Posted: Tuesday October 25, 2011 4:27AM ; Updated: Tuesday October 25, 2011 12:55PM
Tom Verducci
Tom Verducci>INSIDE BASEBALL

La Russa's sloppy mistakes cost Cardinals World Series Game 5

Story Highlights

Game 5 was as much about how Tony La Russa lost it than anything else

La Russa's explanation on the bullpen phone gaffe was confusing

La Russa's failed hit-and-run in the ninth inning cost him a critical baserunner

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Confusion for the Cardinals
Source: SI
Tony La Russa was victimized by antiquated technology and his own curious decision-making in Game 5.

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Ron Washington might have become the first manager in World Series history to walk into a news conference before a game and say, "I'm not as dumb, either, as people think I am." It was classic Wash: self-deprecating and funny, but still fiercely proud of his baseball acumen.

"I don't call it unorthodox," he said of his style, "I just call it taking it to you."

By the end of the night, Washington, a freewheeling spirit with enormous trust in his players, had become not just the first manager in World Series history to intentionally put four runners on base and still win the game, but also the guy who left future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa awkwardly trying to wipe egg off his face after as sloppy a game as you ever will see managed in a World Series, Williamsport included.

The Rangers' 4-2 win in Game 5 was as much about how La Russa and St. Louis lost it as anything else. The Rangers now have a slim lead in the World Series, three games to two, and need one more win to end the third-longest championship drought in history, a title 51 years in the making. But the difference in the dugouts was a far more yawning gap.

"You know, I did what I felt I had to do with my players, and that's all I'm worried about," Washington said when asked about outmaneuvering La Russa. "As you said, I can't match wits with Tony. I haven't been in this game that long. I just wish I could stay around as long as he has and be as successful as he has. I just trust my players and try to get them in a position where they can be successful, and they haven't let me down so far."

It's not so much that Washington has drilled down to another layer of baseball intelligentsia bedrock. After all, the dude bats his hottest hitter, Mike Napoli, eighth. He already lost one game in this Series in part by giving a key at-bat to somebody named Esteban German, who had not batted in three weeks. But what Washington has is immense trust in his players and, most of all, a growing confidence in himself. He has become more than a manager. He has graduated to trusted leader.

Last night, for instance, Washington allowed left-handed hitting David Murphy to bat against left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski with two on and one out in the eighth with the score tied. Murphy typically looks at a scouting report in the dugout when a new pitcher comes in the game. He did the same thing this time, and even though Washington has pinch-hit for Murphy twice before rather than let him hit against Rzepczynski, the manager simply said to him, "You've got him."

"I just felt like right there was a good opportunity to let Murph swing," Washington said. "He could get lucky for us and make something happen, and he ended up hitting a ball up the middle off the pitcher's glove, loaded up the bases and it worked out for us."

Get lucky for us? My how that must chap the manage-by-data crowd, the ones who cannot make a decision without a binder. When I asked Murphy how often he sees Washington make an in-game decision based entirely on numbers, he replied, "I don't know if I ever do." And about hitting Napoli eighth: Yes, it's odd to keep such a hot bat so low in the lineup, but at least the grouping of his players made sense. Washington wanted to make La Russa's late-game relief decisions harder by going right-left-right-left in spots six through nine. Naturally, the Rangers wound up winning the game when Napoli doubled home two runs off a left-hander, Rzepczynski, with the bases loaded.

"I've seen him get better and better every year," Murphy said of Washington. "He has a lot of confidence in himself right now, as he should. It's pretty impressive as a manager to improve your win total five straight years. What you see from Wash now is not that he's reckless, but that he's not afraid of the consequences when things don't work out. He's not afraid to fail.

"You see the way [Ian] Kinsler and Elvis [Andrus] run the bases. That's the way Wash plays it. Kinsler gets picked off on a ball in the dirt, but it's the idea that he's ready all the time for that ball to get away just a little bit that's important here. And that's the way Wash manages."

