La Russa and Torre are at a loss

Postseason schedule

Few men in baseball history are as familiar with losing as Tony La Russa and Joe Torre. Next week, one of them will add to that knowledge when his team falls in an NL Division Series pitting La Russa’s St. Louis Cardinals against Torre’s Los Angeles Dodgers.

Both eventually will be inducted into the Hall of Fame. La Russa ranks third all-time in victories, has led 12 teams to the playoffs and won two World Series titles. Torre ranks fifth in wins, has taken 15 teams to the postseason and won four World Series titles.

But any manager with longevity learns about losing. La Russa ranks third in losses with 2,216; Torre is seventh with 1,915. Boasting career winning percentages of around .540 makes them wildly successful. This isn’t football, where John Madden, Vince Lombardi and George Allen retired with winning percentages well into the .700s. Or basketball, where Phil Jackson also has won more than 70 percent of the time.

Maybe that’s why La Russa and Torre aren’t panicked over their teams’ recent struggles. The Cardinals and Dodgers are backpedaling into the playoffs. Entering Sunday’s regular-season finales, St. Louis has won two of its last nine and the Dodgers had lost five in a row before beating the Rockies on Saturday to clinch the NL West.

La Russa vividly recalls 2006, when the Cardinals nearly blew a seven-game lead with 12 to play. They lost seven games in a row, and on Sept. 28 their lead was a half-game over the Astros. They held on, however, and embarked on a historic playoff run, beating the Padres and Mets to reach the World Series, where they dispatched the Tigers in five games.

“We kept thinking if we some way got to the playoffs this could happen,” La Russa said after the champagne bottles were uncorked.

Torre thinks back to 2000 for similar sustenance. His New York Yankees lost their last seven regular-season games and 15 of their last 18, a 9-game lead over the Red Sox shrinking to 2.5. But the Yankees rebounded, beating the Athletics, Mariners and Mets for the last of Torre’s four World Series titles.

“I don’t know if there are any rules,” Torre said. “History certainly proves that regular-season momentum isn’t as crucial as you might think.”

ROTATION ROULETTE

The Dodgers aren’t the only NL team with uncertainty surrounding its starting rotation. Rockies left-hander Jorge De La Rosa(notes), the No. 2 starter behind Ubaldo Jimenez(notes), left Saturday night’s game against the Dodgers with a strained groin, leaving his availability for the division series against the Phillies undetermined.

The best-case scenario for the Rockies would be to have De La Rosa available to start Game 3 at Coors Field on Saturday, where he has 10 of his 16 victories. Right-hander Aaron Cook(notes) likely will be bumped up to the No. 2 spot and start at Philadelphia on Thursday. Cook, battling a strained shoulder, has pitched only twice in six weeks. But he sparkled in an eight-inning outing last Thursday against the Brewers that clinched the wild-card berth.

The Dodgers will be without expected No. 3 starter Hiroki Kuroda(notes), who has a bulging disk in his neck. Chad Billingsley(notes), Vicente Padilla(notes) and Jon Garland(notes) are Torre’s choices to follow left-handers Randy Wolf(notes) and Clayton Kershaw(notes).

NON-PLAYOFF PULSE

Rising stock: Marlon Byrd(notes) should be one of the most intriguing free agents in a class thin on outfielders beyond top-tier Matt Holliday(notes) and Jason Bay(notes). Byrd, accumulating 500 at-bats for the first time, had a career year for the Texas Rangers, batting .283 with 20 home runs and 89 RBIs. His homer total doubled his previous high.

Byrd credits a nutritional-supplement regimen developed by BALCO founder Victor Conte with increasing his focus, energy and stamina. MLB officials were shocked to learn of Byrd’s relationship with Conte, but opted to ignore it after initially requesting a meeting with Byrd, who hasn’t failed a drug test.

Byrd will be a Type B free agent, meaning a team signing him would need to give up a supplemental first-round pick if the Rangers offer him arbitration. Byrd earned $3.09 million in 2009 and could double that in arbitration. He’s looking for a multi-year deal, but more importantly he wants to play every day.

Is what he is: Any Cubs follower hoping outfielder Kosuke Fukudome(notes) might feel more acclimated and increase his production in his second MLB season is disappointed. Fukudome’s stats in 2009 are strikingly similar to 2008. Entering Sunday’s finale, Fukudome has the same number of runs (79) and hits (129) in two fewer at-bats. His slugging percentage is marginally higher because he increased his doubles from 25 to 38.

Junior circuit blasts: Ken Griffey Jr.’s(notes) sweet swing resulted in a home run three times in the last four days. If Griffey decides to retire at 39 after a season in which he struggled to make consistent contact, he’s leaving with a bang, reaching 630 career homers with a blast against the Rangers’ Tommy Hunter(notes) on Saturday.

Steve Henson is a Senior Writer and Editor for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter.
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Updated Sunday, Oct 4, 2009