Commentary

Tony La Russa using his bullpen -- a lot

Manager has called the right shots and has St. Louis one win from the World Series

Updated: October 15, 2011, 5:06 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- Once upon a time, there was John McGraw. And Casey Stengel. And even Ozzie Guillen.

Now those were men who knew exactly how to win a World Series -- and it sure wasn't how the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals are trying to win one (or at least reach one).

Yes, it used to be so simple back in the day, back when managers everywhere agreed there was one thing and one thing only that all World Series teams for the rest of time would be built around:

Their starting rotations. What else? You were expecting maybe their utility-infield depth?

It's been the one constant of October, never wavering, never changing. You jumped atop your horses, and you galloped as far as they could carry you. Koufax … Gibson … Hershiser … Morris … Johnson … Schilling. That was the ticket, no matter the era. And that would always be the ticket, forever and ever. Right?

Uhhhh … wrong.

Clearly, Sandy Koufax and Orel Hershiser would have had a hard time comprehending Tony La Russa and his 2011 Cardinals.

Then again, the 2011 Cardinals are having a hard time comprehending the 2011 Cardinals.

"This is crazy," said their latest, greatest bullpen hero, Octavio Dotel, on Friday night after his team had beaten the Brewers 7-1 in Game 5 of a mind-boggling National League Championship Series. "This is crazy, that we're in the situation we're in right now."

Well, he's right about that. A month and a half ago, the Cardinals were Dead Team Walking. Now, they're a win from the World Series. What a country.

But that isn't exactly what Octavio Dotel was talking about when he uttered those words. What he was talking about was this:

For his entire life, he always believed you couldn't get to the World Series without a great rotation, a deep rotation, a dominating rotation.

Now, he's on a team with practically an irrelevant rotation.

Five games into this NLCS, the Cardinals still haven't had a starting pitcher get an out in the sixth inning -- of ANY game. And yet they're leading the Brewers 3-2 as they head for Game 6 on Sunday in Milwaukee. Does this make any sense?

"It's hard to think that we're 3-2 against Milwaukee," Dotel said, "and -- nothing against our starting pitchers, because they're really good and they can do the job -- but they haven't made it to the sixth inning. Not once [in this series]. And it's 3-2. If you think about that, it's unbelievable."

Well, we've been thinking about it, all right -- because it's impossible not to think about it. You have lots of time to think about it, too, because every time you look up in this series, La Russa is heading for the mound and waving out toward right field.

"It's great. He keeps pointing right at me," right fielder Lance Berkman said, laughing. "I'm a big part of those pitching changes. Tony likes me."

OK, he does like the guy, actually. But obviously, he likes his relief pitchers -- all eight of them -- even more, because he can't stop waving them into these baseball games.

Five games into this NLCS, and Cardinals starters are averaging 13 outs a start.

And they're winning.

Five games into this NLCS, and the starters on this team have gotten exactly two more outs (67) than the relievers (65).

[+] EnlargeOctavio Dotel
Jerry Lai/US PresswireTony La Russa has not been afraid to call Octavio Dotel and his friends from the bullpen.

And they're winning.

Five games into this NLCS, and the Cardinals' starters have a 6.04 ERA with a .340 opponent batting average.

And they're winning.

Seriously?

It's an improbable formula, friends. It's also an unprecedented formula. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no team in history has won a postseason series without at least one of its first five starters getting past the sixth inning.

But "improbable" and "unprecedented" are not the same things as "impossible." And the Cardinals are proving it, night after October night.

"Hey, Tony has a plan, with that revamped bullpen," utility dervish Skip Schumaker said. "We've got a pretty damned good bullpen, with an extra guy [on the roster] out there. … And Tony keeps going to them. If he thinks a game is getting away from us, he's not afraid to pull the trigger.

"He's got guts, man," Schumaker went on. "He's not afraid to do the uncommon thing. And that's why he's so successful -- because he's not afraid to do stuff like that."

No, "afraid" wouldn't describe La Russa. No doubt about that. So once again Friday, he went stomping toward the mound in the fifth inning to go get his starter du jour, Jaime Garcia.

Except this time, he was pulling an all-timer, even by La Russian standards.

Because there were two outs in the fifth inning … and the starter he was pulling had given up only one run … and he was winning … and still, he just had to go, OK?

It might have fit right into how this man has managed this series. But it didn't fit right into the way any other manager had ever managed any other postseason game in the history of baseball.

How many starters -- ever -- have been yanked from a postseason game in a spot such as that, just one run on the board and one out from qualifying for a victory? Not … a … single … one, the Elias Sports Bureau tells us. But you really think Tony La Russa cared about that?

All he cares about this time of year is one thing: winning the game. Period. However you have to win it. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what October is all about. It's the only thing October is about. And whatever you might think of La Russa, he gets that -- maybe better than anybody else who has ever managed a postseason baseball game.

So the men who hang out in his bullpen have learned to stay loose and stay ready, no matter the score, no matter the setting, no matter the inning.

