Friday's game was one of those that is particularly La Russan. Baseball is a game decided by players between foul lines. Managers make personnel decisions, to be sure, but the players win or lose. Over a long career in which he has the second-most wins and the second-most losses in major league history, the Cardinal skipper has succeeded in branding himself a manager whose decisions have an outsized impact for the better on the games his teams play. If credit is due when his heavy-handed managerial style results in wins, so too should it be due when it hampers his team's on-field efforts. The latter was the case on Friday.
After an assist from Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers, the Cardinals' division race deficit had fallen to 6.5 games. (Such is the current state of the season that we use "fallen to" and "6.5 games" in the same sentence when discussing the Central race, if it even still is a race.) After disappointingly losing a three-game set to the Pirates in Pittsburgh, the Cardinals limped into the Windy City in desperate need of win. From the penciling in of the lineup to the final run, La Russa put his managerial stamp on the game.
It started with La Russa musing to the press about slugger Allen Craig, fresh off a long DL stint after suffering a fractured knee cap, seeing time in center field, if he was able to run normally. Most who have watched Craig since he returned to action have noticed that, in fact, he hasn't seemed to be running normally. As so often occurs after La Russa has chummed the waters via newspaper print, the manager penciled Craig in as the No. 2 hitter and center fielder, a defensive assignment that in no way reflects the utility man's skill set or health.
The manager did this to get Craig's bat in the lineup and because center fielder Jon Jay has been struggling lately. Wanting Craig's bat in the lineup is understandable, as is wanting to get a struggling hitter a day off. But, La Russa has given Jay a lot of off-days of late and every time opted for a replacement that shouldn't ever start in center field in the majors--Corey Patterson and Skip Schumaker before Craig. The entire experiment seemed based on the wholly illogical rationale that because Craig hit well in Pittsburgh he would hit well in Chicago and because Jay had struggled of late he would continue to struggle. In a game where the elite are unsuccessful six out of ten times, the line between hot and cold streaks is a thin one and hardly predictable. But, here the manager was playing on such an air of omniscience.
The Cards jumped out to a 4-1 lead, without the aid of Craig who went 0 for 3 with a strikeout before being yanked at the half-way point of the ballgame for Jay and his better defense. When experimenting with Craig at a defensive position he has rarely if ever played before, it has been the common practice for the manager to go to his bench early--and, in doing so, burning a bench player--for a more experienced defensive hand. And so, after 4.5 innings, La Russa was down one bench player and had permanently removed Craig's bat from the game.
As if to prove the manager's foolishness in the playing of the ostensibly hot bat instead of the struggling bat, Jay singled with a bit of batted-ball luck to lead off the eighth inning of a game the Cardinals then led by a single run. With a runner on first, zero outs, the walk-happy Jeff Samardzija pitching for the Cubs, and Albert Pujols at the bat, the manager made a confusing tactical decision. On the very first pitch to Pujols, La Russa gave the order for what we must assume was a hit-and-run attempt. Pujols swung and missed at a 96 MPH fastball and Geovany Soto threw the slower-than-you-think Jay out at second. The pitch was likely a strike, but I still don't like the decision.
Samardzija is fairly wild. 42.4 percent of his pitches are in the strike zone, compared to a league average of 45.6 percent and his first-pitch strike percentage of 55.4 also lags behind the league average, which is 59.3 percent. Also, Samardzija induces a swinging strike 9.9 percent of the time, which is a bit higher than the MLB average of 8.6 percent. Jay is also not a very good base stealer, with 5 caught stealings to his 6 stolen bases. If there is a swing-and-miss, Jay is just as likely to be thrown out as wind up safely at second base. Simply put, Jay is not a runner to hit-and-run with because he isn't fast and Samardzija is not a pitcher to call for the hit-and-run against due to his wildness and swing-and-miss stuff. Lastly, with one of the game's best hitters at the plate, why meddle? Why force Pujols to swing at the first pitch? Why not let Pujols go about his PA in the manner that has proven so effective for nearly eleven seasons? Why risk Pujols batting with the bases empty and a 0-1 count when the PA started with a runner on? Even with Pujols's high GIDP numbers this season, in a one-run game in the eighth inning, I'd let my first ballot Hall-of-Famer do what he has done so well for so long rather than force his hand and flirt with removing a lead-augmenting run from the base paths.
