Posted by: mdegeorge | October 17, 2011

Criticism of La Russa’s pitching changes a lot of bull

Tony La Russa may not have invented situational matchups in the late innings of major league games. But the one derisively monikered “The Genius” for his many late-inning machinations has done enough to elevate it to an (albeit frustrating) art form.

So it may have come as a surprise to many Sunday as the Cardinals clinched the NLCS with a 12-6 win over the Brewers that the man who’s worn a path from the dugout to the pitching mound at Miller Park the last week left reliever Marc Rzepczynski in the game for 2.1 innings.

Like him or hate him, Tony La Russa pulled the right strings to secure a pennant for his Cardinals. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

The situational lefty who specializes in one-batter-and-done (16 of his 81 appearances this year were for only one hitter) was stretched uncharacteristically because, well, he was the only one quieting the bats. His win was the cherry on top of an outstanding series for the Cardinals’ pen:

– They set a postseason record for most relief appearances in a seven-game series with 28, better the previous mark of 27.

– They worked 28.2 innings compared to 24.1 from the starters. The bullpen’s ERA was 1.88 in the series; the starters 7.66.

– They posted with a 3-0 record in the series.

– The Cards became the first team in history to win a postseason series without a starter reaching the sixth inning.

It’s a situation that exacerbates the already uncomfortable transition from regular season to postseason in baseball. The leeway given to a starter, the reticence to overwork a bullpen, the minor factors that can sway the decision to bunt or pinch hit are miles different from the regular season to the postseason, part of the reason so many (read: Phillies and Yankees fans) bemoan October baseball as an inaccurate way to pinpoint the sport’s best team.

That discomfort inevitably draws criticism and those who wonder how a team so unorthodox in its methods – or as many would put it, such a crappy pitching staff – would deserve a World Series opponent while the pitching behemoth that is the Philadelphia Phillies staff is in its second week of tee times.

The answer is quite simple. The playoffs are a time to throw conventional wisdom out the window. And where better to start than the bullpen.

The notion of relief pitchers and closers is one that suffers from flawed perception. The most important stat in the world of relief is the save, perhaps among the most meaningless in all of pitching-dom (alongside the quality start). Outs 25, 26 and 27 aren’t always the most important or the toughest to get and often undeserving of the praise showered upon those whose jobs it is to collect them. Which sounds like a more worthy hero: the situational lefty who has to induce a double play from a power-hitting clean-up man with the bases loaded to preserve a one-run lead or the closer who gets to mow down the 7-8-9 spots in the lineup with a fresh inning to start and a three-run cushion?

So what if La Russa shies away from the conventional approach? The postseason is all-hands-on-deck all the time. It’s about getting outs by any means necessary. And if that means that Chris Carpenter is only called upon to get 15 outs or someone like Fernando Salas or Game 6 winner Rzepcyznski is rolling along well enough to get nine in the middle of the game, then so be it.

You have to praise La Russa for constantly pushing the right buttons in this series and not overmanaging (tough as that may be to swallow for many). He made the right call pulling Carpenter in Game 3 after 5 innings. In Game 5, he made the gutsy call to yank Jaime Garcia before the end of the fifth, fearing a repeat of his three-batters-too-long outing in Game 3 against Philly or his four-batters-too-long loss in Game 1 against Milwaukee. And he was right to cut Edwin Jackson’s night short in the clincher after two innings, a decision made more impressive by the two-RBI single hit by his pinch-hitter, Allen Craig, one of three pinch hits by the Cards Sunday.

Outs are outs, whether they come at the beginning of the game or the end. Whoever is best equipped to get them is who should be out there. The details, whether it’s one guy for nine innings or nine guys for one inning each, is little more than filler for the days of statisticians.

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