This World Series -- usually taut, sometimes sloppy and seldom boring -- has been about managing more than any World Series probably since the Twins and Braves played a series of cliffhangers back in 1991. With one more Texas win, it will be remembered as the series in which Wash, to borrow from his glossary, "took it to" La Russa.

The Rangers walked nine batters last night and still won the game, something that had happened only four times previously in World Series history (2005 White Sox, 1997 Marlins, 1924 Giants and 1910 Athletics). Washington became the first manager in World Series history to order an intentional walk (to Albert Pujols in the seventh) with nobody on base before the eighth inning -- putting the potential go-ahead runner on base. It was just one of Washington's four intentional walks -- only two managers had ever tried that many before in the Series and both came up losers: Bobby Cox of the Braves in 1991 Game 7 and Eddie Dyer of the 1946 Cardinals in Game 5.

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If there is any shame for Washington's performance it is that it became subsumed by how La Russa mangled his own. To hear La Russa tell it, a noisy crowd at Rangers Ballpark twice led to Cardinals bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist mishearing his instructions to get closer Jason Motte warmed. But La Russa's version of events, coupled with those of Lilliquist, only confused the matter more about how the inning got away from one of the best managers in baseball history. La Russa, who turned 67 this month, did his level best to shake off the bizarre manner in which he appeared foolish, including bringing a pitcher into the game who wasn't able to pitch. At one point La Russa, as intense a competitor as you will find, wrote off the Phonegate issue almost flippantly, saying such a gaffe "just happens. I mean, it's loud down there, and sometimes you call down there and you have to wait until the crowd -- and a guy gets up late. I mean, this is not unusual."

Not unusual? This is a guy who fights for every inch of an advantage, who complained this year about the ribbon boards in Miller Park giving the Brewers an edge because the bulbs were brighter when they were batting.

Truth be told, La Russa's story included too many inconsistencies and raised too many questions to help clarify what happened in that bizarre eighth inning. Somewhere this inning got away from La Russa -- because of Phonegate or not -- and he couldn't get it back before the game was lost.

What happened is too strange and unclear to completely understand. La Russa no doubt will try again on Tuesday's off-day to explain what happened, but this is like trying to untangle a huge box of many strands of Christmas lights you simply chucked away last December. It's not going to be pretty. But let's try to untangle a strand or two of the most important bits:

The intentional walk to Nelson Cruz. This is where La Russa began to let the inning get away from him. He had his best right-handed specialist, Octavio Dotel, on the mound in a 2-2 tie with a runner at second base after he had just struck out Adrian Beltre on three pitches. Everybody knew going into this series that Dotel's job was to troubleshoot the right-handed hitters that Washington stacks in the middle of his lineup: Michael Young, Beltre and Cruz.

Suddenly, pitching coach Dave Duncan walked out to the mound and told Dotel, "We're going to walk [Cruz]."

Dotel came back with the obvious reply: "Why?"

Beltre would later say he could not figure out why they would walk Cruz.

It made no sense. Dotel's job is to get these right-handed hitters out. And by walking Cruz -- and barring a double play, an event that cannot be counted on -- La Russa was making sure that Napoli, the hottest hitter, would get to the plate.

When I asked La Russa if he could do this because he thought he had closer Jason Motte ready for Napoli, he replied, "Well, I was more thinking that we had a real good chance with Rzepcynski with a pinch-hitter [for Murphy] or not, and if we got an out or not we were going to pitch around Napoli and then go after the left-hander."

Stop right there. That's gibberish -- "whether we got an out or not." If Rzepczynski did not get the next hitter, Murphy, the Rangers would have the bases loaded and there would be no possible way to pitch around Napoli. And that's exactly what happened.

The first botched phone call for Motte. La Russa said he wanted Motte to get up along with Rzepczynski, but Lilliquist, La Russa said, did not hear him ask for Motte.

Think along with La Russa here. He thinks he has Motte warming with Rzepczynski. So after Rzepczynski comes in and Murphy gets on and the bases are loaded and Napoli is up, what does La Russa do? Does he go out to the mound and call for Motte, whom he thinks he has ready? No. And if somehow word got to La Russa that Motte was not throwing, are you telling me the world's master at stalling a game -- who had not yet made a mound visit to Rzepczynski, and who knows he has three-minute commercial breaks for pitching changes where the guy has more time to get loose, and who has a guy who gets loose quickly -- made no attempt to buy time to get Motte in the game?

