better still, the common sense and worth as a staff member -- to simply verify that La Russa wants to get a pitcher up who was not supposed to be used at all except for an emergency?
La Russa's "slurred" order of Motte led to Lynn -- rookie Lance Lynn -- being told to warm up. Every team produces a card before the game identifying who is available and not available with notations on their limitations. Lynn was hands-off except for an emergency, such as an extra-inning game. But Lilliquist thought he heard La Russa say "Lynn" so Lynn it was without daring to question the master's orders.
Eventually it led to the most embarrassing moment of La Russa's managerial career: having just blown the game, La Russa was left to stand on the mound waiting for a new pitcher, except it was not the pitcher he was expecting and it was a pitcher who couldn't pitch.
You can talk all you want about a loud Rangers Ballpark and the silliness of using landlines to communicate over 500 feet. (Prediction: this winter baseball will implement some kind of wireless device to give bullpen orders and while it is at it, ban the kind of slick-top on-deck circles that caused Tigers catcher Al Avila to slip and miss what would have been the last out of an ALDS game.) But this was about La Russa not being definitive enough about running a game, and heaps of questionable nuts-and-bolts strategy that did not get the attention they normally would because of Phonegate.
Here are questions that remain:
1. Why did La Russa have right-handed slugger Allen Craig bunt in the third inning with a runner at second against a shaky lefthander, C.J. Wilson? A third inning bunt with a runner already in scoring position with a guy with a career .542 slugging percentage against lefties? A waste of an out and a potential big inning.
2. Why did Albert Pujols not swing after calling his own hit-and-run play in the seventh? I have no problem with La Russa trusting an inner circle Hall of Famer like Pujols with the power to put on his own hit-and-run plays -- though this was such a dumb spot (0-and-1 against a pitcher, Alexi Ogando, who didn't figure to be around the plate) that La Russa admitted that if Pujols ran the idea past him before the at-bat, as Pujols often does, he would have nixed it. But once Pujols calls the play, he must make an attempt to put the ball in play or at least foul it off. Pujols never made an attempt at the high and outside pitch, leaving Craig to get thrown out. It was more important for Pujols to stay out of an 0-and-2 count for himself than it was to protect his teammate on the bases. (He was intentionally walked anyway after leaving Craig hung out to dry.)
3. Why did La Russa, through pitching coach Dave Duncan, order Octavio Dotel to walk Nelson Cruz with one out and a runner on second in the eighth? Was it the small sample of two plate appearances? (Home run, groundout.) One problem is that Dotel is your best right-on-right specialist and you're running away from strength. The other is that the walk brings into play the lineup spot of Mike Napoli, the Rangers' hottest hitter.
"I didn't think Cruz was the best way to go for us," LaRussa said.
4. Why didn't La Russa, the master of the stall, order enough time wasted to get Motte warmed up in time for Napoli? Motte said he can warm up very quickly. (In fact, he said he got loose for his eventual entry in the game in the time it took Lynn to throw eight warmup pitches and four intentional balls.) La Russa said even with his usual delay tactics, he didn't think there was enough time to get Motte from sitting down to properly warmed up. I'm not buying it. We've all seen La Russa bring a game to a halt for minutes.
5. Why did La Russa start Craig from first base with a full count in the ninth on Pujols? LaRussa wanted Pujols to ground a single through the right side and to stay out of a double play. It was a horrendous decision with his best longball threat to tie the game. It was bad even on the grounds of a potential line drive that would have been a double play.
Now think about all the collateral damage on La Russa's desk:
• Two runners thrown out on the bases unnecessarily.
• The equivalent of forfeiting one of his nine turns at bat -- three sacrifice bunts that led to nothing.
• Ten free base runners (nine walks and one hit by pitch) and yet he lost the game with two runs -- a feat never seen before in a World Series game with so many free runners.
• A pitcher who couldn't pitch entering the game to the surprise of the manager.
• Letting the other team's hottest hitter, a right-hander, take the biggest at-bat of the game against a lefty while five righthanders sat in his bullpen.
For La Russa, taking ownership of his sloppiness was a step forward from Monday. What becomes of Game 5, in an historical sense, will be known in a day or two. Right now, like the engraver who begins work on the Claret Jug as the winner of The Open Championship walks up the 18th fairway, history is preparing to etch La Russa's Game 5 management on the unwanted prize of most mismanaged game in World Series history. For La Russa, there is only one way out of infamy: he has to find a way to win two more games. And the chances are extraordinary that the only way he can get there is through the way he uses his bullpen.