La Russa's unconventional moves pay off
October, 14, 2011
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
Whether you love Tony La Russa, grudgingly respect him, or just plain loathe him, you have to admit: He certainly makes watching a Cardinals playoff game more interesting.
La Russa made two unconventional moves in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. Both moves worked out beautifully for his Cardinals, key decisions and results that helped St. Louis to a 7-1 victory and series lead as we head back to Milwaukee for Game 6.
Of course, Milwaukee's stone-gloved defense helped out. More on that in a minute; let's start by focusing on those two moves.
The first came in the bottom of the fourth inning, after David Freese and Yadier Molina had singled with no outs and the Cardinals were already up 3-0. That brought up the No. 8 hitter, light-hitting Nick Punto, who moved the runners up with a sacrifice bunt. Now, Jaime Garcia swings the bat OK for a pitcher -- he hit a home run this season, and while he's a .137 career hitter, he struck out just 18 times in 62 at-bats. Garcia got the ball in play against the drawn-in infield, scoring Freese when Yuniesky Betancourt's only play was at first base.
How unusual was that sacrifice bunt? The Cardinals had attempted 15 sacrifices with their No. 8 hitter all season -- five came when the pitcher was hitting eighth and the other 10 all came late in games when the Cardinals would either hit for the pitcher or had already made a double-switch. In other words, it was the first time all season La Russa bunted in that situation. Give him credit for thinking outside the box in a situation that called for conventional thinking. I'm not sure it was the "right" play, since you're essentially giving away the chance for a big inning, and if Garcia had struck out, La Russa wouldn't have looked so smart. But Garcia got the ball in play and drove in the run. He made his manager look smart.
The second big move came in the top of the fifth. Corey Hart's two-out RBI single made it 4-1 (Milwaukee's first two-out run in 41 innings) before Jerry Hairston singled to bring to the plate ... Ryan Braun. Rather than have the left-handed Garcia pitch to the scorching-hot Braun, La Russa went to the bullpen. You can guess how many times he yanked his starter in a regular-season game this year when the starter hadn't pitched five innings and had allowed one run or none: Yep, zero. (Not including a game in which Miguel Batista was removed due to a rain delay.)
But this isn't the regular season and La Russa has been quick to his bullpen all series. He brought on righty killer Octavio Dotel, who held righties to a .154 average this season. This wasn't a case of La Russa micromanaging. This was La Russa sensing this could be the key moment in the game and he brought in a better weapon for that situation. Dotel got the job done, albeit it with a little good fortune: A generous call on a low 1-0 fastball made the count 1-1 instead of 2-0; and he struck out Braun on a slider that was a pretty meaty pitch for Braun to handle.
As for the Brewers, they put on an embarrassing display of defense with four errors, showing off their Achilles' heel that all the analysts said was their weakness. In the second, Garcia's two-out grounder scooted through the legs of third baseman Hairston, a costly miscue that allowed two runs to score to give St. Louis a 3-0 lead. Betancourt's error in the sixth led to another unearned run. In between, Rickie Weeks -- seemingly still not 100 percent after his ankle injury in late July -- threw a ground ball into the Busch Stadium dirt and failed to run down a catchable pop fly in shallow center.
While Zack Greinke may have deserved better, the truth is he had another poor postseason outing. He failed to strike out a batter in 5 2/3 innings, the first time in his career he's pitched that deep into a game and failed to record a strikeout. While in the game, he managed just two swings and misses. The Brewers fans and statheads who expected a big game from Greinke will now have to wait -- for the World Series. Or for 2012.
The Brewers get to go home, but their defense isn't going to get any better on the plane ride to Milwaukee. Their Game 6 starter is Shaun Marcum, who has allowed 14 hits and 12 runs over 8 2/3 innings in his two postseason starts, and 31 runs over his past 31 1/3 innings going back to the regular season. The odds may seem stacked against the Brewers, but the way they play at Miller Park, I'm not going to count them out.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.