Commentary

Tony La Russa's 'House of Horrors'

Cards manager blames himself for 8th-inning bullpen debacle in World Series Game 5

Updated: October 26, 2011, 11:52 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- It was The Day After, and Tony La Russa needed more than just a clear phone line.

It was the day after one of the most painful losses of his 35-year managerial career, and he spent much of it dodging the 12 billion follow-up questions being fired his way. So the heck with a phone line. The guy practically needed a lawyer.

In baseball, there are always questions, and there are always answers, and there are always reasons that somebody wins and somebody loses. That applies if it's a 9-1 blowout in May or a bizarre 4-2 defeat in Game 5 of the World Series.

But the last thing you ever would have figured was that this manager would let a pivotal October baseball game unravel on him because he not only couldn't get his bullpen lined up but couldn't even get his best reliever warmed up.

[+] EnlargeTony LaRussa
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesManager Tony La Russa stood before reporters Tuesday in St. Louis and answered questions about his Game 5 bullpen fiasco.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is Tony La Russa we're talking about. He's the chess champ of the dugouts. He's the number-crunching, matchup-creating wizard of all time. He's the ultimate master of bullpen wheelings, dealings and reelings.

Well, isn't he?

"Ha," La Russa laughed on The Day After. "Evidently not."

It was Tuesday afternoon in St. Louis. And the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals was still wearing the scars of a come-from-ahead Game 5 loss in Arlington, Texas, the night before, a loss that left his team one defeat from the driving range and left the Texas Rangers one win from finishing off the first World Series title in the 51-season life of the franchise.

Earlier, La Russa had made his obligatory trek to the interview room to explain, for the second time in 15 hours, a series of snafus in the eighth inning Monday that twisted a huge game -- and this entire World Series -- in the Rangers' favor. When he was finished with that session, folks mostly shook their heads, wondering whether there was any more they understood at that point than they had understood the night before.

But an hour later, here he was, hanging out in the clubhouse hallway outside his office. And here, the conversation came easier, as the manager bantered back and forth with a half-dozen baseball reporters he has known for years.

"What a nightmare," he said at one point. "My House of Horrors."

It isn't often La Russa lets you know that anything -- a loss, a pitching change gone wrong, a bad plate of toasted ravioli -- has stung him, hurt him, made him second-guess himself. But this was different.

This was one loss, he admitted, he had "replayed about a million times."

Well, he wasn't the only one.

When you get this manager to the eighth inning of a tie game in October, you expect him to have every possible move, every possible situation covered -- with a computer printout and three pages of notebook scribbling to justify it.

That's how he's been doing it for more than three decades. And that's how he's done it through this entire, spectacular run through his 14th trip to the postseason.

But that's not how he did it Monday night.

It was "embarrassing," he said at one point. It was "not fun," he said at another. But at least he was willing to walk this group through what he was thinking and where it all went wrong.

His plan when the eighth inning began, he said, was to have his situational right-hander, Octavio Dotel, take on the three right-handed hitters who were due up: Michael Young, Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz.

Then, if any of those three got on, he was going to go to his most trusted left-handed bullpen arm, Marc Rzepczynski, to face left-handed-hitting David Murphy.

All of that made total sense. It was, essentially, exactly the way La Russa had been playing these games all month.

Except that Dotel had to go foul up the master plan by serving up a double to Young on the third pitch he threw. Uh-oh.

It was at that point, La Russa said, that he made his first call to the bullpen and said, "Get [Rzepcyznski] up, and have [Jason] Motte play catch."

But after spending a long night thinking about it, reconstructing the conversation, the manager was convinced he hadn't delivered that message quite that smoothly.

He had paused for two or three seconds, he decided, before he had said, "Have Motte play catch." And as he thought back on it, he was more and more sure that his bullpen coach, Derek Lilliquist, had hung up on him in the bullpen before he heard the part about Jason Motte. So Motte never did get up. And that's where the inning began reeling out of control.

By having Motte just "play catch," La Russa said, he merely wanted his closer to do some light tossing, which would have gotten him loose enough that he could warm up more seriously in a hurry if the situation called for it. If not, it wouldn't have been a strenuous enough session to jeopardize being able to use him later.

But never, in two formal interview sessions in two cities, had La Russa ever spelled that out before. So for those of us trying to figure out what he was thinking the night before, this was one of the areas that was especially confusing.

After all, what manager gets his closer warmed up in the eighth inning of a tie game on the road when the first hitter he could conceivably face wouldn't come until the fifth batter of the inning (Mike Napoli)? Nobody does that -- normally.

But when that question was broached out in the hallway, La Russa pointed out immediately: "He was my most rested guy." And he was right. Motte hadn't pitched since Game 2, four days earlier.

[+] EnlargeTony La Russa
AP Photo/Eric GayTony La Russa had wanted right-hander Jason Motte to face Mike Napoli, not left-hander Marc Rzepczynski.

So the manager said he and pitching coach Dave Duncan had had a conversation about Motte before the eighth inning. They decided, La Russa said, that if trouble arose in the eighth and they needed him, they were going to defy conventional How You Use Your Closer wisdom. Had to, he said, because this game was way too important to let it get away without Motte pitching in it.

Except that Motte never got up -- to play catch, flip sunflower seeds or do anything else. So whatever the plan for using him might have been, it became a defunct plan when the guy never did throw, for whatever reason.

La Russa claimed again, on a bunch of occasions, that it wasn't until Rzepcyznski arrived on the scene and gave up a single that loaded the bases that he realized Motte had never started to throw.

And he stuck to his story that when he called the bullpen again to make sure Motte got up, they somehow misheard him and told Lance Lynn to warm up instead. The manager also insisted this was totally plausible, even though Lilliquist theoretically was aware that Lynn was supposed to be unavailable after throwing 47 pitches in Game 3.

So is that really how it happened? And when it happened? And why it happened?

Uhhhhhhh, we're still not so certain of that. If you match up the timeline of actual events, who got up when and how it was explained, there are still a whole lot of questions about whether this is precisely how it played out.

How could this manager not have made absolutely certain -- at least by the second phone call -- that he got the right reliever warmed up for such a humongous situation? No matter how many times he explains that part, it doesn't add up.

But other portions of La Russa's account of these events were much more convincing. After all, it made zero sense for the manager to bring Lynn into that game just so he could issue an intentional walk to Ian Kinsler -- unless Lynn had warmed up by mistake. Right?

La Russa even described standing on the mound, waving for his right-hander, seeing Lynn burst through the bullpen door instead of Motte and thinking, "Oh, no."

"I thought, 'This is not happening. This is like a bad dream,'" the manager said.

But it was real, all right -- as real as the two-run double Napoli pounded up the gap in right-center off Rzepcyznski that decided this game. And the manager who allowed that inning to devour him seemed genuinely troubled by the fact that he had never checked the bullpen to make sure he had the right reliever -- or any reliever -- throwing at such a pivotal time.

"I wasn't even looking, so I can't make any excuse," La Russa said. "I never looked."

To La Russa's credit, he never stopped blaming himself for this potentially Series-deciding, season-ending disaster. He never even fought fire with fire -- by attacking the media geniuses who kept aiming all those questions at him.

"It's such an unusual thing," he said, "why wouldn't it be subject to extended national conversation? It's so unusual. I mean, it's never happened."

Even 24 hours later, it still wasn't entirely clear what caused it to happen. But one thing's for sure, the manager said:

It won't happen again -- because he'll be eyeballing his bullpen for the rest of his career to make sure the old Phantom Reliever Act never, ever happens to him again.

"I can assure you," La Russa said on this bizarre Day After, "that the next two days, the right guy will be up."

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