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Tony La Russa presses all the right buttons as Cardinals take 3-2 lead over Brewers in NLCS

Oct 15, 2011, 12:01 AM EDT

Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals - Game Five Getty Images

Tony La Russa has managed well over 5,000 games in the big leagues, yet on any given day, he will do something that will make you shake your head. And the crazy thing is, he often walks away looking like a genius. Friday’s 7-1 win over the Brewers in Game 5 of the NLCS was no different.

With a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the fourth, La Russa elected to have the eighth place hitter Nick Punto bunt two runners into scoring position for the pitcher Jaime Garcia. Yes, the same Garcia who has a .137 career batting average during the regular season. Unconventional, yes, but he somehow got away with it. Garcia hit a ground ball at shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, but he couldn’t make a play on David Freese at home plate. The Cardinals extended their lead to 4-0 on the RBI groundout.

Garcia cruised through the first four innings of the ballgame, but after allowing one run on three hits in the fifth, La Russa didn’t just sit on his hands. No sir. He came with the quick hook, bringing on Octavio Dotel to face Ryan Braun with two runners on. And he got away with it once again, as Dotel struck out Braun and tossed a perfect sixth inning for good measure.

We’ll never know what would have happened had La Russa acted differently in those situations, but the Brewers didn’t exactly put themselves in position to win, as they became just the third team to commit four errors in an LCS game. Zack Greinke came up small once again, allowing five runs (two earned) on seven hits and two walks over 5 2/3 innings. Sure, his defense didn’t help him any, but he faced 30 batters on the night and recorded just two swinging strikes and zero strikeouts. For someone who had 201 strikeouts over 171 2/3 innings during the regular season, that’s just plain odd. And a recipe for a bad night.

Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina each had three hits for the Cardinals while Octavio Dotel, Lance Lynn, Marc Rzepczynski and Jason Motte combined for 4 1/3 scoreless innings of relief. The Cardinals’ bullpen now has a 1.69 ERA during the series as compared to a 6.04 ERA for their starters.

The Cardinals now hold a 3-2 advantage over the Brewers as the series shifts to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Sunday. And unless Ron Roenicke changes his mind and uses Yovani Gallardo on short-rest in the face of elimination, he’ll send the struggling Shaun Marcum to the hill against Edwin Jackson.

  1. baseballstars - Oct 15, 2011 at 12:11 AM

    Evidently his sabermetrics of dividing by bullsh-t must work.

  2. thekingdave - Oct 15, 2011 at 1:32 AM

    The Stros were up 3-2 heading back to St Louis in 04 and lost. The Brewers can pull it off, and if they don’t they should move back to the AL instead of sabotaging 50 years of Astro history.

  3. tophermike - Oct 15, 2011 at 1:43 AM

    actually, the bunt from Punto was in the fourth, followed by Garcia hitting a weak grounder to a drawn in SS. But since Greinke was inexplicably pitching from the windup, Freese had a huge lead from third and the only play was at first so the bunt did work for one run.

    Garcia’s ball through Hairston’s 5-hole did happen in the 2nd, but not after the Punto bunt. It was after Hairston had made a great diving play to snag a Punto liner.

    Didnt you blog this game?

    • D.J. Short - Oct 15, 2011 at 7:22 AM

      I have no idea how I did that. I have already banged my head into my desk about 20 times. But thank you for informing me of my stupidity.

  4. stabonerichard - Oct 15, 2011 at 1:44 AM

    We all know LaRussa can overmanage a game like no other skipper in the game, and that in his book managerial moves = strategy, but his moves tonight weren’t quite as silly as described above.

    In the 2nd inning, Berkman led off the bottom-half with a knock. After a Holliday flyout, Greinke hit Freese with a pitch to put runners on 1st-2nd. Yadier Molina followed with a deep fly to right that Hart tried to track down but the ball glanced off his glove for a run-scoring double, putting runners at 2nd-3rd with still only one out.

    This is where Little Nicky Punto first stepped into the box. LaRussa avoided the temptation of dialing up the squeeze play, instead letting LNP swing away. Punto turned on a pitch that he lined towards a diving Hairston at 3B, who snagged it for the out but unable to get to 3B in time to double up the runner. So with 2 outs and the pitcher spot coming up Greinke & the Brew Crew were about to escape with minimal damage… but THIS is where Garcia’s groundball found its way thru Hairston’s legs for a critical 2-out error that brought home 2 more runs. Brewer Buzzkill.

    Later on, with the Cards still up 3-0, TLR *did* have LNP put down a sac bunt with one out. This was indeed a bit of a curious move, to give away an out in only the 4th inning with the pitcher spot coming up, but after scrappy little Nicky Punto got the bunt down to move a couple runners over, the contact play was on & Garcia brought home an early insurance run with an infield ground ball.

    So TLR did find a way to press the issue with a move from the dugout, as we’ve become accustom to, but the real story in this game was the Brewers’ shoddy defense which put them in a hole all night. Or maybe it’s just that Greinke doesn’t know how to win on the road. In any case, it sets up for an interesting final couple games back in Milwaukee.

    • D.J. Short - Oct 15, 2011 at 7:39 AM

      Thank you. I have made the proper correction and apologize for the error. Now I know how the Brewers must feel.

  5. proudlycanadian - Oct 15, 2011 at 6:54 AM

    The Brewers have St. Louis just where they want them. The next 2 games are at home and the Brewers have the best home record in baseball.

