"Lesson number one: Don't think; it can only hurt the ballclub."
-- Crash Davis to Nuke Laloosh in "Bull Durham"
It's October and Tony La Russa is thinking again.
Phil Garner isn't, that's a cinch.
What is this, a clinical experiment in postseason managerial styles?
La Russa is the game's resident inside-baseball intellectual, a fellow with a law degree who never met a diamond conundrum he didn't want to solve. And get credit for. Garner, nicknamed "Scrap Iron," wears a brush mustache and, on Sunday, moved one player to four positions in 18 innings. If matters had gone on much longer, Roger Clemens might have had to play left field.
Over 162 games, the St. Louis Cardinals' manager has plenty of time to cogitate and, usually, it helps his ballclubs. That's why many assume that, despite a notable lack of success in postseason play, La Russa will be a Hall of Famer some day.
But when there's an autumn snap in the air, it is usually time to stop meditating, rely on dependable cliches instead and, to coin a phrase, don't think twice, it's all right. La Russa thinks twice before scratching his ear when he's driving to the ballpark. What if the guy in the car next to him thinks he just put on the hit-and-run?
Don't worry about Garner. He's not straining his brain too much. The Astros' manager began his news conference before Game 2 of the National League Championship Series by wishing Happy Birthday to the Navy on its 230th birthday. Oh, and the Marines, too. While La Russa is working on his Cardinals lineup, "Scrap Iron" is figuring out what to give the Navy for its birthday.
Day in and day out, plenty of people scratch their heads over some of Garner's moves with the Astros. In fact, just one game, 18 innings worth on Sunday, was so full of Phil that the whole country was buzzing. "Oh, they'd have killed me if we'd ended up losing that one, wouldn't they," chuckled Garner by the batting cage here. The notion didn't seem to bother him.
If this National League Championship Series gets tight and extends to a sixth or seventh game, watching La Russa and Garner will be a full-time show considering their diametrically opposite approaches to the tensions and constant unfairness of October baseball.
La Russa entered this NLCS with as few decisions to make as any manager could imagine. His team had won 100 games. His first two opponents, the Padres and Astros, had won 82 and 89. You could hardly hand pick easier opposition. And, except for the usual late-season picks, the Cardinals were in perfect health. Well, almost.
The Cards had one problem. Set-up reliever Al Reyes ruptured a ligament on the last day of the regular season. That predicament has had perfectionist Tony in a twist ever since. Oh, sure, the Cards had the best bullpen ERA in the league. And La Russa has three other right-handed relievers with fine stats who could replace Reyes. But that's not good enough. La Russa has decided to turn his logical Game 4 starter -- Jason Marquis -- who had a 4-0 record against Houston this season, into a replacement (of sorts) for Reyes. And, in the process, La Russa has managed to anger Marquis, slight his new set-up man, Julian Tavarez, and make his current Game 4 starter Jeff Suppan look like an unpleasant but necessary afterthought.
"It's not the way you'd like to set it up. All of a sudden you take a guy who has pitched well as a starter [Marquis] and make him a reliever. But you've got to do what you've got to do," said La Russa who in every postseason in which he has ever participated has immediately dragged out all his team's problems into public view and dissected them minutely, perhaps preparing excuses if he loses, but more likely because his obsessively analytical nature won't let him do otherwise.
"We've got a critical miss without Reyes. Jason has some bullpen experience. I mean, he could appear seven times. But it would be great to give him a chance to make a relief appearance without it being a real tight game situation," said La Russa. "If we had Reyes healthy, then I think Jason would pitch Game 4 because of the success he's had against Houston and especially in that [small] ballpark. But we don't have him healthy."
So, let's get this straight. To compensate for Reyes' absence, La Russa is deliberately going to start the wrong man in Game 4 -- Suppan, who hasn't started against Houston all year and has always been prone to gopher balls. Houston's park is a cheap-homer haven. Into the bargain, Marquis has now taken shots at La Russa in the local St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
"I'm not in the role that I feel best-suited for, so obviously I'm not happy about it," Marquis said. "Obviously, it's something I don't enjoy doing, pitching out of the bullpen."
So, Jason, if you don't like doing it even once, how'd you like to do it a whole bunch of times, as La Russa suggested?
"I know if I pitch Game 4, I have the capacity to come back on Game 7 if something freaky happened to Matt Morris," added Marquis, helping Tony manage the Cards. Oh, for instance, if Morris pitched poorly in Game 3 and nobody wanted to see him again with the whole season on the line?
Naturally, in Game 2 on Thursday night, La Russa faced a typical Reyes Moment in the top of the eighth inning with the Cards trailing, 2-1. Who should hold the fort until the Cards had a chance for a late rally?
Should it be Marquis, whom La Russa had praised for his "electric stuff." Or Tavares, the veteran pitcher he had, in a sense, slighted by feeling the necessity to send one of the Cards' hottest late-season starters to the bullpen?
La Russa nicked Tavares. Lance Berkman doubled into the right-field corner. With two outs, young Chris Burke who had homered in his two previous postseason at-bats before this game, then tripled and scored in his first at-bat in this game, and later lashed a run-scoring single to left field. Finally, Adam Everett tripled on a blast to left field that almost conked Reggie Sanders in the head.
Ooops, that didn't work so well. Suddenly, Houston had a 4-1 lead and Brad Lidge headed in from the bullpen in relief of crisp Roy Oswalt. Marquis got his reluctant chance in the ninth inning with the horse out of the barn.
In last year's NLCS between the same two teams, every game was won by the home club. So, a Houston win with Roger Clemens set to start Game 3 is not designed to calm La Russa.
Meanwhile, Garner is just having a good old time, knowing what a perfect foil he is to La Russa. Asked his "feelings" after losing Game 1, he deadpanned, "Probably going to lose it all. Why play on?"
Quizzed about his Astros clubhouse chemistry, Garner said: "I go back to the old Oakland A's. We had 14 fights within three or four years -- among ourselves, not with the opposing team, but in our own clubhouse and we won three World Series."
Tight Tony, stuck in his over-dog role vs. Sly Phil, lying in the weeds. It seems almost too pat. After his bitter Series upsets in '88, '90 and '04, and the blown three-games-to-one lead in the '96 NLCS, La Russa's history can't possibly repeat itself again.