ST. LOUIS — Within Tony La Russa’s St. Louis Cardinals family, there is a certain code, a clubhouse omerta, that sometimes compels you to go on the offensive to protect someone else in the family, and other times to go on the defensive to absorb a blow so that someone else doesn’t have to. The effect is to create an us-against-the-world mentality where loyalty, honor and silence are the defining traits.
On Monday night, after Game 5 of the World Series turned into an epic disaster for the Cardinals, La Russa may have come perilously close to violating his own code. He blamed an embarrassing communication breakdown between the dugout and the bullpen — which resulted in La Russa’s having the wrong pitcher on the mound for the crucial at-bat of the Cardinals’ 4-2 loss to the Texas Rangers — on crowd noise that made it difficult for the bullpen coach to hear his request.
By Tuesday, a travel day as the series returns to Busch Stadium for Wednesday night’s scheduled Game 6, with the Rangers leading the series, three games to two — and as a media firestorm erupted over his postgame news conference the night before — La Russa appeared to have reconsidered his stance, assuming a far greater responsibility for the breakdowns at the end of Game 5.
“To the extent that what I wanted to have happen wasn’t happening [or] didn’t happen — yeah, that’s my fault,” La Russa said “I don’t need to dodge that, ever. . . . You go and make a pitching change, [and] you’ve got the wrong guy coming out there, that’s not fun. Geez, that was embarrassing.”
For the second time in about 18 hours, La Russa took the media through the convoluted series of events in the eighth inning of Game 5, when the Rangers broke open a 2-2 game on a two-run double by catcher Mike Napoli against left-hander Marc Rzepczynski. Some of it made more sense this time; some of it made less.
He reiterated the notion that he had intended to have closer Jason Motte warming up alongside Rzepczynski, in order to be ready to face Napoli, but that half of the request was never heard by bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist — with La Russa suggesting (for the first time) that he spoke Motte’s name too late, after Lilliquist had hung up.
“He felt bad about it,” La Russa said of Lillquist, “but I said, ‘Hey, that’s my fault.’ ”
A second request for Motte, according to La Russa, was heard in the bullpen as “Lynn” – which is how right-hander Lance Lynn, deemed by La Russa and the coaching staff before the game to have been off-limits except in the case of emergency, came to make a surprise appearance with Ian Kinsler at the plate. A shocked La Russa then ordered Lynn, who had been heavily used in the series, to issue an intentional walk, before pulling him for Motte.
“Maybe I slurred it,” La Russa said of the second call for Motte. As for why Lilliquist didn’t question the request for Lynn to get warm in the bullpen, given his off-limits status, La Russa said, “I would be disappointed if Derek [had said], ‘Tony, I mean, do you know what you’re doing?’ ”
La Russa also said it would have been impossible to stall long enough to get Motte warmed up to face Napoli once it became apparent he wasn’t already warm.
“There’s ways you can stall,” he said. “You can send the catcher [to the mound], you can step off [the rubber] 10 times, throw over to first base. I’ve done that. But starting a guy fresh? No, I don’t think that was possible.”
There was one other revelatory moment from Tuesday’s news conference, when La Russa acknowledged misleading the media the night before in order to protect slugger Albert Pujols. On Monday night, after Pujols had twice been at the plate for botched hit-and-run plays that got Allen Craig thrown out at second each time, La Russa said the plays were “just a mix-up,” and described the logic behind them. Only later did Pujols acknowledge he had called the first of those hit-and-runs, in the seventh inning, on his own, by stepping out of the batter’s box and flashing a sign to Craig.
Pressed about Pujols’s admission, La Russa fell back on the notion of protecting the family. “I don’t throw this family under the bus,” he said. “So I’d rather take the hit. It’s not a lie — there was a mix-up. . . . I wouldn’t really answer differently [given a second chance], because I support the players.”
However, in the face of the Pujols revelation, and La Russa’s acknowledgement of his willingness to protect a member of the “family” from criticism, it is fair to wonder whether La Russa is also protecting somebody in what is now being called “Bullpen-gate.” People close to him say it would be like him to do so, and would help explain some inconsistencies.
Perhaps it was significant, and perhaps not, that La Russa gave two ever-so-slightly different answers Monday night and Tuesday afternoon when asked who had made the calls from the dugout, himself or longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan.
“I did,” he said Monday night.
“I think I called,” he said Tuesday.
Is it possible Duncan made one or both of the fateful calls to the bullpen, and forgot to mention Motte the first time, and/or mixed up Lynn for Motte the second time? Is it also possible a low-paid underling in the bullpen, such as one of the bullpen catchers, answered the phone and got the message wrong?
Barring video evidence of either conversation, it certainly seems plausible. But if either scenario is true, it is unlikely anyone will ever know. In this family, those are secrets Tony La Russa will take to his grave.