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Tuesday, September 13, 2011
La Russa hates losing, loves overmanaging

By David Schoenfield


For some reason, the Tony La Russa moment I always remember is his postgame television interview after his Oakland A’s got swept by the underdog Cincinnati Reds in the 1990 World Series. I don’t remember the reporter, only that La Russa was cornered somewhere in a dank tunnel outside the clubhouse, looking like he just got his molars pulled out by a pair of pliers. He was asked how he felt about losing the World Series.

“Losing sucks,” he said. “I don’t think most people understand how bad it feels.”

Losing sucks. That’s how I recall La Russa saying it, and the bill of his cap didn’t shade the pain in his eyes. Certainly every other major league manager would agree, although I’ve never heard another articulate the ache of losing so perfectly. It seems to me, however, that La Russa feels the defeats a little sharper than most. To play a little pop psychologist, most athletes or fans or managers want to win in order to experience the enjoyment of victory; for La Russa, it has always seemed to me that he wants to win avoid the agony of defeat (and the postgame interviews).

He’s managed more than 5,000 games in the big leagues. He’ll enter the Hall of Fame -- and deservedly so -- after he retires. He has wanted to win every one of those 5,000 games. Sometimes, however, that gets the best of him.

Entering Monday night's game, La Russa's St. Louis Cardinals were on a roll. Once the frontrunners in the NL Central, they led the division as late as July 26, but within a month had fallen 10 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers. But St. Louis went 12-4 over 16 games, including a sweep of the Atlanta Braves over the weekend, to fight back to 4.5 games behind the Braves in the wild-card chase entering Monday. With four of their final series coming against the Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Mets, Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros (plus the Philadelphia Phillies), the Cardinals were right back in the race.

Fast forward to the bottom of the eighth inning Monday night in Pittsburgh, the Cardinals leading 4-3. It’s September, which means expanded rosters, which is like handing La Russa a blank check and the run of Home Depot. He brought in Shane Robinson to play center field, his third center fielder of the game. He moved Skip Schumacher from center to right, Schumacher’s third position of the game. He brought in Octavio Dotel for Kyle McClellan, who had pitched a perfect, seven-pitch seventh.

Now Dotel is murder on right-handers, but struggles against lefties. So La Russa is setting himself up for a multiple-pitcher inning, no matter how Dotel fared against right-handers Andrew McCutchen and Derrek Lee. Dotel got McCutchen, but walked Lee. Lefty Marc Rzepczynski was brought in to face switch-hitting Ryan Doumit. Like Dotel, Rzepczynski has a big platoon split (.491 OPS against lefties, .717 against righties). Doumit doubled into the right-field corner to tie the score.

Now came the interesting part. The Pirates, of course, have plenty of options on the bench as well. Lefty Garrett Jones was due up, but Ryan Ludwick pinch-hit; La Russa walked him intentionally to bring up lefty-hitting Pedro Alvarez. Except the Pirates don’t let Alvarez hit; Josh Harrison comes up instead. Harrison strikes out, but Jason Jaramillo, hitting for the pitcher, walked to load the bases. Rzepczynski, owner of that sizable platoon split, faced four batters, none of them left-handed.

La Russa finally brought in Fernando Salas, who recently lost his closer job, despite a 2.08 ERA and .179 average allowed since July 1. Rookie shortstop Pedro Ciriaco grounded a two-run double past Albert Pujols for a 6-4 lead. When the Cardinals scored a run in the top of the ninth, that meant the winning run turned out to be the Ludwick intentional walk -- an intentional walk that was the completely unnecessary, as nearly every intentional walk is.

Here’s my argument: Why put an extra runner on base in that situation? Intentional walks are nearly always wrong for that reason: the potential negative aspect -- more baserunners leading to more runs scored -- outweighs the small possibility of getting a double play. To make this situation worse, the only reason La Russa walked Ludwick was to get a platoon advantage he should have known he wasn’t going to get: The Pirates weren’t going to let Alvarez face Rzepczynski, not in an important situation like this and a slew of pinch-hitters available on a September roster.

Why not bring in Salas to face Ludwick? You get the righty-on-righty matchup there, and I’d rather have a Salas/Alvarez matchup than Rzepcyzynski/Harrison. And then once Rzepcyznski loaded the bases, why not use Jason Motte – who’s allowed two runs in his past 30 innings -- to escape the inning? Well, La Russa was probably hesitant to use Motte since he had played three days in a row, including closing out a 6-3 lead on Sunday.

So La Russa will trust anybody in a one-run or tie game in the eighth inning, but didn’t trust anybody but Motte to close out a three-run lead on Sunday?

Look, a lot of this is second-guessing, I admit. But La Russa had had trouble piecing together his bullpen all season. His intense desire to win, I believe, leads him to overmanage; he has to be a part of the victory, to be involved, so he’ll use three or four pitchers in an inning, get his team into unfavorable matchups at times and issue intentional walks that help blow a game he needed to win.

The season isn’t lost for the Cardinals. The Florida Marlins helped out by defeating the Braves in 12 innings, keeping the wild-card margin at 4.5 games. Time is short, but it’s still ticking.

And it potentially could be, of course, for La Russa in St. Louis. His contract expires at the end of the season and maybe 16 years in St. Louis has been enough. Since winning the World Series in 2006, the Cardinals have gone 420-375, making the playoffs just once despite playing in baseball’s weakest division and possessing the best player on the planet. It’s a good record, but not a great one, and you almost feel like the franchise has missed out on capitalizing on five of the best seasons from one of the greatest players of all time.

But that’s another discussion for another time. For today, it’s a blown game and a look ahead to Tuesday’s contest. Chris Carpenter gets the ball. A complete game would be nice.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Mike Scioscia
Look, right over there, the Rangers. That's who we're trying to catch. Really, we're after them.