ST. LOUIS – Bench players live a simple existence. They find their preferred spot in a dugout, like an animal that sniffs out its territory, and plop down. They clap. They deliver high fives. A few hours and a round-shaped imprint in the cushion later, they stand up, take hacks in the batting cage, react appropriately to wins and losses, retreat to the clubhouse and realize they've got the most awesome seven-figure job in the history of ever.
And then there are Tony La Russa's bench players.
Allen Craig(notes), Skip Schumaker(notes), Daniel Descalso(notes) and Ryan Theriot(notes) know the routine. Sometime early in the game – maybe the third inning, maybe the fifth, and on days they're really lucky the seventh – they amble down a few steps, turn a corner, sneak into a long, rectangular room and get to work. Wearing a Cardinals uniform means they report to La Russa, and La Russa manipulates his bench like nobody else. He maximized it to capture the National League pennant and put to rest any thought he'd let off the reins in Game 1 of the World Series, where his insistence on micromanaging every bit of the game – along with Texas' Ron Washington doing the same with far less efficacy – defined the night.
La Russa tends not to lose such battles, so the Cardinals' 3-2 victory Wednesday at Busch Stadium came as little surprise as the evening evolved into the battle of wits Washington admitted he was unlikely to win. La Russa, King Midas for the last two weeks, gilded everything, from Craig's go-ahead pinch-hit single in the sixth to the five pitching changes that followed.
A forensic scientist would delight in examining a game managed by La Russa, his fingerprints all over it. This was a La Russa special, the sort that allowed him to exploit his team's bullpen, suddenly strong, and unleash the best pinch-hitting option on either team at a strategically optimal, if unconventional, time.
"You never know what Tony's going to do," Schumaker said. "He's got a plan, and you're ready just in case."
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So Craig and Co. descended into the Cardinals' two-tunnel batting cage in the top of the fifth – more than an inning and a half before any would appear – and went to work. Craig swung. Descalso threw. Schumaker did both. Theriot primed himself in case Texas sent out a left-handed pitcher. Their roles are set; their deployment times are far from.
"I go with the flow with Tony," reliever Arthur Rhodes(notes) said. "You don't know what Tony's gonna do. You don't know who he's gonna bring in. Everybody out there is ready to go from the first inning on."
As the bench did its business, the bullpen started cooking too. La Russa's juggling act involves his relief corps as well, and the two prongs often bottleneck into one overarching strategy that defines a game. That the moves and countermeasures started as late as the sixth showed a lick of patience from La Russa. His managerial salivary glands flood with excitement at the first sign of trouble or an ability to exploit weakness.
And while sending the right-handed Craig to bat in the sixth didn't trigger such frailty – on the contrary, it invited Washington to lift starter C.J. Wilson(notes) and replace him with the closest thing baseball has to the Human Torch, Alexi Ogando(notes) – it was the first case of La Russa forcing Washington's hand, and it wouldn't be the last.
"Cold-weather game, sitting on the bench, World Series, Ogando. It's not a very good situation," La Russa said. "But [Craig] has got a history in our system. That's why we like him so much. He's got a history of taking great at-bats."
The Ogando advantage that Washington used so well in the first round disappeared the next inning when he pinch hit for him with Esteban German(notes), a player with nearly 50 times as many Triple-A at-bats this season as ones in the major leagues, and La Russa's usage of left-hander Mark Rzepczynski instead of Rhodes to stifle pinch hitter Craig Gentry(notes) and German encapsulated his night.
"That's kind of been the theme of the last few games in the playoffs," Craig said. "Our bullpen has picked us up from the fifth inning on, not because our starters haven't done a great job but because our bullpen has been that good. The guys on the bench have had to be ready a little earlier."
La Russa thrives on the margins that so many other managers treat as fungible. Roster spot Nos. 15-25 – the dregs of the everyday guys and every last drop of the bullpen, down to the sediment – represent to La Russa the opportunity to take the slightest bit of advantage and bend it to his will. He has been accused of overmanaging, a charge on which he'd be found guilty 101 times out of 100 – and one for which he'd gladly serve time so long as he's allowed to pick up the practice once his sentence lapsed.
Forget doing more with less. La Russa does more with more. If La Russa's lineup card is not a bloody mess of red marker by the end of the night, trainers ought check his pulse. Winning, losing, blowout, tight game – it matters not with La Russa. His brain had every bit the imprint on the game as did Craig's bat, and a year after being outmanaged by San Francisco's Bruce Bochy, Washington did not acquit himself terribly well in this World Series opener.
"I don't ever try to understand what Tony's thinking or what Tony's doing," Cardinals closer Jason Motte(notes) said. "I mean that in the best way. He knows the game better, I think, than anyone. He knows stats, he knows match-ups. He knows this versus that. I don't know if he's a genius, but he's pretty darn close when it comes to baseball stuff."
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Well, La Russa's hair did look positively Einsteinian before Game 1, so there is that. And after seeing Lance Berkman(notes) knob an opposite-field single for the Cardinals' first two runs and Mike Napoli(notes) answer with a two-run home run to knot the game, he did his Stephen Hawking-of-the-diamond thing rather well.
Using the guy who was your closer for more than half the year to start the seventh? Sure. Switching the typical roles of your two left-handed relievers? Of course. Employing four guys for two innings? Naturally.
And when La Russa handed the ball to Motte for the ninth inning, in came Schumaker to right field. Because even with a one-run lead, La Russa never passes up the chance to make a double switch.
Here's the thing: It all made sense, every one of La Russa's alternations, like he was stitching a bespoke suit around Game 1. The Cardinals entered the series underdogs because the Rangers, on paper at least, are the more talented team. Whether the talent is exploited accordingly was the biggest question following Game 1.
The final was Cardinals 3, Rangers 2. Another emerged as the game unfolded: La Russa 1, Washington 0. And unlike the former, the latter wasn't nearly as close as the score would indicate.
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- Tony La Russa