White Sox' Tony La Russa's extra-inning flub won't end narrative

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La Russa's rule flub in Sox late loss won't end narrative originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

This was not the week for Tony La Russa to admit he was unaware of a rule.

Wednesday's extra-inning loss in Cincinnati wasn't defined by the White Sox skipper sending closer Liam Hendriks out to run the bases in the top of the 10th inning. The fact that the South Siders mustered only two hits against Sonny Gray and the Reds bullpen had a lot more to do with the 1-0 final score.

But La Russa was the subject of a pair of national reports earlier in the week, both ESPN's Jeff Passan and The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal writing that some in the White Sox clubhouse are becoming impatient with La Russa's in-game decisions as the team tries to chase a World Series championship in 2021.

RELATED: La Russa in headlines, Hahn dubs Sox clubhouse 'outstanding'

While constant consternation over those decisions has gripped much of the fan base throughout the first month and change of the season, the White Sox are right at the top of the American League Central standings, with one of baseball's most productive offenses and one of its most dominant starting rotations.

But championship-level expectations breed frustration when championship-caliber baseball isn't the nightly norm, and La Russa has given fans reasons to fume, even if the team has experienced more success than it has failure to this point.

Whether it be a couple instances of leaving pitchers in long enough to get roughed up, inconsistent playing time for Andrew Vaughn in left field or decisions to go with certain hitters over others in key situations, La Russa has found himself criticized almost constantly.

His postgame press conference Wednesday, in which he admitted he was unaware of a detail in the league's new extra-inning rule allowing a team to forego having a pitcher run the bases, will do nothing to turn down the heat on the Hall of Famer.

If you missed it, La Russa double-switched with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning in a scoreless game, subbing in Hendriks as the new pitcher and swapping Vaughn for Jake Lamb in left. The score stayed at zeroes, and the White Sox got a free runner on second to begin the 10th. By rule, that's supposed to be the player who made the final out in the previous inning, in this case, Vaughn. But La Russa intentionally subbed Hendriks into that spot so Hendriks could continue pitching in the bottom of the 10th, ideally while protecting a newly acquired lead, even if that meant the pitcher had to run the bases.

There's more to that rule, though, as was pointed out to La Russa after the game:

"If the player in the batting order immediately preceding that half-inning’s leadoff hitter is the pitcher, the runner placed on second base at the start of that half-inning may be the player preceding the pitcher in the batting order."

Technically, that's a new wrinkle for 2021, considering the universal DH eliminated pitchers hitting during the shortened 2020 season. So La Russa had the option to send José Abreu out to second base instead of Hendriks.

"Well, I didn't know that," he said. "I wasn't aware that Abreu could have run. I thought it had to be the guy who made the last out with that spot in the order.

"If I'd have known that, (I would've run Abreu instead). I didn't know that. I have to check the rule. ... I'll re-read that situation. I'm guessing you know the rules better. Now I know."

In terms of the outcome of the game, it was not an outrageously egregious mistake. Plenty who have been frustrated by La Russa will not see it that way, perhaps, but it's true. Hendriks never even came home. He was never stopped at third when a different runner might have scored. He started at second base, went to third on a fielder's choice grounder, then stood there while Leury García got thrown out trying to steal second and Billy Hamilton struck out to end the inning.

Had a White Sox offense that scored nine runs one night earlier managed more than two hits, the 10th inning might not have been necessary.

But obviously no one in the White Sox organization wants to see their $54 million closer, a big piece of the White Sox championship expectations this year and in the future, risking injury by running the bases.

And this is no vacuum, meaning La Russa's admission that he was unaware of even one punctuation mark in the rule book will do nothing to slow the narrative that's snowballing throughout the White Sox fan base and spilled into national reporting earlier this week.

This is a results-based business, and the results are simultaneously pulling in two separate directions. We're just 30 games into a 162-game schedule and most White Sox fans would have little trouble rattling off examples of what they perceive as managerial malpractice from La Russa. But check the standings, check the stats leaders, and you'll see that things are going just fine for the White Sox.

The frustration is not misplaced. The White Sox hired La Russa to win the World Series, and then everyone from the general manager to guys who missed the major league roster spent the spring talking about how anything less than a championship would be a disappointment. Fans cannot be blamed for looking at every game through that lens.

But that's also a tough way to live.

Even for teams that end up hoisting trophies, the baseball season is a seven-month slog that features, at minimum, 60-something losing nights. Not every day is a good day, and bad teams beat good teams all the time. All managers screw up. They all have decisions that don't work out. They all leave their respective fans bases screaming at one point or another. Heck, last year's World Series ended with the AL Manager of the Year getting globally grilled for making a pitching change.

After the national reports, La Russa was asked about criticism earlier this week.

"If the decision works, they're good. If they don't work, they're bad," he said Tuesday. "I'm not going to change. There's enough to concentrate on just watching the game. ... Just be accountable to yourself, take your best shot. You can’t live and die with whether the decision worked or not. It's the quality of the decision."

But any hope that early season stumbles would be forgotten was dashed Wednesday. Whether it was important or not in the grand scheme of things, La Russa's admission — which by the way, so much for scoring points for honesty — was not a good look. And though optics mean little to a manager and a team focused on winning and nothing else, they matter big time in the context of what's happened so far in the first bit of La Russa's second stint as the South Side skipper.

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