ARLINGTON, TX - Manager Tony La Russa walks into the dugout after removing Marc Rzepczynski #34 of the St. Louis Cardinals in the eighth inning during Game Five of the MLB World Series against the Texas Rangers at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
It was Mike Napoli who got the big hit in Game 5 of the World Series, but it's Tony La Russa who is answering all of the questions right now. Here's why.
On Monday, the story of the day was Ron Washington succeeding on the strength of his character and motivational techniques, not through deft strategic moves. This was supposed to be in stark contrast to the thinks-six-moves-ahead-in-a-game-of-Uno reputation of his counterpart, Tony La Russa. Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch gets another mention for his foreboding tweet after Game 3:
TLR playing chess. The other dugout playing checkers.
But in Game 5, La Russa was the one playing checkers. Wait, no, he was the one playing a game of Life with missing pieces, so he had to use broken spaghetti noodles to represent the family. Wait, no. Washington was playing "Manage the Baseball Game," whereas La Russa was playing a game of "Point to the Doll Where the Baseball Game Touched You." It was quite possibly the most memorable managerial performance in recent postseason history.
La Russa twice hit-and-ran when he should have hit-and-stood with Allen Craig during an Albert Pujols at-bat. And when his team was in the field, he ordered a Nelson Cruz walk with one out in the eighth, which set up Mike Napoli against a left-handed specialist. Those are the dirty specifics, and during the game, it seemed like a series of horrible managerial decisions. And after the game, things actually seemed worse in retrospect.
- The botched hit-and-run in the seventh was actually called by Albert Pujols. Because superstar hitters usually call their own hit-and-run plays. And in Rand McNally, hamburgers eat people.
- Mike Napoli got to face Marc Rzepczynski because the person who answered the bullpen phone didn't hear "Jason Motte," thus Motte didn't warm up.
It was ... well, the whole thing was this. Tony La Russa will go into the Hall of Fame one day. Game 5 of the 2011 World Series will not be one of the reasons why.
Here's the thing, though. We should never have noticed Tony La Russa in this game. When someone was thrown out on a hit-and-run, or when a game of bullpen roulette (or chess!) started up, we should have been able to roll our eyes and say "That's our Tony!" as a laugh track played before the credits. Ron Washington kept walking Albert Pujols to get to Matt Holliday. Dude kept doing it. It worked the first time. It worked the second time. It worked the third time.
No one stopped Washington to remind him that Matt Holliday is accomplished at the hitting baseballs part of baseball. Walking Pujols to get to Holliday is rarely a good idea. Given the choice of "historically awesome hitter" and "awesome hitter with another runner on," I take the former every time. And behind Holliday was Lance Berkman. Every time.
Why not? Split those sixes! No, thank you, this Park Place square seems too expensive to buy some hotels for! I like to save the power pellets until the very end because, boy, that will really surprise those ghosts! And, say, I'm going to put some more base runners on for Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman!
But those moves worked. Every time. So we're not talking about Ron Washington right now.
The other reason we're talking about Tony La Russa right now: the Cardinals were 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position. Holliday and NLCS MVP David Freese left a combined 10 men on base. Skip Schumaker and Nick Punto, who shared the same test tube at La Russa Farms when they were created, left a combined seven men on. No one could get the right hit at the right time. Almost any other night, and you'd be reading about how C.J. Wilson went from a $100 million contract to an NRI with the Nationals because of his performance.
Instead, it's all Tony, all the time. And, heck, it really was an amazing display of ... something. But don't think of it as a manager completely screwing a game into the ground. Think of it as a special event, something that just doesn't happen without some serendipity. It's time for Analogy Theater.
Let's say there's a guy with some known quirks and flaws. For La Russa, it's compulsive bullpenning and small ball. For the analogy, say it's a guy who is scared of spiders. Doesn't like spiders. Can't deal with spiders. Most of the time, no one cares too much. It's caused some embarrassment here and there, but that's about it.
Then one day, our arachnophobe is making a delivery to the Sistine Chapel while it's being restored, and he sees a spider, and he freaks out and jumps back right into the scaffolding, and the workers restoring the Sistine Chapel tumble down screaming, but not before someone, desperately grabbing at the air, knocks a can of paint up and it splatters all over The Last Judgment, and the scaffolding crashes into a heap with people flying everywhere, with the screaming, oh god, the screaming, and stained glass windows are shattering, and there are also banana cream pies flying everywhere because, oh, that's right, the guy who was scared of spiders was delivering banana cream pies at the time.
That was Game 5. It was the perfect storm to magnify Tony La Russa's strategic quirks. With two straight wins, everyone will forget about this. Without those wins, they're the story of the World Series. He'll be remembered for a lot more when his career is over. Right now, he's known as the guy who got in the way when baseball was being a jerk. It happens to the best of them.