Breaking down ‘Bullpen-gate’

A bench runs along one side of the visiting bullpen at Rangers Ballpark. At the end of the bench is a telephone. Above the phone is a bell, like the one that rang outside your elementary school. When the manager wants a reliever to get ready, he picks up the dugout phone. That causes the bullpen bell to grind harshly. It sounds like the end of recess.

The man responsible for answering that phone, and carrying out the manager’s orders, is the bullpen coach. The St. Louis Cardinals’ bullpen coach is Derek Lilliquist. He is now the most famous bullpen coach in the major leagues.

Lilliquist, unwittingly and perhaps unfairly, was a central figure in what may prove to be the most controversial postseason baseball game in years. The Cardinals and Rangers were even through seven innings Monday night. The series was tied, 2-2. The game was tied, 2-2. They had the same number of hits (six).

Twice during the pivotal eighth inning, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said he called Lilliquist with instructions about which relievers were supposed to warm up. What was said — or not — during those conversations could decide the World Series.

As the bottom of the eighth inning began, it was apparent that the St. Louis bullpen would win or lose Game 5. We just didn’t know the St. Louis bullpen phone would become such a huge part of World Series lore in the Rangers’ 4-2 victory.

The sequence of events began with La Russa going to his bullpen for the first time. Ace Chris Carpenter was done after an admirable effort (seven innings, two earned runs). Veteran right-hander Octavio Dotel took the ball, with the middle of the Texas order due up: Michael Young, Adrian Beltre, and Nelson Cruz.

On the second pitch of the inning, Young pounded a Dotel slider into the right-center gap. He arrived at second with a double. The go-ahead run was in scoring position with none out. La Russa’s best hope — a 1-2-3 inning, with one right-handed reliever facing three right-handed hitters — had evaporated that quickly.

Barring a fluke double play, at least one left-handed hitter — David Murphy — would bat in the inning. La Russa had planned for that contingency. And yet that is where the intrigue starts.

Since Murphy was due up fourth, La Russa had called down prior to the inning to ask that left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski warm up. (Since the call was placed before the Rangers came to bat — according to Rzepczynski — the sellout crowd of 51,459 was probably quieter than it would be while play was ongoing.)

The plan made perfect sense: Rzepczynski held lefties to a .163 batting average this year. Murphy had two extra-base hits against left-handers during the regular season. It was an automatic move in a game like this.

But the Texas lineup presented a quandary: Mike Napoli, the Rangers’ most dangerous hitter during the World Series, followed Murphy. Napoli bats right-handed. It’s hard to imagine that La Russa would have been comfortable with a left-hander — even one as versatile as Rzepczynski — facing Napoli in a tie game.

So, according to La Russa, when the manager phoned Lilliquist to request that Rzepczynski warm up before the inning began, he also asked that right-hander Jason Motte — the Cardinals’ de facto closer — get ready, as well.

That’s not what happened.

Dotel recovered from Young’s double to strike out Beltre on three pitches. Logic dictated that Dotel would pitch to Cruz, too, before Rzepczynski came on to face Murphy in the lefty-lefty matchup.

Instead, La Russa ordered an intentional walk of Cruz. The strategy was odd, since putting Cruz on base all but guaranteed Napoli an at-bat during the inning. The only way to avoid that was a double play. And the discerning La Russa isn’t the type to let his strategy hinge on hope.

Still, La Russa was nearly presented with a gift to cover up his gaffe.

Murphy squibbed Rzepczynski’s first pitch back to the mound. If Rzepczynski had fielded it cleanly, he could have started an inning-ending double play. But he merely deflected it toward the right side. Second baseman Nick Punto charged at it. There was still time to get one out at first base, which would have changed everything; with two out and first base open, Rzepczynski could have walked Napoli intentionally to face left-swinging Mitch Moreland.

The Cardinals weren’t that lucky. Punto missed the ball, Murphy was safe, and Napoli came up with the bases loaded. That meant the Cardinals had no choice but to attack the Rangers’ hottest hitter — a scenario for which La Russa was surprisingly unprepared.

A key part of La Russa’s strategy in the inning seemed to be that Rzepczynski would pitch around Napoli to get to Moreland. But with the bases loaded, that wasn’t an option. La Russa was effectively boxed in.

The question was whether La Russa would summon a right-hander to face Napoli. In the dugout, Dotel, a 13-year veteran, expected La Russa to bring in a righty. On the press level, the Rangers radio broadcasters expected La Russa to bring in a righty. La Russa later said that he intended to bring in a righty — if the righty he wanted was, in fact, ready to pitch.

But the right-hander available to him was not Motte. It was rookie Lance Lynn.

“Motte” and “Lynn” sound as similar as “Buffalo” and “Denver.”

Somehow, though, La Russa said the message was lost — even though the first call came in between innings, when the fans around the visiting bullpen generally aren’t cheering loudly.

“Well,” La Russa explained, “what happened was that twice the bullpen didn’t hear Motte’s name. 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.”

To repeat: La Russa indicated that Lilliquist missed the same reliever’s name on two occasions — once when Lilliquist didn’t hear any right-hander’s name, and again when Lilliquist heard the wrong right-hander’s name.

“It was a miscommunication,” said Lilliquist, who pitched in the majors for eight seasons. “It was loud. A lot of places are like that. The phone was as good as any phone anywhere.”

The story is further complicated by the fact that La Russa said Lynn was “not supposed to pitch” in Game 5. The Cardinals had planned for him to have the day off and work only in an emergency, such as an extra-inning game. This was not an “emergency.” This was a tied World Series game in the eighth inning, with the go-ahead run at third base.

Without the right-handed option he wanted, La Russa kept Rzepczynski in the game. The outcome was predictable: Napoli stroked a double to score two runs.

Rzepczynski fanned Moreland for the second out, before La Russa (finally) brought in a right-hander from the bullpen. It was Lynn, the reliever who wasn’t supposed to pitch. And he didn’t, really: Lynn walked Ian Kinsler intentionally, before Motte (at last) entered to face Elvis Andrus.

Motte, who didn’t start warming until after Lynn’s aborted entry to the game, struck out Andrus. That ended the inning. But not the questions.

Two statements from La Russa’s press conference seemed to contradict each other.

La Russa said Motte would have faced Napoli if he was ready to do so.

And yet La Russa said he wasn’t aware that Lynn was the right-hander warming up until he removed Rzepczynski from the game.

That happened after Napoli batted.

“I thought it was Motte,” La Russa said, when asked about which reliever was coming in after Rzepczynski. “They [his coaches, apparently] were yelling at me as I went out. I didn’t hear them. It wasn’t Motte. I saw Lynn, I went, ‘Oh, what are you doing here?’”

Lilliquist said after the game that he knew of no plan to bring in a right-hander to face Napoli.

It’s possible that La Russa simply made a strategic error, but he admitted to nothing of the sort. The winningest living manager took great lengths to portray the eighth inning as one big miscommunication. “The guy’s won the games he’s won because he does what he does,” Motte said. “I’m not going to sit there and second-guess Tony La Russa.”

La Russa talked with his coaching staff behind closed doors before Lilliquist met with the media. Lilliquist downplayed any suggestion that his boss bungled the inning, pointing out that Motte retired Andrus after Texas had taken the lead. “It’s a moot point, anyway,” Lilliquist insisted. “Motter did the job.”

By then, though, the game was lost. The Cardinals’ postgame stance was that Lilliquist misheard the message, not that the future Hall of Famer mismanaged the game. In the end, the result mattered most: St. Louis lost, and elimination is one defeat away.