JUPITER, Fla. – Tony La Russa has led ballclubs long enough not to anoint a young player before it's absolutely necessary – and if he needed to be reminded, his longtime pals Bob Knight and Bill Parcells were waiting for him in the next room.
But after Kyle McClellan(notes) pitched five scoreless innings against the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday, La Russa came about as close as he can to saying the 26-year-old right-hander from a St. Louis suburb will fill the rotation spot left by Adam Wainwright's(notes) season-ending injury.
Without saying it, that is.
Playful isn't normally a word that comes to mind with La Russa – Curmudgeonly? Condescending? – yet he stood in his office showing off a Cheshire cat grin and the cadence of a seasoned comedian.
"I don't know what more Kyle could do to get himself ready," he said. "As a starter [pause, looks around room] … or a reliever, he's right on time."
Reporters covering the Cardinals pushed and prodded. They wanted a headline. Please, Tony, confirm the obvious: McClellan has won the job after allowing one run and six hits in 12 innings over three starts.
La Russa toyed with them. "Trust me, we'll have it settled … unless it's not settled," he said. "He looks good enough to where I'm getting real excited about him as a [waits a beat] … reliever.
"… and as a starter."
McClellan, meanwhile, knows better than to anoint himself. The more he spoke, though, the clearer it became that he believes he's earned it.
"This is big for me because I had to have a good spring and show I can do it," he said. "Until the last day, something always could change. It's something you can never count on until you take the ball on that day and get the start."
McClellan paused. His smile looked an awful lot like La Russa's.
"But, I like my chances."
An increasingly effective reliever since breaking into the big leagues in 2008, McClellan has long been viewed as a potential starter by pitching coach Dave Duncan because he's a sinkerball specialist who also has command of a slider, curve and changeup. He's embraced Duncan's philosophy of pounding the bottom of the strike zone with sinkers and using other pitches to disrupt a hitter's balance.
"I kind of saw the writing on the wall as soon as [Wainwright's injury] happened," McClellan said. "Dunc came to me and said, 'You are going to get an opportunity. There will be competition, and you are going to have to pitch well.' "
He's been better than the competition. Lance Lynn(notes), a supplemental first-round pick in 2008, has been on the fast track to the rotation, posting a 25-15 record and 3.66 ERA in the minors, including solid numbers at Triple-A last season. La Russa secretly might have preferred Lynn to win the job because he values McClellan so much as a reliever. But Lynn has lacked command during his two spring starts and is scheduled to pitch in relief Wednesday.
McClellan, meanwhile, is scheduled to start again in five days. He'd never pitched more than three innings as a major leaguer until he went four in his second spring start. On Tuesday, he was as strong in the fifth as in the first, and threw 40 strikes in 66 pitches.
La Russa said he is impressed by McClellan's conditioning and stamina, another indication his mind is all but made up. He just won't say so yet because he doesn't need to say so yet.
"There's no reason I can't go the same amount of innings as everybody else," McClellan said. "Four was a threshold, this again was another one. My body responded. It's encouraging."
McClellan's road to the rotation has included potholes. He was a middling starter for three years in the minors after signing out of West Hazelwood (Mo.) High School in 2002. He had Tommy John surgery in 2006 and returned a year later as a reliever, pitching well enough in Double-A to earn a place in the Cardinals' bullpen in 2008. He has a 3.23 ERA in 202 relief appearances.
"There's no way I could have been successful if I'd been thrown into it as a starter when I first came into the big leagues," he said. "I was a guy who came out of high school and just threw. I didn't know what I was doing. It took going through surgery and taking a step back and watching guys who were successful, and opening my ears."
If McClellan is anxious for La Russa to announce a decision, he isn't saying so. Meanwhile, La Russa seems to be enjoying the suspense. Why, again, won't you come out and say the obvious? Surely, it's not to keep McClellan motivated?
"That would be really cheap motivation," La Russa said. "It's all based on honesty. If you start BS-ing guys, they see through it. There goes your credibility.
"If you took Kyle by himself, he can start. He'd be a dynamite starter and a dynamite reliever. The questions are, do we have another quality starter? Do we have a reliever who can be as effective? What's best for the team?"
Maybe the Cardinals trade for a starter. Maybe they sign Pedro Martinez(notes). Maybe McClellan seizes the job and pitches so well that an enthralled Albert Pujols(notes) eagerly signs an extension to remain with the team.
McClellan won't worry himself with increasingly implausible scenarios. He'll pitch again in five days, and barring something unforeseen, he'll be the No. 5 starter when the regular season begins. It's what he wants, it's what he's earned, and he can't hide it.
"Shoot, since I was 3 years old I had it in my mind that I'd be a starting pitcher on the St. Louis Cardinals," he said.
He didn't emphasize the word "starting." He didn't need to.
- Tony La Russa