ST. LOUIS — Years from now, when people think of the 2011 National League Championship Series, the image that first springs to mind won’t be of Albert Pujols or Ryan Braun swatting home runs, or Prince Fielder barreling around the bases, or even some random Milwaukee Brewer facing toward his dugout with his arms outstretched in “Beast Mode” pose.
It will be of St. Louis Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa, red-jacketed and collar-popped, emerging from his dugout and wearing out a path to the pitcher’s mound. It will be of his outstretched hand, accepting the baseball from another dispatched pitcher, then walking back to his dugout. Over and over.
La Russa made that walk three more times Friday night in Game 5, three more mid-inning pitching changes, three more gambles on the matchups and his own gut. And once La Russa had guided his pitchers through the requisite 27 outs, the Cardinals had a convincing 7-1 victory over the Brewers at Busch Stadium, giving them a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series and leaving them one win away from a trip to the World Series.
Two teams who have now played each other 23 times this year — with the Cardinals winning 12, the Brewers 11 — will meet again Sunday in Milwaukee for Game 6, with the Cardinals sending Edwin Jackson to the mound to face the Brewers’ Shaun Marcum. The Brewers must win twice at home, where they are 61-25 this year, to advance to the franchise’s first World Series since 1982.
To do so, they will need to play significantly better than they did Friday, when they committed four errors — leading to three unearned runs — and consistently failed to deliver the big pitch, the big hit or the big defensive play where it was needed.
“We can win two ballgames at home,” Brewers Manager Ron Roenicke said. “We are going to have to play a lot better baseball than we have here. We can’t play games like that and beat these guys two in a row.”
Rarely in postseason play is the manager a bigger story than his players, but rarely have the pieces — a mediocre starting rotation, a lock-down bullpen and a manager who practically invented the situational reliever — been in place to make such a thing possible as they are here. And rarely has a manager such as La Russa been afforded such an opportunity to undo a previous mistake.
In the Cardinals’ Game 1 loss, La Russa had allowed the game to get away from lefty starter Jaime Garcia in rapid fashion during the pivotal fifth inning, which climaxed with Braun’s double and Fielder’s homer, both on first pitches, turning a 5-2 Cardinals lead into a 6-5 deficit. La Russa was roundly criticized for being so slow to turn to his bullpen.
“There was a lot of conversation about Game 1, and how quickly they put some runs on the board,” La Russa said.
Faced with a similarly escalating situation Friday night, La Russa moved boldly. It was the fifth inning again, and the Brewers had just scored on Corey Hart’s two-out, RBI single, pulling them to within 4-1. When Jerry Hairston followed with another single, it brought Braun to the plate as the potential tying run.
And here came La Russa to the mound, taking the ball from an incredulous Garcia, who rushed across the infield and stormed past the teammates offering handshakes near the dugout steps. It was the fifth straight time in the series a Cardinals starter had failed to pitch beyond the fifth inning.
“I was ready to pitch to [Braun]. I was focusing on the pitch I was going to make to him,” Garcia said. La Russa “took me out, and it worked out, because we won the ballgame.”
In came veteran Octavio Dotel, whose personal history against Braun included seven strikeouts and two hits in nine head-to-head matchups. Dotel threw five straight fastballs, as the count moved to 2-2, then went to the slider, which Braun flailed at for strike three.
“The way [Garcia] was throwing . . . I never thought I’m going to be in that game,” Dotel said. “I figured I’m going to be facing [No. 5 hitter Rickie] Weeks, and the next think I know I’m in the game.”
La Russa’s aggressive move had worked, but he still needed to get 12 more outs from a heavily taxed bullpen that has now thrown nearly as many innings in this series (212 / 3) as have the Cardinals’ starters (221 / 3). With this bullpen, that was no problem at all. Three more relievers entered, and three more relievers carried the lead forward, with closer Jason Motte recording the final four outs.
La Russa “has been aggressive like that last couple months,” said lefty Mark Rzepczynski, who struck out Fielder in a key two-on, one-out spot in the eighth. “If the starter doesn’t have a good day, or even if he has a good day . . . we’ve seen Tony’s not afraid to match us up.”
By contrast, almost nothing Roenicke did with his own pitchers seemed to work.
Some 10 months ago, Zack Greinke, then a member of the Kansas City Royals, turned down a $100 million offer from the Washington Nationals to waive his no-trade privileges and accept a move to the nation’s capital, primarily because he wanted a chance to go to the postseason with a more established team. He fulfilled that wish with the Brewers — who acquired him, with his consent, in December — and on Friday night he took the mound for the biggest start of his life.
Cardinals fans booed Greinke’s every move, indignant over his labeling Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter as a “phony” before the series started. They jeered as Greinke pitched himself into a two-on, one-out jam in the second inning, then roared as it turned into a three-run meltdown that gave the Cardinals the lead. By the end of it, following a costly error on third baseman Hairston, Greinke was grabbing the ball and spiking it in the infield dirt.
Greinke’s night did not get much better from there. His defense betrayed him — both second baseman Weeks and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt added errors — but amazingly, for a pitcher who struck out 201 batters this season, Greinke struck out none of the 30 batters he faced Friday night. His final batter, in the sixth inning, was Pujols, who calmly stroked an RBI single to left. Greinke departed, head down, to a final round of boos.
The Cardinals take their getaway days — those games that precede team flights to the next town — very seriously. The phrase “Happy flight,” which began as a greeting, has grown into a mantra. The Cardinals haven’t had an unhappy flight since Aug. 3 — which is to say, they haven’t lost on a getaway day since then, 14 flights ago.
It will be another happy flight to Milwaukee for the Brewers, and their next flight home will either be bringing their season to a close, or carrying them to Game 1 of the World Series.