Commentary

Tony La Russa's call gone wrong

Noisy park makes it impossible for manager to get right reliever in at crucial time

Updated: October 25, 2011, 4:59 AM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Tony La Russa has spent 33 years in the big leagues building a reputation as attentive to the point of anal on the subject of bullpen management. No detail is too trivial to be overlooked, and La Russa has zero qualms about turning a garden-variety, 2-hour, 45-minute ballgame into a marathon of "Schindler's List'' length rather than relinquish a shred of a crumb of an advantage.

So when a string of inexplicable decisions and questionable moves began popping up in the eighth inning of World Series Game 5, astute observers could only wonder: Had La Russa forgotten to take his "genius'' medication, or had he become so blinded by his own brilliance that he simply outsmarted himself?

In hindsight, the answer was apparently neither. According to La Russa, his biggest problem Monday night wasn't faulty strategy: It was too many decibels.

While the Texas Rangers were basking in the glow of a 4-2 win that put them on the precipice of a world championship, La Russa and the St. Louis Cardinals were dealing with the fallout from a telecommunications nightmare. La Russa shared the blow-by-blow details during his postgame media session, when he reflected on the bizarre sequence of events in the telling eighth.

As difficult as this idea might be to grasp, St. Louis bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist apparently strayed from La Russa's instructions -- twice -- because the noise level at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington was so overwhelming that he couldn't hear the Cardinals manager over the bullpen phone. The crowd of 51,459 was sufficiently deafening and disruptive to turn La Russa and Lilliquist into Abbott and Costello.

"Sometimes it gets real loud, especially in some of the bullpens that are right amidst the fans and excitement,'' La Russa said. "It happens in Philadelphia. It's hard to hear it there. So it's not unusual. Maybe we need to come up with some ear mikes or something.''

As the bottom of the eighth rolled around, this was one of those bullpen matchup games that La Russa lives for and typically thrives in. With the score tied 2-2, La Russa summoned Octavio Dotel to replace Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter. The plan called for Dotel to pitch to right-handed batters Michael Young, Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz in the cleanup through sixth spots in the Texas order.

And that's precisely what happened. Young laced a double to right-center field to start the inning. Then Dotel fanned Beltre for the first out, and intentionally walked Cruz on instructions from pitching coach Dave Duncan, even though his heart told him otherwise.

"I'm not gonna lie,'' Dotel said. "When Duncan came out and said, 'We're gonna walk this guy,' I said, 'Why?' He said, 'The manager wants to do it.' And I respect that. I'm not the manager. I'm a player and I've got to do whatever the manager wants.''

La Russa said he personally called down to the bullpen to get left-hander Marc Rzepczynski and closer Jason Motte up next. The plan was for Rzepczynski to face David Murphy, and for the Cardinals to have Plans A and B available depending on what transpired next.

[+] EnlargePitching Change
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireTony La Russa had his bullpen plan all mapped out. He just never figured a bad phone call would do him in.

Under one scenario, Rzepczynski would stay in the game, pitch around Mike Napoli in the No. 8 spot and go after Mitch Moreland in the No. 9 hole. Under Plan B, La Russa would summon Motte to face Napoli.

But the phone snafu ultimately made Plan B impossible. The first time La Russa called, Lilliquist never heard Motte's name, and Motte never got up. And the second time, Lilliquist apparently thought La Russa said "Lynn'' and pointed to Lance Lynn, who had thrown 47 pitches Saturday night and was supposed to be used only in an emergency.

(If you're still with us, give yourself a gold star for attention.)

The upshot: This was destined to end badly for St. Louis. After Murphy reached on an infield hit, La Russa had no choice but to stick with the lefty. Rzepczynski hung a slider to Napoli, who had posted a 1.049 OPS against left-handed pitching this season, and the Texas catcher came through with a two-run double to make it 4-2.

His strategy in tatters, La Russa endured one final indignity before the inning was through. When he arrived at the mound to replace Rzepczynski with Motte, he was greeted by none other than Lance Lynn.

"I saw Lynn, and I went, 'Oh, what are you doing here?' '' La Russa said.

Lynn came in and issued an intentional walk before departing for Motte, who retired Elvis Andrus to end the inning. It's not often that you see a reliever come in, toss four wide, then head for the showers.

In the clubhouse after the game, the scene was downright chaotic, as packs of reporters drifted from one St. Louis reliever to another with the same basic questions: What did you know, and when did you know it?

Dobbs We don't try to analyze things with our bullpen. When the phone rings and we're told to get up, we get up.

-- Cardinals closer Jason Motte

"We don't try to analyze things with our bullpen,'' Motte said. "When the phone rings and we're told to get up, we get up. It's as simple as that. I don't sit out there and say, 'Tony should do this or that.' That's not our job.''

The one item that the St. Louis relievers could agree upon is that it was very loud in Arlington, and the atmosphere was not conducive to clear thinking or harmonious convergence. If you've ever tried whispering a stray thought to a friend at a rock concert, you get the idea.

"The way that bullpen is shaped, it's sunken in, and all the noise goes into the 'pen,'' Rzepczynski said. "When you've got 50,000 fans yelling, sometimes you're not going to be able to hear stuff.''

Said Lynn: "We can't even hear the phone ring, it's so tucked back in the tunnel. You can't even see the pitcher warming up. It's not a very good setup.''

In the coming days, if the Cardinals go on to lose the World Series, conspiracy theorists will pick apart loose ends in La Russa's account and wonder if everything adds up just right. At the very least, you have to wonder why, in an age of smart phones and other technological wizardry, such a tactical decision could get so messed up via a hard line.

Late Monday night, La Russa recalled a game in Philadelphia when the bullpen phone went out and the Cardinals used cell phones, and then the Phillies provided walkie-talkies.

When asked if there's a better way, La Russa replied, "Yeah. Smoke signals from the dugout.''

Or maybe he can add Derek Lilliquist to his friends and family plan, and they can just shoot each other a text message.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer