Commentary

Ron Washington's instincts paying off

Rangers manager using more than numbers to outshine Cardinals' Tony La Russa

Updated: October 25, 2011, 4:33 AM ET
By Jim Reeves | ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Tony La Russa is one of the best managers in the game and has been for years. They're holding a spot for him at Cooperstown. Tony Genius doesn't make mistakes. Just ask him.

Yet, the future Hall of Famer wasn't even the best manager on the field Monday night at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

Instead, that distinction belonged to the sunflower-seed popping, ultra-passionate baseball lifer in the other dugout, the eternal underdog from Louisiana. He's the guy with extraordinary baseball instincts and a penchant for making us smile when he butchers the King's English. He's made us realize there are more important things than whether someone mixes his verb tenses or uses double negatives.

He's Ron Washington, the Rangers manager who has made "That's the way baseball go" a feel-good punchline across America.

[+] EnlargeRon Washington
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesRon Washington keeps pushing all the right buttons and has his Texas Rangers one win from their first World Series title.
He's also the guy who keeps pushing all the right buttons and has his Texas Rangers on the mind-boggling precipice of winning the 107th World Series.

They are at this momentous point in their history because of a spine-tingling 4-2 victory over La Russa's St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 on Monday night, a triumph that hinged largely upon a lineup change Washington made for Game 4 and his unwavering faith in his players, even when the numbers say he's a fool for believing in them.

That's what makes Washington so extraordinary. He understands that baseball, for all its dependence on numbers and sabermetrics, is still a game played by human beings, superb flesh-and-blood athletes who have the capacity to rise above adversity and, yes, the numbers, too.

David Murphy did that for him Monday night, setting the stage once again for a dramatic, eighth-inning, game-winning two-run double by Mike Napoli.

Washington is the guy who keeps telling us he has no chance in a baseball chess match with La Russa, that it's simply his players who make him look good.

"I can't match wits with Tony," Washington insisted after the Rangers had taken a 3-2 edge in this best-of-seven series. "I haven't been in the game that long.

"I just wish I could stay around as long as he has and be as successful as he has. I just trust my players and try to get them into a position where they can be successful. They haven't let me down so far."

He's right and he's wrong, all at the same time. He hasn't let them down, either. That simple lineup change, dropping Napoli from seventh to eighth to break up the only two left-handed hitters in the Texas batting order, played a huge part in the two-run eighth-inning rally that snapped a 2-all tie. For the first time, the Rangers lead the series, and for the first time ever, they are but a single victory from a world championship.

Not bad for a franchise that, until last year, had never won a postseason series.

The eighth-inning drama Monday night provides a fascinating study of the intricacies of baseball strategy from both dugouts.

For the Cardinals, La Russa said, there was a breakdown in communications with his bullpen. For the Rangers, there was a manager showing uncommon faith in one of his players in a key situation.

It started with Michael Young's leadoff double into the right-center field gap off St. Louis reliever Octavio Dotel. After Dotel fanned Adrian Beltre, La Russa ordered Nelson Cruz intentionally walked in order to bring in left-handed specialist Marc Rzepczynski to face the left-handed hitting Murphy.

One problem that La Russa didn't immediately catch. When he called to have Rzepczynski begin warming up, he instructed bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist to get right-hander Jason Motte warm, too.

[+] EnlargeDavid Murphy
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireRon Washington's decision to let David Murphy bat in the eighth inning paid off, as Murphy hit an infield single to load the bases for Mike Napoli.
"What happened was that twice the bullpen didn't hear Motte's name," La Russa said. "They heard 'Rzepczynski' and they didn't [hear] 'Motte.' I looked up there, and Motte wasn't going. So I called back for Motte, and they got [Lance] Lynn up."

By that time, the game was on the verge of changing dramatically.

Although twice earlier in this World Series, Washington had sent a right-hander up to hit for Murphy against Rzepczynski, this time gut instinct told Washington to let Murphy swing the bat against the Cardinals' left-handed specialist, even though Murphy had hit just .215 this season against lefties and lefties had batted just .171 versus Rzepczynski.

"Sometimes when a lefty comes in, I feel good about having Murphy up there," Washington said. "I thought Murphy was having good at-bats all night and I just felt right there was a good opportunity to let Murph swing, and maybe he'd get lucky for us and make something happen "

Somehow, he did. Murphy swung at the first pitch and hit it back at the pitcher. It wasn't hit especially hard, and in the Cardinals' dugout, La Russa was thinking double play. Instead, it handcuffed Rzepczynski, deflected off the heel of his glove and rolled into the infield dirt, where second baseman Nick Punto had been standing moments earlier. But Punto had broken toward second to play Murphy's grounder.

Murphy's infield hit had loaded the bases for Napoli.

"You know, I usually hit Napoli in the sixth or seventh spot, and when I play Murphy and [Mitch] Moreland, I usually run 'em back to back," Washington said of his decision to break up his left-handers a day earlier. "I just decided that with the lefties Tony has down there in the bullpen, if he brings in a lefty, he'd have to go through Napoli. He'd have to have an extra pitcher come in. It worked."

It worked even better than might have been expected because of the communications snafu with the Cardinals' bullpen. Lynn wasn't supposed to pitch except in an emergency, and he wasn't warm yet. La Russa had to leave Rzepczynski in to face Napoli, even though the Rangers catcher killed lefties (.319 with nine homers in 113 at-bats) this season. His 1.049 OPS (on base percentage plus slugging percentage) was the 10th best in baseball versus left-handed pitchers.

Napoli drilled the second pitch he saw into right-center for a tie-breaking two-run double.

Washington's ability to make the right move isn't just luck. His decisions might seem to go against the grain at times, but they're based on good baseball instincts and, more importantly, a great faith in and feel for his players.

"You can look at batting average and see that a guy is struggling over 15 or 20 at-bats, but sometimes it just takes one swing," Murphy noted in talking about Moreland's solo homer earlier in the game. "Even if his numbers don't show it as a whole at the end of the postseason, those hits are definitely big. Obviously, the hit that [Moreland] had tonight got us on the board, got us energized."

So was Murphy surprised when Washington let him hit against the left-hander this time?

"I'm not going to say I'm surprised," Murphy said. "He's stuck with me in situations like that before. But I've been pinch hit for twice against that same guy in this World Series. But Wash isn't necessarily a guy who always plays by the book or always play by the percentages and the matchups. He goes with his gut a lot, and I was just happy to get the opportunity.

"Usually when a team changes pitchers, I go back to the dugout and check the scouting report real quick. When I do that, I know whether I'm being pinch hit for or not. I went back in there, and Wash looked at me and said, 'You got him.'"

It was uncommon faith from an uncommon manager, who says he's in no hurry to get in a baseball chess match with a master like La Russa.

Funny, but that same guy now finds himself just one move from checkmate.

Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.

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