Dotel, for instance, has spent his whole bullpen life as a late-inning reliever. For as long as he's been doing this, he's hung out in the dugout and/or clubhouse for the first three innings and then headed out to the 'pen in the fourth. Not anymore.

In Game 1 of this series, he learned that lesson the hard way. He'd just arrived, he reported "when the [bullpen] phone rang and they said, 'Dotel, you're in the game.' I said, 'What?'"

Three of the first four hitters he faced that day reached base. "Now," he said, "I get out there earlier … like the second inning."

Dobbs [La Russa] has got guts, man. He's not afraid to do the uncommon thing. And that's why he's so successful -- because he's not afraid to do stuff like that.

-- Skip Schumaker on Tony La Russa

Well, it's a good thing on nights such as Friday -- because by the fifth inning, Dotel Time had arrived.

He and his bullpen pals have learned by now to anticipate La Russa's every move. But there was no way to see this one coming. Was there? Garcia cruised into the fifth with a 4-0 lead. He had two outs and a runner on second. He appeared to be in complete control. And then …

Boom. Corey Hart singled. Thump. Jerry Hairston Jr. singled. So it was a 4-1 game, there were two runners on, Ryan Braun was marching toward home plate and the bullpen phone rang again.

"I just got up," Dotel said. "And they called and they asked me if I was ready, and I said, 'Well, I'm close.' They said, 'Think you can get ready in five more pitches?' I said, 'OK, give me five more. I'll be ready.'"

And how many warm-up pitches had he thrown, in total, by then?

"Maybe eight," he said, chuckling. "I really don't remember exactly, but it was fast. Whatever, it worked out. We won the game."

Yeah, it worked out, all right. Yeah, they won the game. But as we look back on it now, they very well might not have won this game had Dotel not stalked on in right there.

Waiting for him, 60 feet away, was Braun, a man who has spent his postseason proving he is one of the great hitters alive. He was an incomprehensible 17-for-36 (.472) this October as he wriggled into the box. But he also was just 2-for-9 lifetime against Dotel -- with seven strikeouts. So clearly, this was a moment La Russa had scripted in his head long before it arrived.

Braun tapped his bat on the plate and rocked in the box. There were 46,904 people standing all around them, spinning their towels, fraying their lungs. It was only the fifth inning. But it felt like the ninth.

[+] EnlargeJaime Garcia
Jerry Lai/US PresswireJaime Garcia had given up only one run, but in Tony La Russa's world, that was enough for a call to the bullpen.

Dotel attacked Braun with five straight cut fastballs, every one of them at the knees or below. Braun took four of them and fouled off a fifth, and the count was 2-2. Braun stepped out, took a deep breath, dug back in and waited.

Then, spinning his way, came the first slider of the at-bat. It was supposed to be down, to look like all those cutters he'd just chased. Instead, Dotel hung it up there, navel-high, and shuddered, just for a second. But somehow, Braun swung over it for strike three. And as Dotel bolted for the dugout, it's amazing his thunderous sigh of relief didn't knock over about six buildings in downtown St. Louis.

"It worked," Dotel said, laughing. "That's all I know. It worked. That wasn't the plan. It was kind of high. I don't want to throw it there. But maybe he'd seen so many fastballs that I threw before that it had him kind of out of balance. I don't know. But it worked. Thanks God it worked."

It was "only" the first of 13 outs this bullpen would log on this night. It just kicked off the grand parade, from Lance Lynn to Marc Rzepczynski to Jason Motte. And if you check the box score, it will tell you it was Motte who got credit for the save. But if saves were judged by degree of difficulty instead of by who got the last out, we know who REALLY deserved this one.

"Should I have gotten a save for that? Of course," Dotel quipped. "I mean, we've got two guys on base, and I'm facing Mr. Braun, with two outs. So it don't matter [that it wasn't the ninth inning]. I feel like I saved that game. … I'll be honest with you. I think that was the game right there."

He's 100 percent right on that, of course. But it's incredible, when you think about it, how few managers -- now or ever -- would recognize that.

And that's the genius of Tony La Russa in a nutshell. When That Moment arrives in games such as this -- fifth inning or ninth inning -- he's ready. And by now, that should come as no surprise -- not to us, not to the men who play for him.

"If this were the regular season, I'd have been shocked," Berkman said. "But since this is the postseason, I'm not. He catches a lot of flak for making so many different pitching changes. But these matchups are important. And one at-bat -- especially like that at-bat in the fifth inning -- is huge. So I totally understand. It's better to make a move too soon than too late."

It's the motto by which all managers should manage all postseason games. Most of them never got that memo, but that's the moral of this story, folks.

It turns out the secret of October isn't about The Rotation after all. It's just about this:

You do whatever you have to do to win tonight. And if that wasn't the way John McGraw once did it, hey, that's John McGraw's problem. It sure isn't Tony La Russa's -- or Octavio Dotel's.

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.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com