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La Russa Surprises with NLDS Rotation Announcement

Fresh off the plane from St. Louis, field manager Tony La Russa announced his starting rotation for the first three games of the NLDS. As anticipated, Kyle Lohse will take the ball in Game 1 against Roy Halladay (who is here to bury the Cardinals, not to praise them). Chris Carpenter will start Game 2 against Cliff Lee. Game 3 will be a Battle of Southpaws with Jaime Garcia squaring off against Cole Hamels. Jake Westbrook and Edwin Jackson will both be available out of the bullpen.

The surprise* is Chris Carpenter starting NLDS Game 2 on just three days of rest after his sterling complete-game shutout of the Houston Astros. Jayson Stark quickly chimed in via Twitter that Carpenter has made 338 career starts in the majors without ever before having started on just three days' rest. Given Carpenter's history of shoulder and elbow injuries, this is not very surprising. Even so, La Russa's decision to go with the MLB innings-pitched leader on short rest in Game 2 was not outright shocking.

*Contributing to the surprise of the announce was the report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch yesterday that Edwin Jackson would start Game 2 of the NLDS. I would not be that surprised if the source for the report was none other than La Russa, wasting no time starting the head games with the Phillies.

VEB founder lboros once authored a post on La Russa and the hero starting pitcher a few years back that immediately came to mind upon learning of the manager's announcement from Derrick Goold via Twitter. The post centered on Wainwright and La Russa's usage of him during the largely Carp-less 2008 season and contained this excerpt on La Russa's romantic streak for a staff "ace" or "hero":

those successes propelled wainwright into the role of designated pitching-staff hero --- the "ace" whose responsibilities include not only throwing lots of innings but also inspiring the clubhouse with mental toughness and gut-check performances. most la russa teams have a pitcher thusly assigned --- dave stewart back in the oakland days, and (in succession) andy benes, darryl kile, matt morris, chris carpenter, and adam wainwright for the cardinals. la russa likes to have a guy in whom he can place complete faith, a guy he can entrust a game, a team, a season to. sometimes this hero-hurler simply shows up on the roster (e.g., in the cases of benes and kile); sometimes la russa has to manufacture him.

i’m only half-joking here; tony undeniably has a romantic streak when it comes to starting pitchers.

Chris Carpenter has now improbably held this spot in La Russa's heart twice during his excellent Cardinals tenure, and with good reason. But that does not mean starting him on only three days' rest is the best thing for the Cardinals' hopes this series. Carp may be better deployed as the fully rested firewall at the Alamo that could be Busch Stadium after the first two games against Halladay and Lee. Embarking into the unknown terrain of a Carpenter start on only three days of rest could effectively forfeit a Carpenter start if he is ineffective. It is a gamble with great risk in a five-game series against the National League's best club.

The second-guessing is retroactive. If starting Carpenter in Game 2 was in the back of the manager's mind, why didn't La Russa remove Carpenter during Wednesday night's thumping of the Astros so that he would be more well-rested after having thrown fewer pitches. (Although, I suspect some, like my friend, Ryan, first-guessed La Russa by posing this question during the season finale.) Carpenter threw 106 pitchesin a very efficient outing. Fourteen pitches game in the game's final two innings, and 24 in the final three innings. If La Russa had replaced Carp after the sixth inning, he would have thrown 24 fewer pitches. This is a total that, to me, seems negligible, especially since Carpenter--who walked only one and surrendered only two hits--was never in a high-stress situation.

Looking at the NLDS schedule of games, it seems that this could very well have been a factor in La Russa's decision. If necessary, a Game 5 would be held in Philly on Friday, October 7, which would be the fifth day after Game 2 on Sunday, October 2. By starting Carpenter on short rest in Game 2, he would be able to start his hero ace in a decisive Game 5 on full rest. Also, if the Cardinals were to win the NLDS in fewer than five games, Carpenter would be set up to start Game 1 of the NLCS. Another fitting role for the rotation's ace.

There is little La Russa could have done to make Carpenter more rested for a Game 2 start on short rest. The Game 2 start will be uncharted waters and this makes La Russa's gamble all the more daring. Nonetheless, if the NLDS goes five games or the Cards manage a victory in four or less, it is a gamble that could pay dividends for the club in its quest for an eleventh World Series championship.