The Trouble With Tony La Russa
My immediate reaction was a sudden, loud, "Hallelujah!" Maybe, I thought to myself, Tony has finally learned the lesson, that the quality of the player is much, much more important than the matchup.
Then, of course, I remembered who I was talking about, and what the chances of this particular leopard ever changing his spots are, and I didn't shout for joy anymore.
This was the situation: eighth inning, two-run game, two men on base, two outs. Jason Motte enters the game and gets Jeff Francoeur to fly out to left field. The next two hitters were Josh Thole and Ike Davis, pinch-hitting for the pitcher, both of whom swing from the left side.
So Tony does what Tony does and goes to the bullpen, bringing in the lefty, Dennys Reyes. And what does Reyes do?
He does what he does, and suddenly the game is tied.
Here's the problem: Jason Motte has been, probably, the Cardinals' best reliever. He has been outstanding this season, while Dennys Reyes has been pretty much abysmal since April turned to May. One could make the argument Motte should have been in to begin the eighth inning, honestly, rather than Mitchell Boggs for a second frame. That's the normal pattern for a setup reliever, right? Your seventh-inning guy pitches the seventh, your primary setup guy throws the eighth, and your closer takes the ninth. Sure, sometimes you move things around to try and maximize matchups and the like, but you give your short relievers the responsibility of late-game innings for a reason: they're usually pretty good. But, as so often is the case, Tony La Russa decided he wanted to be smarter than he needed to be, and all he really did was outthink himself.
On the surface, it looked like just another Tony move, playing the matchups and using up his bullpen as if anyone who failed to get in the game was going to be shot afterward. But as I thought about it, I realized this one move says everything there is to be said about Tony La Russa's philosophy toward managing, and why he bothers me so very much.
In playing the matchups, La Russa didn't just replace his best reliever with a lesser pitcher. He replaced his best reliever with his worst reliever. Think about that for a second. Tony La Russa believes his worst reliever, if used in a certain situation, is better than his best reliever.
And that is everything you need to know about Tony La Russa. This isn't just about two players; this is about who is really important in winning and losing. What this move says is that the players themselves almost don't matter at all, that the only thing that really matters is how well the manager can fit his puzzle pieces together. So what if Jason Motte has been nigh unhittable for most of the season and Dennys Reyes can't seem to throw a strike to a left-handed hitter? The players are less important than the decisions the manager makes on how to use them.
No manager can win without players, without talent. Even La Russa himself realises that. But I'm not sure he actually believes it. If he did, Jason Motte would have been out there, doing his job, instead of a vastly inferior player trying to do his job because the index cards spat out 'lefty-lefty matchup'.
I don't know, maybe he was trying to get Reyes back into a meaningful game, but if so I can't agree with that either. You can't toss a lost reliever in a tight game just to see what happens. Maybe with a double-digit lead in the division, but the Cardinals don't have the luxury. This was a game the Cards badly needed to win; Tony had a better lefty even in the 'pen. So why not Trever Miller?
So I hope Tony has maybe learned a lesson from this, that maybe he really does realize that the players play the game and the better players are, by and large, going to do a better job. But then I look back at all the years and all the games we've seen before now, and I see the same exact thing every game, a man convinced he must leave his stamp on the game at all costs, that only he can piece it all together properly to pull out a victory.
Somehow, I doubt last night was the night things changed.