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Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Updated: October 20, 1:13 PM ET
Tony La Russa wins Gm. 1 chess match

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- Maybe he's a long-lost relative of Anatoly Karpov. It's possible he grew up with Boris Spassky. Or maybe he just ran into Garry Kasparov at a chicken dinner someplace.

But once again Wednesday night, that noted grandmaster of the emerald chess board, Mr. Tony La Russa, checkmated his way through the World Chess Championships of October, at his Karpovian best.

"You know, I've never seen him play chess," said La Russa's hitting coach, Mark McGwire, after the Cardinals had finished outfoxing the Rangers, 3-2, in Game 1 of the World Series. "But I'll tell you what. He's running a hot hand right now."

Tony La Russa and Ron Washington
Tony La Russa and Ron Washington squared off in Game 1, and La Russa emerged the victor.

Wait. He's never seen the guy play chess? Isn't that exactly what the Cardinals' zoned-in manager has been playing for about three decades now -- for 5,097 games and counting?

Of course he has. But it's very possible that never, ever, has Tony La Russa maneuvered those chess pieces better than he has over the past three weeks.

Maybe there's been a hotter managerial hand in somebody else's dugout back in some other time, some other place, some other October. But let's just say none comes to mind.

Every time you look up, he has the right pitcher facing the right hitter, the right guy at the plate and the right score on the scoreboard. And it happened again Wednesday, when he ran pinch hitter Allen Craig up there in the sixth inning to bat for starter Chris Carpenter -- and got (what else?) a go-ahead pinch single out of it.

And after that, you know what was next if you've been watching this team play baseball this month. It was time for the nightly March of the Bullpen Soldiers. Five relievers trotted to the mound. Every one of them put up a zero. And that, friends, was checkmate. Again.

But then the men who play for him expect nothing less at this point, naturally, from one of the most ingenious managers who ever lived.

"He's in a zone right now," said infielder Nick Punto.

"That's why Tony La Russa, if he's not the best, is one of the top five managers in major league history," said reliever Octavio Dotel.

"He's been pushing all the right buttons for a while now, man," said second baseman Ryan Theriot. "And I mean like for 20 or 30 years."

These guys might not be 100 percent aware of how La Russa set up his bullpen for the '83 White Sox. But what they've been watching over the past few weeks is a managerial run for the ages.

"And this stuff doesn't just happen, you know," utility whiz Skip Schumaker said. "He puts people in the right spots to have success. He crunches every single number you can imagine -- him and [his coaches]. And they seem like they know every single matchup before it happens."

Exactly. Which brings us to this latest night at the chess board.

After 5½ innings, this was a taut 2-2 game, in which both starting pitchers -- Carpenter and C.J. Wilson -- actually made it into the sixth inning, in a stunning, not-very-LCS-like development.

But in the bottom of the sixth, Rangers manager Ron Washington found himself doing the one thing he'd said just the day before he didn't think he could ever live up to: "matching a wit with Tony La Russa." That'll teach him.

The brain cells began whirring with two outs and David Freese on third base. Up stepped Punto, who came into this game hitting .143 (3-for-21) in the postseason. And 50 feet away, Carpenter moved into the on-deck circle, even though it seemed apparent to most of mankind that if Punto reached base, there was as much chance of Rogers Hornsby coming up next to hit as there was of Carpenter batting.

But instead of going right at Punto, Wilson bounced two curveballs, threw a slider almost a foot outside and wound up walking Punto on four pitches that sure looked like one of those proverbial unintentional intentional walks.

"I don't know that they were walking me unintentionally intentionally," Punto said. "But they also saw Carpenter on deck. So you just never know. It's a huge cat-and-mouse game."

Allen Craig
Allen Craig's two-strike, pinch-hit single gave the Cardinals a 3-2 lead in the sixth inning.

Well, you can judge for yourself who was the cat and who was the mouse. But whatever, it was Craig -- a talented 27-year-old masher who hit .315 and slugged .555 this season -- who popped out of the dugout. And that brought Washington to the mound to wave for his own hot hand: fire-breathing starter-turned-reliever Alexi Ogando.

But if Washington had any thoughts that bringing in a power right-handed arm might cause La Russa to yank Craig for a left-handed hitter, he thought wrong.

Asked if that ever crossed La Russa's mind, McGwire replied: "No. Allen's too good a hitter. We never even thought about it."

In fact, Craig had been loosening up in the indoor cage since the fourth inning, just waiting for this moment -- because he's learned that when Tony La Russa is your manager, you'd better be ready.

"He didn't tell me directly that I'd be hitting," Craig said after the biggest hit of his career. "But you kind of get a feel for the game when you're around Tony. So I went down in the cage the inning before. Then Big Mac came down and said if we get runners on, I'd be the guy."

Asked if he tries to manage along with La Russa at times like that, Craig just shook his head. What reasonably sane ballplayer would ever try that, right?

