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That time when Pujols was ordered not to throw

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Mike Matheny's decision to start Randal Grichuk yesterday with instructions not to throw the ball hearkens back to when Tony La Russa did something similar... though not entirely the same... with Albert Pujols.

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In Mike Matheny's pre-game interview with Mike Shannon, the manager said they were starting Randal Grichuk in center, but had given him some "instructions". It seemed pretty clear the intent was to pull a Pujols with him - let him play the field, but with restrictions on when and where he should throw.

And the results? Well, let's just say it was somewhere between unmitigated disaster and dumpster fire - at least in the first couple innings.

In the top of the first... the top of the first... With Chris Coghlan on first, Anthony Rizzo drilled a ball into right-center, which Grichuk fielded, but then flipped to Heyward, who then relayed it into Jhonny Peralta. While the Benny Hill music was playing and all of those throws were being completed, Coghlan came all the way around to score and Rizzo wound up at third (aided by a poorly executed rundown).

At that point, the Cubs knew there was blood in the water. In the 2nd, with Jon Lester on 2nd base and Addison Russell on first, Dexter Fowler singled up the middle. Lester was waved in and scored, while Russell just kept running all the way to third, as Matt Carpenter went deep into center to receive the toss from Grichuk.

If you were scoring at home, you probably couldn't charge all three runs to Grichuk, but it would be fair to say that his inability to throw at least factored into each of the Cubs scoring plays. On the FSMW Broadcast, the generally homerish Dan McLaughlin and Tim McCarver were talking openly about how Matheny had to get Grichuk out of there, or at least move him to left field.

And then for the rest of the game... it was pretty much no big deal. Oh, and the Cardinals came back and won.

***

Mike Matheny was the starting catcher in 2003 when Tony La Russa was faced with a similar dilemma: Albert Pujols was suffering elbow pain and the medical staff recommended he not throw for three weeks, though he was still able to run and mash dingers.

That episode is probably so well-remembered because it plays out in the prologue to Buzz Bissinger's Three Nights in August. La Russa is the brooding genius, desperate to find a way to fit his superstar slugger into the lineup. After five days of only pinch-hitting appearances, La Russa started Pujols at first base against the Braves on April 24th. In the first inning, with Rafael Furcal on first, Marcus Giles laid down a sacrifice bunt, and La Russa realized that Pujols would be unable to throw out the lead runner on such a play. La Russa also worried about runners being able to freely take second base on a pickoff throw to first.

The next night, Pujols started in left field with some explicit instructions. If the ball was hit his way, he was to toss it to either Edgar Renteria or Jim Edmonds to throw the ball into the infield. If a runner was looking to tag-up and advance on a flyball to Pujols? Eh, let 'em. The calculus was that yes, a non-throwing Pujols may allow a few runners to advance and maybe a run or two to score, but he would make up for it with his mighty, mighty bat.

So how did it work out? Well, looking back over the game logs, The Baseball Gods looked kindly on Young Pujols and the ball just didn't come his way much - at least not in situations which required a strong throw. Pujols started three games in-a-row in left field, saw very little action, then was replaced around the 5th inning by a stronger defender.

On April 29th, Pujols was back to playing first base. On May 1, just a week after the experiment began, he threw out his first runner. With a runner on first, Ty Wigginton grounded to Pujols, who fired to second to get the lead runner. Okay, that lead runner was Mo Vaughn, but still - it counts.

Just a few days later, on May 5, Pujols was back in left field and finally his arm was tested. In the bottom of the 8th in a tie game against the Reds, Austin Kearns singled to left. Perhaps banking on Pujols inability to throw (it was well known by that point), Kearns tried to stretch the single into a double. He was thrown out by Albert at second.

***

There's that old saying in baseball, "the game will find you, unless you are Albert Pujols." It certainly found Randal Grichuk yesterday - early and often - and highlighted exactly what his limitations were. Was that just dumb luck or was Matheny's move with Grichuk really so much more ridiculous than La Russa's with Pujols?

The answer, I think, is probably a little of both.

As most pundits, fans and even small children who happened upon the game seemed to remark, having a center fielder who is unable to throw is a lot different from having a left fielder who is unable throw. Why Matheny would put the limited Grichuk in center instead of either Heyward or Piscotty - both of whom who have played the position - is beyond me.

There's also room to question the cost-benefit analysis of getting Grichuk's bat (which granted, has been very good) into the game ahead of, let's say Tommy Pham, compared to the upgrade La Russa was getting by playing Pujols instead of Miguel Cairo.

But on the other side of the coin, La Russa and Pujols also got pretty lucky. If a gimpy Albert had to field a series of balls ping-ponging around the left field corner while runners circled the bases, the whole episode would not be remembered as such a cunning bit of guile by the salty old general.