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2011 World Series: Tony La Russa’s game of bullpen telephone leads to Game 5 loss

By ,

ARLINGTON, Tex.

Never say that the gods of baseball don’t have a sense of humor. And never doubt that they will pick the worst possible moment to play their malicious joke on the most appropriate victim for their tragic-comedy.

No manager of his time has been smarter, more obsessed with tactics and more of a control freak than Tony La Russa. But with the World Series tied at two games apiece and Game 5 tied at 2, La Russa’s whole world of order fell apart. Then, afterwards, as he tried to explain the virtually inexplicable manner in which a series of Cardinals-La Russa screwups had led to a 4-2 Texas victory, it was virtually impossible to tell which story was true, which a friendly fib to protect someone under him and what was still just chaos in the Cardinals.

And you thought the fog of war never came to the World Series. Nothing will ever top this. La Russa’s unintentional punch line was that, in light of the noisy crowd and the imperfect telephone connection, “this is not unusual.” Well, I’ve only covered 37 Series and there has never been anything even one-tenth this butchered and bollixed.

First, here are the basics of the battlefield. La Russa took out his starter Chris Carpenter after 101 pitches. A second-guessable mistake? Maybe. Carpenter often throws more than 110 pitches and he can rest until spring. But give ’em a pass on that one. La Russa waved in righty Octavio Dotel. His second pitch produced a ringing Michael Young double off the right-center field wall. After a strikeout and an intentional walk, La Russa waved in Marc Rzepczynski to face lefty David Murphy. So far, we’re still in a sane universe.

Murphy hit a potential double-play ball back to the box. If Marc Whatever-his-name-is doesn’t touch it, the ball probably goes to a middle infielder for a double play. If the pitcher snags it, same thing: DP. But the ball bounced off Rzepczynski for an infield hit.

Seriously, the guy in the middle of this mess has to be named Rzepczynski. Now, everybody will have to learn how to spell it for 100 years.

So, the bases are loaded, it’s 2-2 with one out and the entire Series could easily be at stake. Who’s at bat? The hottest Ranger, righty Mike Napoli, who greeted the first pitch from a La Russa reliever (Mitchell Boggs) with a three-run game-icing homer in Game 4.

Therefore, only one thing is certain — a right-hander, probably Jason Motte, who hits 100 mph, is presumably coming in to face him.

Except Motte was nowhere to be seen. La Russa had been distraught when the scratch hit went off Rzepczynski. Maybe he was distracted. Maybe he lost track. Or maybe the tangled tale he told later was letter perfect. But to everyone’s amazement, the lefty stayed in the game to face Napoli — who crushed a two-run double off the Snapple sign in right center for the winning hit.

In all likelihood, the one telling image of this Series will be Napoli facing the left-hander with an unspellable name while the Cardinal brain trust is in a state of complete miscommunication chaos.

In La Russa’s postgame version of the snafu, an account that may change with time, the manager says he called the St. Louis bullpen and told them to get Rzepczynski and Motte warmed up as soon as Dotel got in trouble. Instead, the bullpen coach heard “Rzepczynski and [Lance] Lynn.” Does “Motte” sound like “Lynn?” Hey, that’s their story.

Later in the inning, after that missed communication had exploded — leaving lefty Rzepczynski as the only [warmed up] option to pitch to Napoli — La Russa says he called the bullpen again and asked, once more, for Motte to warm up.

Again, somebody, presumably bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist heard “Lynn,” who was not even supposed to be available to pitch except in an extreme [extra-inning] emergency, instead of “Motte.”

Hey Tony, learn how to text.

So, with egg all over his face from several disastrous decisions in the previous half-hour — including a seventh-inning base-running screwup when Albert Pujols put on the hit-and-run sign himself, then failed to swing at a high fastball to protect runner Allen Craig (who was thrown out by 10 feet) — La Russa walked to the mound to remove Rzepcznski with two outs and bring Motte into the game.

“I got out there and it was Lynn” coming into the game, said an incredulous LaRussa. “I said, ‘What are you doing here?’”

So, La Russa had Lynn issue an intentional pass (not for a strategic reason, just to fulfill the rule that he had to “face” one hitter), then, finally, many batters too late, brought in the man who should have faced Napoli: Motte. Who, of course, threw three invisible pitches for a strikeout to end the inning.

You can forget the Cardinals now. If they win this Series, after blowing a 1-0 ninth-inning lead in Game 2, after going from 16 runs in Game 3 to only two hits in Game 4, they will go beyond being The Miracle Cardinals to being the Divine Intervention Cardinals.

La Russa loves to pull levers more than any manager in baseball. But this time, every one was connected to a keg of dynamite. BOOM! BOOOM! BOOM! Out go the lights.

The problem with performing miracles is that it’s actually quite difficult if you’re a mortal. So, when you get the chance, you better take your shot.

For the Cardinals, their best chance to become world champions and go down in history as one of the greatest comeback teams in history may have come and gone here in this madhouse game.

The Cards gave Carpenter a 2-0 led and put runners all over the bases all night; they had a chance to take a 3-2 series lead back to St. Louis for a double shot at a champagne party beyond baseball belief. They were fixin’ to (“the official verb of Texas”) take a dead center kill shot at these here Rangers.

Instead, for the third time in four days, they had a chance to deal a blow to Texas that might have been insurmountable. And for the third time, the Rangers won.

First, the Cards blew a 1-0 ninth-inning lead in Game 2 in St. Louis with the winning unearned run due to a botched cutoff throw by Pujols, their perfect man.

Then, after a concussive 16-run bludgeoning of the Rangers in Game 3, led by Pujols’s Series-record 14 total bases, the Cards got only two hits the next night.

And now this, this, this . . . this Rzepczynski Game.

As La Russa clasped his hands over his Redbird hat in anguish, everything fell apart. After weeks of pushing the right buttons in perhaps his finest managerial run of a Hall of Fame career, everything unraveled for the man who loves to wave to the bullpen.

The Cardinals are still legally allowed to win this World Series.

If they do, what might have been the most miraculously unlikely world championship run in the history of the game will, in my book, clinch the prize by two-and-a-half lengths.

But after this self-inflicted Cardinal mockery, don’t bet on it.

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