"I don't try to manage along with him," he said. "I just know when spots like that seem like they might come up, something could happen. So the guys on the bench, we're all ready, for whatever he wants to do. And whatever he's done, it's been working. It's crazy."

So naturally, this latest burst of managerial craziness would work out just the way it was supposed to, just the way all of La Russa's moves this month seem to be working out.

Ogando got behind, 1-and-0, then whooshed two supersonic fastballs by Craig -- the first at 96 miles per hour, the next at 97.

"He absolutely blew the first two fastballs by me," Craig said. "But just because he did that doesn't mean I couldn't get to the next one."

So Craig went to what he called "my two-strike swing," and sliced one more smokeball -- this one at 98 mph -- down the right-field line. And when it hopped just in front of Nelson Cruz's glove, Freese came motoring home, Craig pumped his fist at first base and another magical postseason win was just a few innings away.

As it turned out, that hit was the first go-ahead RBI by a pinch hitter in the sixth inning or later in any World Series game since Wade Boggs drew a bases-loaded, extra-innings walk in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series (aka, the Jim Leyritz Game). So alert the historians -- because this was not just another "PH" entry in your morning box score.

But the cool thing about this particular move in this particular game was that the managerial wheels had only just begun to gyrate.

Let's spin the action ahead to the next half-inning. The Rangers would put runners on first and second with one out, with left-handed-hitting outfielder David Murphy due up. Again, La Russa was ready.

Knowing Washington couldn't possibly let Murphy (who hit just .215 and slugged only .234 against left-handed pitching) bat against a left-hander, La Russa waved for his favorite new left-handed bullpen weapon, Marc Rzepczynski. And that indeed prompted Washington to react, by hitting for both Murphy and Ogando, who was due up next.

But instead of using the dangerous Yorvit Torrealba in either of those spots, Washington first turned to Craig Gentry (who looked at strike three), then sent the seldom-seen Esteban German -- a guy who hadn't been to the plate in (gulp) 24 days -- to bat for Ogando. Rzepczynski promptly carved German up on three pitches. And that was that.

Grilled on all this later, Washington said he used Gentry because that's what he nearly always does when a left-hander comes in to face Murphy. All righty. We could live with that.

But why German? That was the question. And it was one Washington didn't have a real sound answer for.

Because "he's a contact hitter," the manager said, who could "handle Rzepczynski's offspeed stuff." OK, but hold on here. The Rangers had tweaked their roster earlier in the day to add a third catcher (Matt Treanor) for the sole purpose of being able to use Torrealba as a bat off the bench. So Washington was pressed three times on why he'd left Torrealba sitting there, chewing sunflower seeds.

"Can you guarantee me that if I used Torrealba, he would have done anything different?" Washington retorted, after this topic arose for the third time in about a minute and a half. "I used the guy that I thought could get me the base hit."

Cardinals
The Cards got three scoreless innings from the bullpen to seal the 3-2 victory.

So that was his story, gang. And he was sticking to it. And if this were just another game in May or June, you could accept that. But this is October, and these are games of unparalleled urgency. So just compare the way the Rangers' chess king handled what would turn out to be his last shot to score with the way La Russa has been dealing with similar situations all month.

Wasn't it just a few days ago that Tony La Russa brought Dotel out of the 'pen in the fifth inning for a showdown against Ryan Braun -- because he smelled a game that was on the line right then and there?

And wasn't it just Game 6 of the NLCS, when he pinch hit for his starting pitcher, then brought in a guy who led his team in saves (Fernando Salas) in the third inning?

And then there was this game. You don't see Tony La Russa saving his most potent pinch hitter for the eighth or ninth inning in games like this. Do you? When he had a chance to go for it in the sixth, here came Allen Craig. And once again, it all worked out.

As always.

"It's like [La Russa and his coaches] know exactly what's going to happen before it happens," Schumaker said. "I'm telling you, he's so prepared. He's got like three different charts that he looks at. I try to look at them, and he hides them. I don't even know what they are. They're like little [notebooks] that have all kinds of stats and matchups and all kinds of stuff. … I've tried to sneak a glance, and he puts it in his pocket. So I don't know if he knows I'm looking or what. But I'm sure he's had these things for years and years."

Well, whatever is in there, it's helped turn Tony La Russa into the greatest postseason manager of his time. This is his sixth World Series -- four more than any other active manager. It's his 14th trip to the postseason. And if he wins this thing, he'll become just the ninth manager in history to win at least three World Series. All of the others, except for Joe Torre, are in the Hall of Fame.

And that's where this man is heading one of these days, too. But first, he has another week of chess matches ahead of him. And we're sure that if Bobby Fischer were alive today, he'd tell you: Don't bet against the legendary Anthony La Russa.

"If I had to tell Tony one thing, I'd tell him, 'Don't change anything,'" Dotel said. "I'd tell him to keep everything just the way he's been doing it -- because whatever he's been doing, it's working."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst