If insurance companies covered baseball leads, the Cardinals’ carrier would surely have deemed Thursday’s loss to the Mets an act of God. After all, the LaRussians carried a 6-2 lead into the ninth inning only to see the Mets score six runs against their closer. As They Might Be Giants sang in, “She’s An Angel,” “These things happen to other people; they don’t happen at all, in fact.”
That’s almost literally true—they don’t happen at all. You know how given a three-run lead in the ninth inning, a closer—any closer—will convert about 96 percent of the time? Give a team a four-run lead in the visitor’s ninth and they’re going to convert about 100 percent of the time. The winning percentage of teams in that situation over the last 50-plus years is .987. It is very, very hard to blow a lead like that, and yet the Cardinals, the team of supposedly expert reliever usage manipulated by the Bobby Fischer of Bullpens, managed to do so. As they say, that’s why they play the games.
Of course, most teams with a four-run lead don’t have Jason Motte coming into the game and putting on a performance that couldn’t have been worse had it been paid for by Arnold Rothstein. Motte didn’t allow a hit to the Mets, but he walked leadoff man Willie Harris, saw Nick Evans reach first base on a Rafael Furcal error that aborted a potential double play, and walked Jason Pridie. The bases loaded, Motte capped a memorable afternoon by walking pinch-hitter Justin Turner to force in a run. At that point, quick-draw LaRussa, who had not been as quick as one might have expected in this series, finally brought the hook, but neither Fernando Salas nor Marc Rzepcynski could stem the tide that had now been unleashed. The flood was exacerbated by some shaky defense from the Cardinals, not only Furcal’s error but also bad positioning on the part of left fielder Shane Robinson, who had come into the game for Allen Craig and was caught playing shallow on a drive to left field by Ruben Tejada that went for a double and tied the game.
The Cardinals have one standout defensive player in Albert Pujols. The rest of the roster is comprised of average- to below-average gloves, including the sluggish Lance Berkman, who has had a wonderful season with the bat but has given as much as a win back with his limited range. Yet, whether it was Motte’s spontaneous breakdown—this is a pitcher with an unintentional walk rate of just 1.5 batters per nine prior to the game—or the team’s longtime indifference to defense (the Cardinals defense is rarely bad, but also hasn’t led the league in simple defensive efficiency since 2001; in recent years they have tended to hover in the middle of the pack), it was a devastating loss at any time of year, but here in late September, trailing the Braves for the wild card, it’s practically Appomattox.
In the first game of the series, I had watched astounded as LaRussa allowed Kyle McClellan to walk in a run in the seventh inning. This is a skipper who has never been shy about switching pitchers, and McClellan has often struggled this year. Yet, the ancient manager waited until after the crisis had arrived to make a switch. It was a strangely passive performance. The same thing struck me in Thursday’s game. When a pitcher like Motte, with good control, starts walking the ballpark, the manager’s radar should be set off by the uncharacteristic behavior. Leo Durocher used to say, “I wasn’t nailed to the bench,” meaning that when the game was in jeopardy he was free to act. LaRussa was nailed to the bench.
It is a tough thing to watch a manager undone by irony. The loss was in some ways reminiscent of the infamous Fred Merkle game of 1908, not because the Cardinals made a mental error the way Merkle did, but because a controlling manager failed to act. John McGraw used to take credit for everything good his team did. “With my team I am an absolute czar,” he said. “My men know it. I order plays and they obey. If the don't, I fine them.” Yet, he failed to warn his team that Johnny Evers had tried the exact same appeal play on a runner failing to touch second base that trapped Merkle in a game against the Pirates a little more than two weeks before the fateful “Bonehead” game. The play, which was not upheld on that particular occasion, was widely discussed, and McGraw would almost certainly have been aware of it. Yet, young Merkle had not been notified.
LaRussa’s error is easier to pin down than McGraw’s. After all, at least the so-called czar could take refuge behind the fact that the play had not been upheld to dismiss its importance (contrast with the way, in the days after Joe Girardi failed to protest a bad boundary call by the umpires in Kansas City, other managers around the league suddenly remembered their own protest rights). LaRussa simply failed to do those things which he had always done, and pull an ineffective pitcher for one of his 99 other bullpen arms—and at this time of year, 99 isn’t much of an exaggeration.
LaRussa is now 66 years old, and while I hate to seem ageist, few managers have accomplished much at that age. Actually, I would like to see him keep going at least long enough to pass McGraw for second place on the all-time manager wins list, something that seemed impossible given the Little Napoleon’s long and stellar record. He needs just another 40 wins, an automatic whether his next club is good or bad. Yet, this kind of inactivity makes me wonder if his heart is still in it, or his head. LaRussa has seen as much baseball as anyone alive, and he knows that sometimes even your best relievers are going to have an off day, they're not going to have their location or their good stuff, and you just don't have the luxury of giving them the rope to find it the way you would a starter. The game might be over before they figure out what's gone wrong. It is strange that he chose to ignore this reality when the Cardinals had so much on the line. Better to err on the side of caution here in late September.
Of course, by the time McGraw was 66, he had been dead for six years. In his last years as manager, his health failing as his ire rose, he sometimes walked out on his team when he felt let down by their play—this was a guy who had often said that baseball was only fun for him when he was winning—he washed his hands of them. I half-expected LaRussa to do the same thing on Thursday, but how could he? There are few effective ways to reject yourself, none without tearing your own psyche down the middle, and career baseball men are not known for their introspection. Besides, in the end LaRussa could blame Motte, he could blame Furcal, he could even blame the four losses Ryan Franklin took on his way out of the league, but most of all, he had to blame himself, because had he simply lifted his little finger and pointed to the bullpen just a little bit earlier, his team would be in far better shape than it is today.