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Posted at 02:42 PM ET, 10/25/2011

Tony La Russa’s bullpen phone call: the only other explanation that makes sense

Twice Monday night, in the most bizarre World Series game anyone is likely to see in their lifetimes, St. Louis Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa wanted to bring closer Jason Motte into the game. Both times, according to La Russa, the move went unmade because of a miscommunication between the dugout and the bullpen – which La Russa blamed on the crowd noise drowning out the conversation over the bullpen phone.

Hmmm. I suppose that is possible, but I’ve been getting this nagging feeling all day, as I’ve traveled from Dallas to St. Louis, that there is something missing from the story – some bit of information that, were it revealed, would make it all make sense.

The prevailing opinion is that La Russa is throwing someone – most likely bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist -- under the proverbial bus with his explanation, in order for La Russa to cover his own rear end for what amounts to a monumental collapse of authority. But what if instead La Russa is actually lying to protect someone, rather than shading the truth to protect himself? Follow along with me here.

The thing that puzzles me the most is the critical Marc Rzepczynski versus Mike Napoli confrontation, the key at-bat of the game, the one that produced Napoli’s two-run double that won the game for the Rangers. We all know how La Russa, the King of Matchups, manages a game, and we all knew at that moment that La Russa was going to exploit the matchup by bringing in a right-handed pitcher to replace the left-handed Rzepczynski and face the right-haned-hitting Napoli. But it didn’t happen – because, according to La Russa, moments earlier when he called to get Rzepczynski and Motte warmed up, Lilliquist only heard “Rzepczynski.”

But here’s the problem with that explanation: If La Russa truly wanted Motte to face Napoli, he had ways to make that happen, even if Motte hadn’t started warming up. La Russa is a master of manipulation to gain an advantage. He could have stalled. He could have sent his catcher or his infielders or his pitching coach to the mound to talk to Rzepczynski and give Motte more time to get warm. He could have called time and gone out to talk to the umpire about the bullpen phone problem and argue that he should be allowed to bring Motte in with extra time to get warm. Even if denied, this ploy would have bought Motte a precious minute extra to get ready – which is all it would have taken. For that matter, commercial breaks between innings and during pitching changes during the postseason are longer than they are in the regular season, so Motte could have taken his time on the bullpen mound before coming onto the playing field.

I guess what I’m wondering is: What if Motte simply wasn’t available at that very moment? What if he were somehow indisposed for a period of, say, five or seven minutes? By what, you might ask? I don’t know. Use your imagination. A stomach issue. A uniform issue. Or, not to be too graphic here – maybe both.

A bout of temporary unavailability on the part of Motte would certainly explain everything that followed: La Russa’s lack of stall tactics to get Motte into the game in a hurry. The decision to stay with Rzepczynski, who is La Russa’s second-best reliever. The surprise appearance of right-hander Lance Lynn on the mound two batters later, even though Lynn was supposed to be unavailable. It would also explain La Russa’s tortured, convoluted and occasionally contradictory explanation. If there was something going on with Motte during that eighth inning, La Russa would absolutely make up a story to cover for him. Anyone who knows how La Russa operates knows that.

I’m not saying it happened this way. But this was a situation that makes no sense on any level, and at least the above scenario is one way to pull it all together into something that makes at least a little bit of sense. Maybe we’ll be able to get to the bottom of this today, when the Cardinals have an optional workout at Busch Stadium, with La Russa expected to speak to the media. Or maybe someone can produce video showing Motte in the Cardinals’ bullpen at the moment in question. But if my theory is correct, I don’t expect the Cardinals to cop to it.

We won’t even get into all La Russa’s other mistakes in Game 5. (Oh, yes we will, just for a moment. There were the three sacrifice bunts and two botched hit-and-runs, which means La Russa somehow managed to cause five of the Cardinals’ 27 precious outs in the game. And yes, I know Albert Pujols called for one of the hit-and-runs, but if Pujols has the power to call such a thing from the batter’s box, it is La Russa who ultimately approves of that power. There was also the ill-conceived intentional walk of Nelson Cruz in the eighth, which ensured that Napoli, the Rangers’ best hitter, would come to the plate in the inning.)

But when it comes to the mysterious circumstances surrounding the Rzepczynski/Napoli at-bat, I think it’s just as likely that La Russa is making himself look bad to make someone else look better, as it is the other way around.

By  |  02:42 PM ET, 10/25/2011

 
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