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ST. LOUIS -- Perhaps it was prescience on the part of the skipper. More likely, it was just coincidence. But before Game 2 of the World Series, Tony La Russa noted that geniuses morph into goats with surprising speed in a culture suited for instantaneous second guesses.
"Mostly," La Russa had said, "it comes down to you make a move, and if it works, 'Hey, what a good move.' If it doesn't work, 'What was he thinking?' That's just the name of the game."
So the game goes, which is why La Russa, whose quick hooks and bold bullpen strikes had guided the Cards through October and into a 1-0 advantage in this best-of-seven, had his managerial maneuverings called into question after a 2-1 loss to the Rangers in Game 2 on Thursday night.
Sterling starting efforts from Jaime Garcia and Colby Lewis made for a tense and tight pitchers' duel, but, once again, the game came down to the reliability of the relief corps, or lack thereof. And though Alexi Ogando's second consecutive hiccup against the pinch-hitting Allen Craig put St. Louis in position to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the Series, it was the ineffectiveness of Jason Motte and La Russa's unconventional "closer" usage that ultimately decided the outcome.
It all started with a bloop single off the bat of Ian Kinsler to lead off the ninth. Kinsler then swiped second, just ahead of Yadier Molina's bullet throw, to put the tying run in scoring position with none out.
Motte had been stellar down the stretch and practically unhittable in the postseason, but he and the Cardinals were in a jam here, and it was made all the more sticky when Elvis Andrus lined a poorly placed 2-2 curve to center, advancing Kinsler to third. And more unpleasantness was added when Jon Jay's throw to the infield was askew and Albert Pujols' attempt to cut it off was awkward. As the ball scooted away from Pujols, who was charged with an error, Andrus bolted to second.
That small miscue impacted the big decision La Russa would have to make next.
"If [Andrus] hadn't gotten to second base," La Russa said, "I probably would have left [Motte] in there."
These were La Russa's options with the runners at second and third and none out:
A. Leave Motte in and intentionally walk the left-handed-hitting Josh Hamilton to load the bases, with the right-handed-hitting Michael Young, Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz all due up.
B. Leave Motte in, let him pitch to Hamilton -- whose power swing is clearly compromised by his strained left groin -- and hope for a strikeout to keep the runners in place.
C. Pull Motte to play the matchup game, with Arthur Rhodes in for Hamilton and right-hander Lance Lynn warming in the bullpen for the rest.
When La Russa stepped out from the dugout, his choice was clear.
"With Tony," Motte said, "we go in when he tells us to, and we come out when he takes the ball out of our hand. My job is to pitch and do everything I can when I'm out there. If I come out, it is what it is. He's the boss, he makes the decisions and he does things how or why he does. That's the way it is."
La Russa's decision to yank his closer with the game on the line was proof positive of what he has insisted all along -- Motte is a
closer for this club, not the
closer. Whereas most managers' work is done when they make the call to the closer, La Russa's mind is always churning.
Did he consider option A?
"No, not really," La Russa said. "You know, load the bases, that's a really difficult thing to do. We had a chance to do something with Hamilton with Rhodes. ... I don't think walking him there would have made it easier for us. I think it would have made it tougher."
And what about option B?
"Well," La Russa said, "from what I understand, Hamilton handles a fastball pretty well. ... If you're thinking about how can you get an out and maybe not have the guy go from second to third, I thought the left-hander had a better chance."
Hamilton won the battle of southpaws with a terrific plate appearance, pulling Rhodes' first-pitch slider to deep right, not only allowing Kinsler to tag and score but also allowing Andrus to get to third as the potential go-ahead run.
"I knew he was swinging at the first pitch, no matter what," Rhodes said of Hamilton. "I had to go out there and either get a ground ball or a short pop fly so that run doesn't score. But he hit it deep enough and that run scored. They had those fast runners on base. That was it."
Yes it was, because now the quieted Busch Stadium crowd was set to witness the Rangers sealing the deal.
La Russa went to Lynn with the thought that he could face the right-handers or a pinch-hitting lefty and also provide length if the game went to extras (whereas Octavio Dotel, who was also available, is more of a matchup guy). But this game wouldn't remain tied long. Young lifted Lynn's 3-2 breaking ball to center, and Andrus tagged and scored to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead.
Thus ended the Cards' dominant bullpen run, in crippling fashion.
"I blame it on myself," Motte said. "I didn't make my pitches. I had a job to do, and I didn't do it."
Neftali Feliz, on the other hand, executed just fine. Sent out for the ninth, he walked Molina to open the inning. But on four-seamers clocked at 99 and 98 mph, respectively, he made Nick Punto look silly and likewise got Skip Schumaker swinging for the first two outs. Rafael Furcal then lifted a harmless fly ball to right to end the game.
Feliz has converted all five of his save chances this postseason.
"Feliz gets us three outs," Texas manager Ron Washington said, "and here we are with a win."
For the Rangers, it was a win earned with some clutch hitting and heady baserunning. A win that drastically altered the outlook of this Fall Classic, which the Cardinals had nearly placed in a chokehold.
For St. Louis, it was the biggest of blown saves. One that opened the door to questions about the managerial maneuverings of a man who, mere hours earlier, had been routinely lauded as a genius.