Kudos to Tony La Russa

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably saw me griping about Cardinals manager Tony La Russa during Game Two. La Russa made quite an impact on the game in various ways, and in retrospect, I don’t think I should have been directing my ire at him.

Balls and Strikes: La Russa felt that home plate umpire Jerry Meals wasn’t calling a fair strike zone, referring to “two different strike zones” in a mid-game interview with the TBS broadcasters. Cameras caught La Russa barking at Meals several different times throughout the game. The complaining seemed to have an effect as Meals’ strike zone was more Cardinal-friendly as the game progressed.

I made a few snarky tweets about La Russa on Twitter, but I honestly had no problem with his complaining. Dayn Perry (@DaynPerry) put it best:

Have my probs with TLR, but he’s always got an angle. Don’t like it? Blame umps for caving or ur mgr for not being as skilled a bitcher.

Meals’ strike zone did appear to change — should La Russa be faulted for using Meals’ lack of confidence in his own calls to carve a slight edge for his team? We would be applauding Charlie Manuel if he was the one yelling from the dugout. The ire should have been directed at Meals, and at Major League Baseball for letting a mediocre umpire call an important post-season game.

Pitching Changes: Fans hate pitching changes, and for good reason: they completely mess with the flow of a baseball game. For the same reason, I hate the commercial “policy” with football, where they will kick off, go to commercial, and then play the first down. The break just feels unnecessary.

La Russa used four pitchers to face four batters and get three outs. In the eighth inning, Marc Rzepczynski hit Chase Utley with a pitch and was immediately lifted for right-hander Mitchell Boggs. Boggs got Hunter Pence to ground into a fielder’s choice for the first out. La Russa went to the mound for a second time, lifting Boggs for lefty veteran Arthur Rhodes. Rhodes threw three pitches to strike out Ryan Howard. Out came La Russa; Rhodes exited. Right-hander Jason Motte entered, retiring Shane Victorino on a fly ball to center.

For those at home, the inning went like this:

  • (end of previous inning) Commercial break
  • Chase Utley at-bat
  • (pitching change) Commercial break
  • Hunter Pence at-bat
  • (pitching change) Commercial break
  • Ryan Howard at-bat
  • (pitching change) Commercial break
  • Shane Victorino at-bat
  • (end of inning) Commercial break

Given that roughly five minutes elapses between the end of the previous at-bat and the start of the next, fans were treated to about 25 minutes of advertisements and, generously, five minutes of actual game play. As a fan, that is just awful. But the fault shouldn’t lie with La Russa — he was just doing what any good manager does, which is putting his team in the best possible position to succeed. Whether he actually did or not is debatable, but he didn’t act nefariously.

Instead, the blame should go to Major League Baseball, which sets up the framework that allows for five-minute breaks in between pitching changes. There are plenty of solutions to this problem. For one, a team could be allowed to make only a fixed amount of non-injury-related pitching changes per inning. Or any pitching changes beyond the first would not allow the new reliever to have warm-up pitches on the field, negating the commercial break. But nothing happens if fans don’t speak up to the right people and in the right medium. Change in baseball happens at a glacial pace, so if fans really hate the current set-up, they need to speak by making phone calls and sending letters and emails to the powers-that-be, instead of making sarcastic comments on Twitter (as I did). Even better, speak with your wallet: don’t subscribe to MLB.tv or MLB Network (et cetera) until the requisite changes are made.

One thing is certain: La Russa did not do anything wrong by making three pitching changes in one inning.

Hit-and-Run: All right, after devoting many words to defending La Russa, I get to criticize him here.

Albert Pujols had singled to lead off the top of the ninth inning against Ryan Madson, bringing up Lance Berkman. Pujols has been dealing with a bad heel (so painful that he took a cart to the team bus after the game), so why would you make him run the bases unnecessarily? To be fair, Berkman isn’t a strikeout waiting to happen, but there is no way Pujols was going first-to-third on anything in front of an outfielder. With the count 3-2, La Russa put Pujols — bad heel and all — in motion. Berkman hit his fourth foul ball of the at-bat and Pujols returned to first base. On the eighth pitch, Berkman swung and missed at an 84 MPH change-up for the first out of the inning. Pujols was in motion again, and Ruiz fired to second base.

Ruiz’s throw reached second base at about the time Pujols reached the halfway point between first and second. Pujols engaged in a half-hearted run-down before being tagged out for the second out of the inning.

La Russa managed rather well to that point. I’ll never understand why he chose to hit-and-run with Pujols at first base. What makes it more mind-boggling is that La Russa pinch-ran for Pujols last night with Gerald Laird (Gerald Laird!), acknowledging his first baseman’s ailment. Overall, though, La Russa had a solid game and shouldn’t have taken as much grief as I saw on ye olde Internets.