La Russa outfoxes Washington in opener

ST. LOUIS -- Give credit to Lance Berkman for his odd-looking cue-shot hit that bounded past Michael Young for a two-run single in the fourth.

Give credit to Albert Pujols for his diving stop of a Young grounder up the line with a runner on third and two outs in the sixth.

Give credit to Allen Craig for coming off the bench to deliver the go-ahead RBI single in the sixth inning.

Give credit to Marc Rzepczynski for escaping a seventh-inning jam and Chris Carpenter for a solid six-inning effort.

And in this chess match of a Game 1, credit Tony La Russa for the final checkmate, the latest in his string of postseason moves that have made him the stealthiest postseason manager since Connie Mack started Howard Ehmke in Game 1 of 1929 World Series.

The players win and lose, and the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Texas Rangers 3-2 in the opening game of the World Series, but La Russa’s decisions -- and Ron Washington’s mistakes -- played a key component in the outcome.

This was most evident in the top of the seventh inning. Craig’s two-out single had given St. Louis a 3-2 lead. The Rangers had their 5-6-7 hitters up: Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli, aka the heart of the Texas lineup these days. La Russa brought in right-handed reliever Fernando Salas. Cruz singled with one out and Napoli walked on four pitches. You’re up, Tony.

La Russa brought in the lefty Rzepczynski to face southpaw-swinging David Murphy, a .215 hitter with no home runs in 107 at-bats against left-handers. At this point, it become apparent that the Rangers have one major weakness: the lack of a good right-handed bat off the bench.

Washington sent up Craig Gentry, who is really a defensive speed merchant more than a hitter. He struck out looking on a 1-2 pitch that caught the outside corner. Or was maybe a bit outside. That brought up the pitcher’s spot. La Russa had Octavio Dotel -- .145 against right-handers this season -- warming up in the bullpen.

Washington basically had three options:

1. Hit Yorvit Torrealba, his best right-handed bat left on the bench. Not a good one -- .256 with no homers versus left-handers. But Rzepczynski’s crossfire motion is tough on lefties, so you had to send a righty up there.

2. Hit Esteban German ... a guy who hadn’t had an at-bat since Sept. 25.

3. Hit German and hope La Russa would bring in Dotel. Washington could then hit Mitch Moreland, the lefty-swinging first baseman and the best bat left on the Rangers’ bench.

I don’t know if Washington was thinking La Russa would bite; maybe he thought German was his best option -- all he said after the game was, "I thought he had a good chance against Rzepczynski. ... In German's case, he's a contact hitter. I thought he can handle Rzepcynzski's offspeed stuff." He denied that he expected La Russa to bring in Dotel and stuck to his belief that German was the guy for that situation.

Regardless, La Russa didn’t bite. Afraid of Esteban German? Not quite. Rzepczynski struck out the overmatched German on three pitches.

Washington, on the other hand, was afraid of Nick Punto. Yes, Nick Punto, the guy with the .249 career average and 14 career home runs in nearly 3,000 plate appearances. He intentionally walked him in the fourth inning with two outs to pitch to Chris Carpenter with a runner on second. Not the worst decision -- it used to be commonplace for NL managers to walk the No. 8 hitters 30 or 40 years ago, but you see it less often these days.

That one worked out when the Cardinals failed to score the next inning despite a leadoff walk to Rafael Furcal. Punto came up again in the sixth, with David Freese on third with two outs (after Wilson had fanned the hard-to-strikeout Yadier Molina). Carpenter was on deck. He’d thrown 87 pitches on this cold night and was hardly blowing the Rangers away.

It seemed pretty obvious La Russa would hit for Carpenter. Wilson gave Punto the old unintentional intentional walk on four pitches, a pretty inexplicable decision, even if it did ensure that Carpenter would be removed.

Craig hit. Washington brought in Alexi Ogando. Nothing wrong there, although: Why not just bring in Ogando to face Punto? Craig lined a 1-2 high-octane heater down the right-field line; Cruz dove feet first, but came up short, as the ball fell a few inches in front of him. Maybe with a glove-first dive he could have made the catch. It would have been a higher-risk play to attempt it.

Risk. On this night, that’s how Ron Washington managed. He took a risk in not pitching to Punto. He took a risk in bringing in Esteban German. His risks didn’t work out.

But it’s only Game 1. Maybe he learned something about how La Russa will handle different parts of his lineup. But he shouldn’t feel so bad: A lot of managers have been schooled by La Russa over the years.