Lines are crossed on Tony La Russa’s call to Cardinals bullpen
From St. Louis — Let me see if I have this right:
Tony La Russa, the winningest manager in the last 100 years, the second-winningest manager in postseason history, a man with 14 years of playoff experience and six World Series under his belt, lost a World Series game Monday because he had the wrong reliever on the mound and the wrong guy warming up behind him?
The master strategist and inventor of the modern bullpen, the manager who pioneered the one-inning closer, eighth-inning set-up guys and left-hander/right-hander matchups so badly botched a game-changing sequence in St. Louis’ 4-2 loss to the Texas Rangers that he was left to offer only a mea culpa.
“Geez, that was embarrassing,” La Russa said Tuesday, after his team’s sparsely attended optional workout at Busch Stadium.
Embarrassing and possibly season-ending given that La Russa’s mismanagement set up a two-run game-winning double by Mike Napoli that left the Rangers only one victory shy of capturing their first World Series title.
Yet, for La Russa, the inexplicable could be easily explained. The crowd at Rangers Ballpark, he said, was too loud. So when he called the bullpen, tucked between two banks of grandstands behind the wall in left-center field, coach Derek Lilliquist couldn’t understand him.
“There are places where it’s hard to hear,” La Russa said. “Any time the bullpen is situated around the bleachers and they’re close. It’s one of the things you deal with when you’re playing the games.”
Here, La Russa said, is what transpired Monday:
After Michael Young opened the eighth inning with a double against Octavio Dotel, La Russa phoned the bullpen and told Lilliquist to get left-hander Marc Rzepczynski and right-hander Jason Motte up. But with a sellout crowd of 51,459 on its feet and screaming, Lilliquist apparently heard just part of that request.
“We don’t have a procedure where you say this and the guy says ‘Roger,’ ” La Russa said. “If the guy can’t hear, sometimes he says it. The first mention of Motte was probably after he had hung up. Maybe I didn’t say it quickly enough.”
Two batters later, Rzepczynski, a left-hander, was called in to face left-handed-hitting David Murphy, who hit a ball that bounced off the pitcher for a hit that loaded the bases.
That’s when La Russa noticed he was in trouble.
“I looked down there and there was nobody throwing,” he said. “And then [we] can’t stall long enough.”
Right-handers hit for an average 112 points higher than left-handers against Rzepczynski during the regular season, which is why the Cardinals try to keep him from pitching to them. But with the bases loaded and no other relievers warm, La Russa had no choice but to stick with the matchup. And Napoli made him pay by lining the third pitch he saw to the wall in right-center field.
But wait, there’s more.
With Napoli at the plate, La Russa called the bullpen a second time, again ordering Motte to get ready. And again Lilliquist apparently misunderstood, handing the ball to a surprised Lance Lynn, who had thrown 47 pitches the game before and was supposed to have the night off.
So a batter later, when the manager went to the mound and waved in a reliever, it was Lynn who jogged in from the bullpen.
“I saw Lynn. I went ‘Oh, what are you doing here?’ ” La Russa said.
Not wanting the arm-tired Lynn to potentially injure himself, La Russa ordered him to walk Ian Kinsler intentionally before Motte, finally, came on to strike out Elvis Andrus on three pitches to end the inning.
La Russa absolved Lilliquist of blame Tuesday, heaping it on himself.
“Hey, it’s my fault. Maybe I slurred it, whatever it is,” he said. “It comes down to who has the responsibility when there’s those kinds of miscommunications. It’s mine.”
Besides, that sequence didn’t cost the Cardinals the game — and possibly the World Series — La Russa insisted. He put that blame on an offense that stranded 12 baserunners, had one hit in 12 at-bats with runners in scoring position and twice left the bases loaded.
“Long story short, you go and make a pitching change, you’ve got the wrong guy coming out there, that’s not fun,” La Russa said. “But it wasn’t the thing that I thought about the most [when] that game was over.
“It’s only getting two runs was probably the biggest thing.”
Especially when it leaves you short the two runs given up by the pitcher you didn’t want in the game.
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