Look at this question and answer with La Russa:

Q: Just to be clear, if Motte was ready, he would have faced Napoli?

A: Yeah.

So La Russa, a master strategist who knows every trick in the book, simply went ahead with a matchup he didn't like with the game on the line, Rzepczynski on Napoli? No attempt to call Motte? No attempt to stall the game to get the matchup La Russa wanted?

The second phone call for Motte. This time, La Russa said, when he said "Motte" into the phone, Lilliquist thought he said "Lynn." Lance Lynn is a guy La Russa said two days ago was not available for Games 4 and 5 except in an emergency because he needed rest. So Lilliquist hears that La Russa wants a guy who's not available to start throwing and thinks nothing of getting him up?

Every team begins every game with a list of pitchers who are available and not available. Lynn was so unavailable that when he did show up on the game mound -- La Russa thought he was bringing in Motte to face Kinsler -- La Russa didn't even want him facing one batter and ordered him to toss four intentional balls. What kind of massive breakdown has to occur for that to happen?

That also led to this delicious bit of embarrassment when La Russa saw Lynn, not Motte, jogging to meet him at the mound: "Oh," La Russa said, "what are you doing here?"

Now re-look at the Napoli at-bat in light of what La Russa did with Kinsler at the plate. In the latter case, La Russa walked out to the mound and signaled for Motte to come into the game (erroneously as it turned out). So if La Russa really did want Motte to pitch to Napoli as he said, why didn't he do exactly what he did with Kinsler up -- walk out to the mound thinking he was bringing Motte into the game?

The two caught stealings of Allen Craig. In the seventh inning, either Pujols called his own hit-and-run play and didn't swing, or Craig saw a sign that wasn't there, or the moon was in the phase of Aquarius, but somehow the Cardinals gave up a runner at first (Craig was thrown out), which immediately allowed Washington to intentionally walk Pujols. It gets worse. In the ninth, trailing 4-2, Craig was on first base with no outs while Rangers closer Neftali Feliz had a full count on Pujols, who represented the tying run. La Russa ordered Craig to run on the pitch. Pujols, after two foul balls, chased ball four, a 99 mph fastball off the plate. He swung through it and Craig was thrown out at second for a double play.

Here is La Russa's explanation in full:

"Yeah, I trusted Albert could put the ball in play. In fact, the two swings that he fouled the ball off with the second baseman going over, the hole was there and all of a sudden it was first and third and nobody out and the last pitch, the guy has a very live arm and it sailed on him and he missed. I liked sending him and having a chance to open that inning up, and it didn't work."

Think about what La Russa is saying here. Pujols represents the tying run, and yet La Russa is talking about him as if he is Nick Punto. He is thinking about Pujols -- who two days earlier joined Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson as the only men ever to hit three homers in a World Series game -- hitting a groundball through the right side of the infield with Kinsler covering second base. A groundball to second base with Pujols finally getting a chance to swing the bat as the potential tying run! Do you know how many opposite field singles Pujols had this year in 651 plate appearances? Eleven. Less than two percent of his plate appearances. And that counts all opposite field singles of any kind, including line drives, not just seeing-eye ground balls through the vacated second base hole.

Do you know how many times Pujols hit a homer this year? Thirty-seven -- or more than three times more often than he hit opposite field singles.

Really, my head hurts trying to figure out what La Russa did to this game but mostly how he tried to explain it away. It was like being stuck in a gigantic corn maze. Blindfolded. At midnight. After getting spun around 38 times. Every explanation led to another turn that led to another dead end or false exit. The bottom line is he lost the game having a matchup he didn't want -- a left-hander pitching to red-hot Napoli -- and he lost his last opportunity by getting a runner thrown out who, while down two runs, didn't mean anything. I've never seen a game even close to this one and I hope never again to have to try to explain one like it.

 
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