In one night, the Tony La Russa Cardinals became the baseball version of the Nixon White House.
Bizarre phone activity. Possible cover-ups. Everything but La Russa kneeling in front of a portrait of Connie Mack and praying as his team crumbled.
I’m not about to call La Russa a liar over Bullpen-gate, because I honestly don’t know what the heck happened.
All I know is that I have never heard a more mind-boggling explanation from a manager, and this one came after Game 5 of the World Series, for goodness’ sake.
As we shall see, La Russa’s eighth-inning bullpen moves were not his only questionable decisions in the Cardinals’ 4-2 loss to the Rangers on Monday night.
There were dubious bunts, an ill-conceived stolen-base attempt in the ninth, even a botched hit-and-run that was called not by La Russa, but by the batter, Albert Pujols.
Heck, why even stop with Game 5?
The Cardinals might have been World Series champions by now if La Russa had not pulled closer Jason Motte in Game 2 or summoned reliever Mitchell Boggs in Game 4.
Those, at least, were baseball decisions, subject to how players execute. But wait until you hear why La Russa, perhaps the most feverish matchup artist in history, was left with left-hander Marc Rzepczynski against the right-handed Mike Napoli in the most pivotal moment of Game 5.
La Russa — purported genius, certified control freak and 35 wins short of tying John McGraw for second all-time among managers — attributed the decisive eighth inning to his bullpen coach being unable to hear him on the phone.
The dog ate my homework, in other words.
My first reaction upon hearing La Russa’s story was that if bullpen phones are so unreliable, baseball managers and coaches might want to enter the 21st century and use text messages to communicate.
My second reaction was, “He can’t be serious.”
But he was.
La Russa said he twice called for Motte, and neither time did bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist hear him properly.
The first snafu led to Napoli’s go-ahead, two-run, bases-loaded double. The second produced a wondrous sight coming in from the bullpen — righty Lance Lynn, who wasn’t even supposed to pitch.
La Russa said that when he got to the mound, he asked Lynn, “Oh, what are you doing here?”
It is unfathomable that La Russa, the manager with all the answers, would ever ask such a question.
The crazy part is, the Cardinals almost escaped embarrassment entirely — Rzepczynski might never have faced Napoli if a potential, inning-ending double-play ball hit by David Murphy had not glanced off his glove.
Still, the Cardinals did not deserve to win after going 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position, a night when ill-fated strategy led to Pujols receiving three intentional walks.
La Russa had Allen Craig, the hitter in front of Pujols, sacrifice in the third inning after Rafael Furcal led off with a single and advanced to second on an error. That led to intentional walk No. 1, though La Russa contended that the Rangers would have walked Pujols anyway if Craig had done anything other than drive in Furcal.
But La Russa also had Furcal sacrifice in the fifth after Rangers lefty C.J. Wilson walked No. 9 hitter Nick Punto to put runners on first and second with none out. Craig followed with a strikeout, prompting intentional walk No. 2.
Finally, Craig was thrown out at second attempting to steal with one out and Pujols batting in the seventh, triggering intentional walk No. 3.
Pujols said afterward that the play was a hit-and-run, and that he had called it himself.
The way it works, Pujols signals the third base coach, who in turn signals Craig.
“It’s something Albert does from time to time — not very frequently,” one Cardinals coach said.
But the 99-mph pitch from Rangers righty Alexi Ogando was so high and outside, Pujols did not even swing, and Napoli threw out Craig easily.
Craig attempted to run again on a 3-2 count to Pujols in the ninth with none out and the Cardinals trailing by two runs. Pujols struck out on a pitch out of the zone, and Napoli again threw out Craig.
“I trusted Albert could put the ball in play,” La Russa said. “I liked sending him (Craig) and having a chance to open that inning up, and it didn’t work.”
But back to the failed hit-and-run.
La Russa initially called the play “a mix up.” He declined to say that Pujols had called it — a detail that Pujols confirmed later — saying only, “On our team, nobody gets thrown under the bus.”
Well, tell that to Lilliquist, who now will be remembered as the guy who was unable to distinguish between the words “Lynn” and “Motte.” Lilliquist also should have known Lynn was unavailable and mentioned it to La Russa.
Maybe the whole thing was Lilliquist’s fault, and maybe La Russa will make him the scapegoat, firing him after the Series is over.
Or maybe La Russa just had a brain cramp, then concocted the story about the phone and the noise to deflect responsibility from himself.
To paraphrase the late Howard Baker, a member of the Senate committee that investigated Nixon, What did La Russa know and when did he know it?
I can’t say for sure.
All I know is that if the Cardinals lose this series, it will be a low point of La Russa’s career, right there with his shocking losses with the Athletics to the Dodgers in 1988 and the Reds in 1990, maybe even worse.
“Clueless” is about the last word I would ever use to describe Tony La Russa. But clueless is exactly how his team appeared on Monday night.