Catcher Mike Napoli’s tie-breaking double in the eighth inning was last night’s key hit, but fans will remember Tony La Russa’s really odd bullpen management decisions before NAP-O-LI’s plate appearance. (To be sure, having Allen Craig break for second on a 3-2 pitch to Albert Pujols with no one out in the ninth when down two runs — Pujols struck out on a pitch out of the zone and Napoli gunned down Craig for the second time in the game — was another head scratcher.)
David Schoenfield of SweetSpot elaborates:
A baseball team has 27 precious outs. You don’t want to give away too many of them. You also don’t want to give up too many free bases, because those are precious as well. Washington and La Russa? It was like bizzaro managing in this game. If Earl Weaver was watching, he probably tossed a few tomatoes against his television in disgust.
We finally saw how the intentional walk can backfire in the bottom of the eighth inning, when the Rangers scored twice. It was not, to put it politely, the best inning La Russa has ever managed. Facing Octavio Dotel, Michael Young lined a double to right-center on an 0-1 slider. Adrian Beltre struck out on some high cheese. Then the wacky stuff began.
Weird move No. 1: Nelson Cruz intentionally walked. Dotel held right-handed batters to a .145 average this season. He’s a strikeout pitcher against a guy who strikes out a lot. Walking Cruz basically ensured that Mike Napoli — ONLY THE BEST HITTER ON THE RANGERS THIS SEASON — would come up in the inning. With men on base.
La Russa had two hopes here as he brought in Marc Rzepczynski to face David Murphy: (A) a double play; (B) retire Murphy, walk Napoli (to load the bases). Instead he got (C) neither. Murphy bounced a grounder off Rzepczynski’s glove for an infield single. A tough break? Sure. Could have been a double play. Could have been one out. It was neither. The bases were loaded.
Weird move No. 2: Rzepczynski stayed in to face Napoli. Right-handers had an OPS 270 points higher against Rzepczynski than left-handers. Napoli drilled a 1-0 pitch into right-center for a two-run double.
In his postgame news conference, La Russa explained that he wanted Jason Motte warming up in the inning, but the bullpen coach misheard and had Lance Lynn warming up instead. “What happened was that twice the bullpen didn’t hear Motte’s name,” La Russa said. “They heard ‘Rzepczynski,’ and they didn’t get Motte. I looked up there, and Motte wasn’t going. So I called back for Motte, and they got Lynn up. … I don’t know if it was noisy, probably real noisy. They just didn’t hear the second time.”
Motte would have been brought in to face Napoli. Maybe it would have made a difference; maybe not. It does, after all, seem like it is becoming Napoli’s World Series. He now has four multi-RBI games in the past five games, tying Mickey Mantle for the most in one World Series. He has nine RBIs — just one fewer than the rest of his teammates combined.
And maybe that’s what we have to take away from all this: We can question the managers and second-guess all those intentional walks and bunts and weird decisions, but in the end, the players deliver or don’t deliver. On this night, Napoli delivered in a big situation; the Cardinals did not. C. J. Wilson and Alexi Ogando worked out of jams; Rzepczynski did not. The Rangers’ bullpen pitched 3.2 scoreless innings; the Cardinals’ bullpen coughed up the winning runs.
It was, in a strange way, a game to remember.
Assuming one buys La Russa’s explanation, “PhoneGate” also led to another bizarre call: Lynn was brought into the game shortly thereafter to intentionally walk Ian Kinsler, then immediately depart in favor of Motte, who struck out Elvis Andrus to prevent further damage.