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Friday, October 21, 2011

Wily Washington outmaneuvers LaRussa

The morality play was all set. Once again, the cerebral, wily Tony LaRussa had outwitted the emotional, dimly-lit Ron Washington in Game Two of the World Series.

Poor Washington. In over his head, again, isn't he? Even "Wash" declared he couldn't match "a wit" with the masterful LaRussa, whose every strategic move is lauded as if they were mapped out on Mt. Olympus.

There was Washington, pulling his starter, Colby Lewis, who'd thrown a brilliant game and would still be locked in a 0-0 duel with Cardinals' pitcher Jaime Garcia headed into the eighth but for first baseman Michael Young's inability to grab Nick Punto's two-hopper to his backhand side (albeit it was a hard-hit top-spinner hit to a drawn-in Young) that sent David Freese to third with two outs.

Here they were again: at the bottom of the order, the pitchers spot due up. LaRussa called on Allen Craig to pinch hit for Garcia. And almost inevitably, Washington bounced out of the dugout to bring Alexi Ogando, the same man who'd served up the game-winning opposite field two-strike base hit to Craig a night earlier.

That was the confrontation that set baseball writers sniggering under their breath: LaRussa had outwitted Washington, he had the Midas touch, pushed all the right buttons, didn't he?

But wasn't it just a matter of a pitcher unable to execute his pitches?

Ogando had thrown two blistering fastballs by Craig in that Game One matchup, the latter up the ladder, chest high, which Allen could not catch up to. But then the tall right-hander tried to get pretty, tried to finish him off with some paint on the outside corner, knee high. The rule is, however, it is much easier to catch up to a good fastball low than one that's up.

Indeed, Craig did get around on Ogando's 98 MPH fastball in Game One, at least enough to scorch it into right field to drive home the winning run. And, amazingly, that's what Craig did in Game Two in the bottom of the seventh inning in that scoreless tie, when Ogando completely missed his target, set for up and in, and laid one in right where Craig could get his bat on it, out over the plate. Craig guided a soft-liner just over the head of second baseman Ian Kinsler, giving the Cardinals a dramatic 1-0 lead, and cameras instantly flashed to LaRussa, the maestro who could do no wrong.

And there was Washington, "hanging his head," as play-by-play man Joe Buck intoned, the picture of a man who just couldn't get it right.

Washington is a lovable creature, a manager whom Buck and his lifetime broadcast partner, Tim McCarver, have described as a player's manager, a guy who gets out of the way and lets his players play the game.

Implicit is the suggestion that Washington doesn't have to push too many buttons, not with a team laden with such offensive depth. His contribution to the game is as a cheerleader -- witness how he runs in place, his arms pumping in concert with the baserunner rounding the bases, his yells of encouragement the most vocal in his dugout.

So, the storyline was set, the narrative writ large. La Russa, the Hall of Fame lock, the personification of corporate indomitability, the man with a law degree, would dispatch the clownish, less educated, shall we say, Washington. The St. Louis Cardinals were a mere three outs of taking a two-games-to-none lead over the Texas Rangers, and all La Russa needed to do was push one more button.

But there was Ian Kinsler, hitting a ball on the end of his bat for a looping single off closer Jason Motte, past the outgoing shortstop Rafael Furcal and in front of the onrushing left fielder, Matt Holliday, who'd been directed by La Russa to play deep to avoid extra base hits getting by them.

La Russa, often cited for his willingness to go against custom, had been burned by playing by the book.

Then, without any warning from Buck or McCarver -- both have strong ties to the Cardinals, so Buck, who does radio play-by-play for the Cardinals, might have given us a heads up that Motte has a slow delivery to the mound, and that Kinsler, who stole more than 30 bases in the regular season, might try to exploit that, except that there was no way because the golden armed Yadier Molina was ready to gun him down -- Kinsler was taking off for second in an attempted grand theft.

It was a power play, one borne of pure wile and courage. The play came from the dugout. Indeed, Ron Washington, the outwitted, the subtly mocked, had pulled one over LaRussa. He'd had his second man, Elvis Andrus, show bunt on the first pitch, a perfect fastball that he took down the middle. La Russa was baited and hooked: he was looking for the traditional play, the sacrifice bunt to put the potential tying run in scoring position.

And then, LaRussa was reeled in: Andrus showed bunt on the second pitch, but this time, Kinsler had taken off from first with a great jump and a burst of speed. Andrus, still holding out the pretense of bunting, held his bat out in front of the plate but let the pitch go for strike two. Who knows if Andrus' decoy hindered Molina, but the whole art of deception is to catch your opponent off guard, even if by a mere fraction of a second.

And there was Kinsler exploding into second base with a head first dive, just in under the tag of second baseman Nick Punto. Safe by a fraction of an inch!

Indeed, Washington's bunt ruse had caught the Cardinals off guard. It was a brazen play, a show of utter moxie, that Washington would send a base runner down by a run in the ninth inning.

If Kinsler had been thrown out, Washington would have been criticized for reckless strategy; a play borne of desperation, rooted in his ill-fated decision to allow Ugando to pitch to Allen again.

But it worked because Washington had messed with convention, took a chance, played fearless baseball. Maybe even allowed LaRussa to think he had the thing under control.

The Rangers would have to come through with clutch performances to finish off the thrust. Andrus would have to come up big with his biggest two-strike single of his young career; he'd have to be the guy who took the extra base when Cardinals' first baseman Albert Pujols missed a cutoff throw; and then, after La Russa pulled Motte to bring in 40-year old lefty Arthur Rhodes, Josh Hamilton would get a nice, fat, hanging slider that he would drive to right field, getting the ultimate productive out: bringing home the tying run, and moving Andrus to third. After yet another LaRussa move to bring in a right hander, Lance Lynn, Michael Young would do the solid work of working the count full and then driving the ball into the outfield for the decisive sacrifice fly.

But, it was the wily Washington who set it all up. And LaRussa was the one who looked confounded.