ARLINGTON, Texas – He couldn't do it. The Genius couldn't take ownership of the fiasco he oversaw. Of all the places to manage the single worst inning of a career with 50,000 of them, Tony La Russa chose the eighth inning of the fifth game of a dead-even World Series. And as the fallout of his meltdown pervaded a St. Louis Cardinals club still mortified at what had transpired, he chalked it up to three screw-ups, as if the gods had decided to conspire against him.
"On our team, nobody gets thrown under the bus," La Russa said, and atop that list is him. He wears the genius tag for his strategic savoir faire, wears the salary that accompanies it, wears them so proudly that it wears down all who refuse his Kool-Aid. When it comes to the Cardinals, the bus will roll over everyone before Tony La Russa smells the rubber.
The truth about how Game 5 devolved into an all-time mismanagement of a baseball game may surface someday. It is not material now. What is, and what's especially relevant to the 107th World Series, is that it happened, and the Texas Rangers stand one game from their first championship with two chances to win it in St. Louis after their 4-2 victory Monday.
To whom it happened: That, too, is of great import. As La Russa played subterfuge artist, offering a story dotted with holes unbecoming of a man with a law degree, it was obvious that he was trying to protect someone, and he would go to such lengths only to save himself. Something jammed the St. Louis Cardinals' machine, that chugging engine of efficiency and intellect, and La Russa couldn't swallow the blame even though he's its architect and supervisor.
All of it was too funny to believe. The malfunctioning bullpen phone. The bullpen coach not hearing a name, then confusing the name "Motte" with "Lynn." Intentional walks distributed like Halloween candy. Using the pitcher who was told before the game he wouldn't be used. Sending a left-handed pitcher against a right-handed hitter who destroys southpaws. And everything in the same inning no less, an eighth La Russa wishes he could stick in a sepulcher and forget it ever happened.
And that doesn't even include the "mix-up" on the basepaths or the three ill-timed sacrifice bunts or any of the other bits of bizarro baseball that saw La Russa's managerial IQ degrade as the game wore on, like he was Charlie in "Flowers for Algernon."
Most surreal was the postgame explanation in which La Russa offered a story with more holes than one spun by a 9-year-old trying to explain away a broken vase. To realize its absurdity, it's important to understand the scenario that faced La Russa – the sort he had navigated with incredible acuity before the World Series.
Sometime toward the beginning of the eighth, with the score 2-2, La Russa picked up a phone to call bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist. He said he told Lilliquist he wanted left-hander Marc Rzepczynski and right-hander Jason Motte(notes) to warm up.
Meanwhile, with Michael Young(notes) on second base and one out, La Russa ordered reliever Octavio Dotel(notes) to walk Nelson Cruz(notes), a senseless base to give. Unless David Murphy(notes), the next hitter up, grounded into a double play, it ensured the Rangers' hottest hitter, Mike Napoli(notes), would bat with runners on base. If Rzepczynski recorded an out, La Russa planned to pitch around Napoli and let him face left-handed Mitch Moreland(notes).
"I want to pitch Cruz," Dotel said. "I do. I've got that feeling that I was going to pitch. I'm not going to lie. When Duncan came and said we are going to walk this guy, I say, 'Why?' He say, 'The manager want to do that.' And I respect that."
With Cruz on first and Young at second, Murphy laced an infield single off Rzepczynski. According to one version of La Russa's story, it was time for Motte.
One problem: There was no Motte.
"It was just basically a miscommunication," Lilliquist said. "It was loud. A lot of places are like that. The phone is as good as any phone anywhere."
And yet somehow, Motte hadn't warmed up alongside Rzepczynski. So, La Russa said, he called to correct the error and ready Motte. Only the second time, Lilliquist said he heard reliever Lance Lynn's(notes) name, not Motte's, even though it was determined before the game that Lynn would pitch only in an emergency.
