Tony La Russa has won a lot of games over a lot of years by deploying relief pitchers differently than most managers. His reputation may have worked against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the World Series.
Well, that and baseball's reliance on the 1900s technology of wall phones in bullpens even though they're apparently easily drowned out by raucous fans.
Bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist misunderstood La Russa twice with the game on the line, forcing the Cardinals into an unfavorable matchup between left-handed reliever Mark Rzepczynski and Texas' right-handed slugger Mike Napoli with one out and the bases loaded. The Rangers' catcher took advantage by nailing a two-run double that gave Texas a 4-2 victory Monday night and put them one win from the franchise's first championship.
"That phone in a loud ballpark, it's not an unusual problem," La Russa said. "I mean, it doesn't make it right, but ... "
The bottom of the eighth inning was a comedy of errors for St. Louis. It played out like something from the "Can you hear me now?" cell phone commercials.
It started with Lilliquist only having Rzepczynski warm up, when La Russa really wanted both him and right-handed closer Jason Motte to get loose.
La Russa realized the problem once he put in Rzepczynski and saw no one else warming up, so he called back and ask for Motte again. This time, Lilliquist told Lance Lynn to start throwing, even though he was only supposed to be used in an emergency.
La Russa also said the noise problem is not unusual with bullpens "that are right amidst the fans and excitement." The visitors' bullpen at Rangers Ballpark is in left-center field, with fans on either side.
"Maybe we need to come up with some ear mikes or something," La Russa said.
Considering all the technology available these days, there's got to be a better way to do this -- right?
"Yeah, smoke signals from the dugout," La Russa said. "There are times, like what happened in Philadelphia (during the first round of the playoffs). The phone went out, and so we used cell phones. And then the Phillies brought down walkie talkies, and they fixed the phone."
The eighth inning began falling apart for St. Louis when Octavio Dotel took over for starter Chris Carpenter and gave up a leadoff double.
An intentional walk followed, then with one out, Rzepczynski came in for a lefty-lefty matchup with David Murphy. Texas could've gone to a right-handed hitter, but stuck with Murphy. He hit a comebacker that could've started a double play. Instead, it ricocheted off Rzepczynski's leg to second baseman Nick Punto, loading the bases.
"He made a great pitch, but it happens," La Russa said. "Sometimes it happens for us, today it happened against us."
Rzepczynski said he wasn't surprised to remain in to face Napoli because there was a lefty on deck, Mitch Moreland.
"I've done that all year, where if there's a righty in between, I'm going to go out there and get the chance to get the righty out," Rzepczynski said.
La Russa added that he didn't think it was a matchup doomed to fail.
"We had a chance with Rzepczynski's stuff to get Napoli on the first pitch," La Russa said. "And then he put a nice swing on a breaking ball."
Napoli drove a pitch into the wall in right-center field on one hop. Rzepczynski struck out Moreland, then La Russa went to the mound and tried bringing in Motte. Only he hadn't warmed up yet. So when he called for the righty, in came Lynn.
"I said, 'Why are you here?"' La Russa said.
With first base open, Lynn was told to intentionally walk Ian Kinsler. La Russa then returned to the mound and finally got the reliever he'd wanted several batters earlier, Motte. Only now St. Louis was down by two runs and the bases were loaded.
The bearded closer struck out Elvis Andrus on three pitches, which only made the regrets of what might've been tougher for Cardinals fans to swallow once they learned of the wacky breakdown.
Rzepczynski and Motte didn't even know there was a mix-up until after the game.
"I go out there, the phone rings and we get going when we're told," Motte said. "I started throwing when I was told to start throwing."
And when was that?
"When Lance Lynn walked out," Motte said. "I don't need a whole lot of time anywhere."
Lilliquist said the problems were caused by noise from the fans.
"It was loud," he said. "A lot of places are like that. The phone is as good as any phone anywhere."
La Russa's constant mixing and matching of pitchers was celebrated as a big reason the Cardinals overcame a 10½ game deficit down the stretch to make the postseason, and his deft handling of the bullpen helped them get past Philadelphia and Milwaukee in the first two rounds. But things haven't been the same since Motte closed out a victory in Game 1.
Relievers have given up eight runs over their last 11 innings. Motte lost Game 2, Mitchell Boggs allowed a game-breaking three-run homer -- to Napoli -- in Game 4 and Dotel was the loser in Game 5.
Now the Rangers head to St. Louis with a 3-2 lead in the series. The Cardinals are facing elimination, something no one needs to explain more than once.