    • kycardsfan - Oct 15, 2011 at 9:18 AM

      and the cardinals have won 5 out of the last 7 at miller park

    • timstl - Oct 15, 2011 at 9:25 AM

      Haha. Yes they WANT to be down 3-2 in the series. Really?

  6. badmamainphilliesjamas - Oct 15, 2011 at 8:27 AM

    All credit to the Cards and TLR, but the Brewers DID make 4 errors.

    • Mark - Oct 15, 2011 at 8:49 AM

      Pretty much. The Brewers did everything they could to lose the game. Are we going to credit TLR for Greinke’s total failure to strike anybody out too?

      And the Cards won by 6 (with several runs being unearned) so it’s not like that move was a stroke of genius.

  7. drmonkeyarmy - Oct 15, 2011 at 9:07 AM

    The move to bunt Punto was stupid. I don’t care if it garnered a run….he was lucky. I give him credit for pulling Garcia though. That turned out to be a good move….apparently Braun doesn’t see Dotel well or something because he is now 2-10 against him with 8 strike outs. I know, sample size and whatnot but the 8 strike outs make me think it isn’t a fluke. Furthermore, Garcia was starting to leave the ball up and according to Cardinal fans things go downhill quickly for him.

    • Bryz - Oct 15, 2011 at 9:38 AM

      I agree, 2-10 with 8 K is more telling than 2-10 with, say, 2 K.

    • paperlions - Oct 15, 2011 at 10:57 AM

      The bunt by Punto was all kinds of stupid, you judge a move on it’s merits, not it’s results. If you pinch hit Theriot for Pujols and Theriot homers, it was still a dumb move…getting lucky doesn’t justify it because 99% of the time you are worse off…same with this bunt play…and Betancourt had an easy play at the plate if he bothered to throw it, when he got the ball Freese was only 1/3 of the way to the plate.

      I thought pulling Garcia was the right move and was glad to see LaRussa make the move…as soon as Hart singled I said, “dang, if Hairston reaches, this is going to be a tied game”…because that really is how Garcia rolls. If LaRussa left him in, he probably would have had him IBB Braun to get to the lefty-lefty matchup….obviously, LaRussa felt better with Dotel against Braun…and that is a good decision not because of the personal history of that matchup, but because Dotel has been destroying all righties….letting Dotel pitch to Fielder the next inning was surprising, but the bases were empty…so minimal possible damage could result.

  8. Tribe&Browns&Cavs - Oct 15, 2011 at 9:48 AM

    New from Fat Head: Tony LaRussa’s Brain!

  9. cintiphil - Oct 15, 2011 at 10:23 AM

    I am still picking the Brewers in 7. I just have an idea that in Miller Park, they are very tough to beat, even with a so so starter in game 6.

  10. paperlions - Oct 15, 2011 at 11:06 AM

    LaRussa has done a good job of managing the bullpen this series (still hate that McClellan and not Sanchez is on the roster, but…whatever…that might not even be Tony’s doing)….but come on. The lion’s share of the credit should go to the guys that are mowing down batters not the guy sending them in….if the same moves were made and the guys out of the bullpen give up 7 runs instead of throwing 4 1/3 shutout innings….LaRussa hasn’t done anything differently, it is the players that shut down the Brewers, not the manager.

    Except for all of the bullpen action…LaRussa has done a great job of minimizing his lineup tinkering that typically plagued the Cardinals boxscore in September. Last night there wasn’t a single double switch, taking Freese out is still silly because Descalso isn’t a defensive upgrade and is far worse with the bat….but I’ve given up hope that he’ll stop doing that….ignoring the wholesale changes at the end of the game 2 blowout…I think TLR has only pulled one double switch…and has mostly left the best players in for the entire game (except for Freese), which has been a breath of fresh air.

    • spudchukar - Oct 15, 2011 at 1:52 PM

      Gotta disagree with the upgrade comment. Freese has played well at 3B this year, especially in the playoffs, but he doesn’t have Descalso’s range or arm. Do not get me wrong, it isn’t that Freese is inadequate, but due to his injury proneness, getting him out of the game when we have a lead is the best move.

      Regarding the bunt. It was unorthodox sure, but I was in favor of it. Garcia has been swinging the bat much better lately. The bunt drew the infield in, and may have helped on Garcia’s ball. Sure it was an error, but the ball was well hit, and with the runner on second and third, Hairston knew that he couldn’t just get in front of the ball and knock it down, cause the runners would be moving on contact. Before Punto bunted, I was wondering if LaRussa would have the nerve to take the chance with Garcia coming up, he did and it paid off. Kudos Tony.

      • paperlions - Oct 15, 2011 at 2:16 PM

        Spud, you are conflating two events. After the bunt, Garcia bounced softly to SS. The grounder through Hairston’s legs was with 2 out after Punto lined out to Hairston. Punto’s bunt was a retarded move and if Betancourt had any balls he would have easily thrown out Freese.

        There is no evidence whatsoever that Descalso has better range at 3B, at SS or 2B, sure his range would be better than Freese, but his reaction time is slower than Freese and he’s not particularly good at guarding the line. Great are though, fun to watch that zip across. There really isn’t enough data to draw strong conclusions, but the available data show Freese is an above average 3B and descalso is not. In any case, the difference in defense (even if it was postive, for which there is no evidence) is tiny compared to the difference in offense, putting in Descalso in close games (where you might need to score more runs) is a net negative.

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