La Russa’s maddening maneuvering delivers a win

PHILADELPHIA – Those who hate what baseball has become, with its 3½-hour games and endless at-bats, must reserve a special venom for Tony La Russa. The manager of the St. Louis Cardinals can turn a simple ballgame into Kasparov vs. Karpov, making move upon grating, agonizing move until those at home watching on television are ready to pound carpet tacks into their foreheads rather than endure another double switch.

In the eighth inning of Sunday’s Game 2 of the NLDS, La Russa changed pitchers four times, each facing one Philadelphia Phillies batter before heading to the showers in what must be the longest four-batter, no-run inning in the history of postseason baseball. Marc Rzepczynski(notes) begot Mitchell Boggs(notes) who begot Arthur Rhodes(notes) who begot Jason Motte(notes) in a procession so interminable he might well have broken the will of the Philadelphia fans who trudged wearily up the aisles of Citizens Bank Park at inning’s end rather than endure another sight of La Russa ambling from the dugout with collar upturned on his red jacket.

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa discusses a lineup change with umpire Jerry Meals during Game 2 of the NLDS in Philadelphia.
(Getty Images)

Sometimes genius is simply misplaced arrogance in the form of dozens of little scribbles on a lineup card. But sometimes it’s also the brilliant manipulation of a shaken bullpen in a playoff game a team has no business winning. And with the Cardinals about to go down two games to none to the Phillies and be all but blown from this postseason, La Russa twisted and cajoled and wrested a 5-4 victory St. Louis never should have had, pulling pitchers six times and making two double-switches.

This time genius was necessitated by the flat fastball of his top pitcher, Chris Carpenter, who fooled neither Jimmy Rollins(notes) nor Ryan Howard(notes) nor many of the other Phillies hitters and found himself out of the game three innings after it started. Trailing 4-0 and with the frenzy a sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Park can bring down upon a team, La Russa began moving his pieces, keeping the bullpen working almost ceaselessly for the rest of the game.

Several of the Cardinals were stunned to see Fernando Salas(notes), one of their closers, trotting across the outfield grass at the start of the fourth. But then again, they said with shrugs, “That’s Tony.” And they never know exactly what Tony is going to do.

Octavio Dotel(notes) learned fast after he was traded to the Cardinals at the end of July. As a late-inning reliever his habit was to sit in the clubhouse watching the game on television until the end of the fourth inning, then jog to the bullpen for a couple innings of relaxation before preparing to warm up in the eighth. But on an early August night, not long after he joined the team, he walked into the bullpen only to be jarred by the ringing of the bullpen phone and the barked orders: “Dotel get ready.”

The next thing he knew he was in the game in the sixth inning.

Lesson learned: No one can predict exactly what La Russa will do, so everyone had better be prepared at all times.

“The one thing I figured out with Tony was, just be ready for anything,” Dotel said.

It’s the kind of thing La Russa’s been doing for nearly 30 years as a manager and with 2,591 regular-season wins and five pennants and two World Series championships the system has been working no matter how irritating the process of getting there might seem.

As he thought back to the eighth inning, the one in which La Russa used four pitchers to pitch to four batters, Dotel smiled and said: “I have a feeling you can see that again if we get deeper in the playoffs.”

He laughed.

“I’m not saying you will see it, but you can,” he said. “With Tony, you just expect to be ready.”

Because who knows what will happen.

Rhodes, who joined the team in mid-August after being released by the Rangers, has played for so many teams and managers in two decades of baseball he would struggle to remember them all. And never had he encountered someone quite like La Russa, who was forever working his way through games, making changes, finagling victories from certain defeats. It took him a week before he finally understood his new manager. And the week took some effort.

But Sunday, Salas and Rhodes and Dotel and all the others held the Phillies to one hit in the final six innings. For those who wanted to carve out their eyes at home rather than watch yet another pitching change, the moves were justified. La Russa had done it again. He had maneuvered the Cardinals through another October evening. What seemed lost an hour into the game had become possible mainly because the unpredictable manager figured out a way to keep the Phillies from scoring. And for that, this victory is as much his as any player’s.

He might come off as the insufferable mastermind trying to outthink everybody else. He questioned the umpire’s strike zone to a national television audience. He looked for an edge anywhere he could find it.

Yet because of it all, the Cardinals are very much alive in a series in which they should be all but dead. Forced to go to a bullpen that had been dreadful much of the season, he coaxed from it six fantastic innings.

Sometimes genius has its privileges. Sometimes genius is just that. Genius.

Even if it is agonizing to watch.

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Les Carpenter is a feature writer and columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Les a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Oct 3, 2011