The eighth inning then produced a typical La Russan bullpen carousel. Jason Motte retired the first batter but was then lifted for the ancient Arthur Rhodes, who walked Carlos Peña. The LOOGY (or, LO[BB]GY) was then replaced by the trusted Kyle McClellan in a vaunted La Russa double switch. Even though the tying run was now on, Patterson was inserted in right field for Lance Berkman. McClellan's smoke-and-mirrors act was hammered by Soto for a game-tying double. After a HBP put the go-ahead run on, K-Mac escaped the eighth with the game tied at four runs apiece.
Carlos Marmol sat the Cardinals down 1-2-3 in the ninth and McClellan did his best Izzy impersonation before managing to get out of the ninth with the tie intact. In the top of the tenth, the offense reaped what the manager's double switch had sewn. Patterson led off the tenth and made an out, which players with sub-.300 OBP's over 4,500 career PA's are apt to do. Furcal and Jay made outs, as well. In the ninth and tenth innings, the Cardinals sent six batters to the plate and made six outs.
For the bottom of the tenth, La Russa predictably turned to the anged Octavio Dotel. This is not an altogether bad move what with the Cubs sending two consecutive right-handed hitters to the mound in Soto and Marlon Byrd, even if the left-handed Tyler Colvin loomed as the third hitter that inning. After Soto singled and Byrd advanced him to second with a sacrifice bunt, you knew that it was Dotel's game to extend or lose. Upon his acquisition, La Russa made clear that he does not care what Dotel's splits are against lefties, because of his "closness":
The manager said that he won’t be afraid to use Octavio Dotel against a left-handed hitter, despite some ugly splits for the veteran righty.
"I think when he’s close, he’s close against everybody," the skipper said.
Apparently Dotel was not "close" on Friday. Left-handed hitting Tyler Colvin promptly and perhaps predictably ended the game of the should-be righty specialist in walk-off fashion with a game-winning single that knocked in Soto from second. And while this usage of Dotel was, due to game circumstances, a bit more defensible than, say, when Dotel was allowed to face Nyjer Morgan and Prince Fielder of the Brewers, it was still an open invitation from La Russa to the Cubs for them to win the game, and that is why it is still bouncing around in my head two days later.
Friday's loss was one that bears the mark of La Russa. There are always "if's" in a baseball game and no job in the world is as easily second-guessed as that of the baseball manager. But, when the club faces such an uphill climb to playoff contention that nearly every game is of the "must-win" variety, a center field experiment that leads to an unnecssarily shortened bench hardly seems the smart play. I can't say for certain that, if La Russa had started Jay, then Patterson doesn't lead off the tenth and the non-Patterson player gets on base before eventually becoming the winning run. But I can say La Russa unnecessarily hamstrung himself in the later innings by starting Craig in center and lifting him after 4.5 innings. I also know that La Russa curiously injected himself into a Pujols PA in the eighth inning of a 4-3 game by calling for the hit-and-run. Furthermore, I also know that his willingness to allow Dotel to face lefties--even if somewhat defensible in Friday's game--threatens the team's chances of winning when the game is close.
Friday's game caused a sentiment to bubble over in me, one that has been simmering for a couple of years now. To be sure, there are the roster concerns and long-term planning issues that La Russa seems to be affecting. How much he does so, we will never know. On top of this, his in-game decisions are becoming harder to understand and rationalize. The questionable substitutions, the overuse of twenty-fifth men, the bullpen usage, the in-game reindeer games, the lack of fundamentals, and the poor in-game tactics have gnawed at me for the last couple of seasons. With the club's playoff pulse as faint as it has been all year, the "Will La Russa return in 2012?" speculation has already begun in the St. Louis media (with the welcome voice of the new media, one lboros). Due to the manager's tiresome meddling, I find myself for the first time firmly in the camp that hopes La Russa has managed his last game in St. Louis with Friday's game providing a handful of examples as to why.