Why La Russa, the king of stalling to let a reliever get warm, didn't pull out every trick remains a mystery. Instead, Napoli stepped in against Rzepczynski and took a hanging slider to right-center field for a two-run double and 4-2 advantage.
Two batters later, La Russa summoned a right-hander. He said he thought Motte would come. This conflicted with his story that he was going to put Motte in to face Napoli if Murphy got on base and lent credence to the theory that La Russa planned the entire time to pitch around Napoli and found himself pinned in when Murphy singled. Even so, it would be a botch of monumental proportions.
Instead, Lynn ran out of the bullpen, took the ball and intentionally walked Ian Kinsler(notes). La Russa yanked him immediately thereafter for Motte. Not only had La Russa misused his bullpen, he had made a pitching change specifically to intentionally walk a batter, something that would be downright hilarious were the rest of his night not such a disaster.
None of it made sense. Zero. Nil. Nada. Not an iota. Not a whit, not a sliver, not an atom.
And it dovetailed with La Russa's bumbling since the series' second game. In it, he relieved Motte, his best reliever and best chance at a strikeout or ground ball from Josh Hamilton(notes), with soft-tossing lefty specialist Arthur Rhodes(notes). Hamilton's deep fly ball drove in one runner and advanced the winning run to third.
This was far worse. Seriously, La Russa wants people to believe that he, the most controlling of control-freak managers, would let a failure the magnitude of his best reliever not warming up go by without a trillion precautions to ensure it didn't happen again? The guy who, when the bullpen phone malfunctioned earlier this year, sent one of his players sprinting from bench to bullpen to relay instructions – he would sit there idly in a swing game of the World Series and leave his chances up to a set of ears on the other end that blew the first conversation?
Inconsistencies between La Russa and Lilliquist's stories were plentiful enough that it's impossible to know what is truth and what isn't. There could be more. Did La Russa forget the number of outs when he walked Cruz? Did he forget to mention Motte's name on the first phone call? Most important, in what universe does "Motte" sound like "Lynn"? Especially a Lynn who isn't supposed to throw.
"If he hears 'Lynn' and I'm the manager," La Russa said, "what is he going to say?"
What he should say is: Hey, skip, he's not supposed to pitch, right? It's what any employee with a working relationship and not one of subservience would say to his boss. That La Russa runs a ship in which such communication isn't encouraged personifies who he is and how he manages. It makes his successes great. It makes his failures spectacular.
It all smells fishy, and it's because La Russa played guppy in the ultimate role reversal. This was supposed to be Ron Washington, the Rangers' high-energy, low-strategy manager, the one who at the beginning of the series seemed the certain of the two to explain away tactical flubs with incomplete reason and mindless rationale and circuitous sentences. Even though he issued too many intentional passes and batted his best hitter, Napoli, eighth, Washington got away with it. His rationale for keeping Napoli there – he wanted to split up Murphy and Moreland, his lefties – ended up contributing to La Russa's confusion, and at night's end Washington found himself one victory away from a ring fitting.
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La Russa kept tripping over his shoelaces. Allen Craig(notes), who might be slower than his pet tortoise, got caught stealing second base in the ninth inning on a failed hit-and-run when Albert Pujols(notes) swung through strike three from Neftali Feliz(notes). Two innings earlier, Craig had been gunned down, a play in which another "mix-up" – La Russa's words – led to a wasted out with Pujols at the plate in a tie game.
"I got the sign and I ran," Craig said. "Simple as that."
Yes, Craig refused to throw anyone under the bus. He did manage to absolve himself, however, a tactic that his manager employed with great efficacy. As his machine sputtered and his season came down to handing a dangerous Rangers team consecutive losses, the damage to the Cardinals following Game 5 was evident.
In the tensest of baseball moments, the ones in which he's supposed to thrive, the guy who broke first was Tony La Russa. And as he stepped around the debris of his own mess, it was obvious: For a lawyer, he offered a miserable defense.
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- Tony La Russa