La Russa's brains the Game 1 star

Tony La Russa made all the right calls in outsmarting Ron Washington and leading the St. Louis Cardinals past the Texas Rangers in Game 1 of the World Series.

You match two of baseball’s best-hitting teams on a cold, damp night when the ball is slick to the grip, and what do you get?

A pitchers’ duel, of course.

Even more improbable, however, was how the Cardinals' 3-2 win over the Rangers in Game 1 of the World Series began — with an admission by the game’s much-reputed managerial genius that he had been out-managed nearly a quarter of a century ago.

That would be Tony La Russa, referring to the 1988 Series which his Oakland Athletics lost to the supposedly overmatched Dodgers, then managed by Tommy Lasorda, who is a great mascot, though no one’s idea of a genius.

“I wouldn’t say clueless,” La Russa said Wednesday, assessing his World Series debut. “. . . but virtually clueless . . . That’s a painful memory because there’s no doubt in my mind that Tommy did a much better job at getting his club ready to play that World Series than I did with the A’s.”

Such modesty! It wasn’t merely disarming. It was deeply disappointing.

I don’t know La Russa, but have long disliked his persona. This goes back to the Steroid Era, which seemed to arrive in Oakland before other places. When it comes to performance-enhancing drugs, La Russa’s A’s teams — featuring Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire — should be considered ground zero (and yet another reason they should’ve beaten the Dodgers).

Actually, across the years, I can’t think of a manager who got more steroid-tainted wins — or one who was a bigger apologist for the abusers. I never liked the way La Russa was allowed to treat the AP reporter who spotted the testosterone-boosting supplements in McGwire’s locker. I don’t like the way La Russa hired back McGwire as a hitting coach. And, of course, no one likes a know-it-all.

But as of Wednesday night, with his Cardinals opening at home against the Texas Rangers, La Russa did, in fact, know it all. To look at Game 1 is to wonder if the guy is actually as smart as he thinks he is. Everything he did turned out right. In fact, as long as I’m bashing him, let me acknowledge that everything he’s done for the past two months — the pinch-hitters and all those smarter-than-thou pitching changes — has been right.

Besides, much to my regret, it really doesn’t matter what I think of La Russa. It’s what his players think that counts.

“He’s pulling all the right strings,” said Allen Craig, a utility outfielder who improbably produced the game-winning RBI with a pinch-hit single in the sixth. “It’s fun to watch. He’s making the right moves, and we’re winning games, and all is good right now.”

“Tony’s been like this since September,” said Marc Rzepczynski, the reliever who struck out consecutive Texas pinch-hitters with two men on in the seventh. “Down the stretch we had to win almost every ballgame.”

On a night when La Russa’s only legit ace, Chris Carpenter, made just one mistake (a two-run homer by Mike Napoli in the fifth), the manager still went through six pitchers. But each move was done with great purpose, at least in retrospect.

The game was tied at 2 when he called on Craig to hit for Carpenter. Craig is a promising young player in his second big-league season. But his career in the majors consists of little more than 300 at-bats, and this was his first World Series. Craig, a righty, was due to face the lefty starter, C.J. Wilson. But then Rangers manager Ron Washington brought in righty Alexi Ogando.

“He was my best pitcher, I felt, right there in that situation,” said Washington, who wasn’t exactly going out on a limb. Ogando entered with an ERA of 0.87 in seven postseason appearances.

Even La Russa had to acknowledge his odds weren’t great: “Cold-weather game, sitting on the bench, World Series, Ogando, it’s not a very good situation.”

OK, genius. That’s what I thought.

Ogando threw four pitches, the last of them heading toward the plate at 98 mph. Craig went the other way with it, lining the ball to the opposite field, just past the outstretched arm of a sliding Nelson Cruz. David Freese scored from third. Though the lead was slim, it was all La Russa would need, what with the way he was handling his pitchers.

Fernando Salas started the seventh. After giving up a single and a walk, Salas was replaced with Rzepczynski. Washington responded with two pinch-hitters, selections that earned him a measure of postgame grief.

The first was Craig Gentry. “Gentry had a pretty good swing,” said Washington.

Gentry struck out — looking. Next up, Esteban German.

“Righty against lefty,” Washington explained. “I thought he had a good chance against Rzepczynski with the breaking stuff he threw.”

German struck out.

Washington was finding out what it’s like going against a genius. La Russa would use three more pitchers, each of them perfect — including the almost 42-year-old Arthur Rhodes, who came on to face a superstar, Josh Hamilton, in the eighth. Hamilton flied to center.

Was there ever any doubt?

Certainly not for La Russa.

Yes, looking back at how the evening unfolded, he even seemed comfortable with his decision to stay with Craig against Ogando.

“He’s got a history in our system,” La Russa said of Craig. “That’s why we like him so much. He’s got a history of taking great at-bats, especially with runners in scoring position . . .”

OK, genius.

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