World Series Game 1: Did Tony La Russa Outsmart Ron Washington?

ST LOUIS, MO: (L-R) Manager Ron Washington #38 of the Texas Rangers and manager Tony La Russa #10 of the St. Louis Cardinals and shake hands prior to the start of Game One of the MLB World Series at Busch Stadium in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Paul Sancya-Pool/Getty Images)

In the pivotal seventh inning of Game 1, Tony La Russa once again deployed his bullpen masterfully, and left Ron Washington behind on the way to a 3-2 victory. But was Washington really out-managed?

It's nobody's fault, really. It's nobody's fault that Texas lost to St. Louis last night.

If Allen Craig's soft liner near the right-field line had traveled on just a slightly different trajectory, the Cardinals and the Rangers might still be playing. But Craig's drive just eluded Nelson Cruz's glove for a tie-breaking hit in the bottom of the sixth inning, and nobody scored the rest of the way. When a big game is decided by just one run, we are allowed to choose individual moments in said game, and wonder how things might have been different.

Today, our moment is lifted from just a few moments after Craig's single that almost wasn't, which gave the Cardinals a 3-2 lead.

St. Louis would not score again.

In the top of the seventh, right-handed pitcher Fernando Salas entered the game. His manager was, we may assume, hoping for three outs from his erstwhile closer. But after retiring the dangerous Adrián Beltré on a ground ball, Salas gave up a single and issued a free pass.

David Murphy was coming up next. David Murphy hits right-handed pitchers. Tony La Russa was not about to let David Murphy hit one of his right-handed pitchers. Not if he could help it. Not then. Not ever.

And with seven pitchers left in his bullpen -- including lefties Marc Rzepczynski and Arthur Rhodes -- he certainly could help it. He could help it a lot. Enter: "Scrabble".

Of course there was a guy managing the Rangers, too. Ron Washington wasn't going to sit idly and allow Murphy -- with his .253/.298/.349 career line against lefties -- bat against Rzepczynski. Murphy's an outfielder, and it made a certain amount of sense to replace him with an outfielder; in this case, Craig Gentry, the only right-handed-hitting outfielder on Washington's bench.

Gentry struck out.

Finally, our moment. Prior to this moment, there wasn't a great deal of thinking involved. Any manager would have summoned Rzepczynski, and any manager would have countered with Gentry. But then things got personal.

With his pitcher due to bat next, Washington had to make a move; every manager would have.

But which move? Washington had three right-handed hitters at his disposal: utility infielder Esteban Germán, and catchers Yorvit Torrealba and Matt Treanor.

Washington chose Germán, who had batted 13 times in the majors all year -- he spent the vast majority of this season with Round Rock, in the Pacific Coast League -- including zero times in the postseason. Germán had not swung a bat in anger since the 25th of September, when he started against the Seattle Mariners in a game that meant zero.

In the booth, Tim McCarver and Joe Buck were surprised to see Germán...

Buck: This is one of the reasons why I'm surprised it's not a guy like Torrealba. This is one of the reasons the Rangers added another catcher, so they could pinch-hit; use one of their catchers and have one left. But it's not Torrealba, it's Esteban Germán.

McCarver: Right on the money. I couldn't agree more. It's just strange.

Buck: So Torrealba's left on the bench and Germán will be the man.

In the event, Germán looked utterly overmatched, striking out on three pitches. He was the brave-but-impotent kitten to Rzepczynski's impervious Golden Labrador.

 

Meanwhile, over on Twitter, where all the best analysis happens (and so fast, too!), the consensus was that Torrealba instead of Germán belonged in that spot. Which did ignore some salient facts...

One, there's not a great deal of evidence that Torrealba is actually the better hitter. Germán's got a .292/.367/.416 career line against lefties; believe it or not, Torrealba's line is actually somewhat worse: .262/.331/.408. Washington might have used Germán because he actually believed that Germán was the best right-handed hitter available. And he might well have been right.

Meanwhile, upon the introduction of Germán, the initiative passed to La Russa ... but not in a particularly convenient fashion. No matter what La Russa did, he wasn't going to have the platoon advantage. Because baseball's rules favor the hitting team, La Russa was stuck; no matter what he did, he wasn't going to have the platoon advantage. If he did nothing, the lefty Rzepczynski would face righty-hitting Germán. If he replaced Rzepczynski with righty Octavio Dotel, Washington would counter with lefty-hitting Mitch Moreland.

But La Russa, though he could not gain the platoon advantage, did have one edge: He knew what would happen next. When Washington tabbed Germán, he did not know what La Russa would do. But La Russa knew exactly how Washington would respond to his next move (or non-move, as it happened).

Essentially, La Russa chose the ground on which this battle would be fought. And for reasons known only to him and perhaps his bench coach, he chose Rzepczynski vs. Germán over Dotel vs. Moreland.  And of course it worked out, and La Russa's a genius, etc.

Granted.

But Esteban Germán might have gotten a hit. He just didn't. And Washington really had no attractive options in that situation. We've already seen that Torrealba's really no better than Germán, unless you place a significant weight on Germán's recent lack of action. Which is worth considering. Perhaps Washington simply assumed -- as David Schoenfield suggested, in the moment -- that La Russa would change pitchers; perhaps Washington assumed that Germán wouldn't actually be tested.

If Washington assumed that, he obviously made a mistake. I think it's at least as likely that he simply wasn't sure what La Russa would do, and figured Germán's chances of reaching base were close enough to Torrealba's that it wasn't worth potentially burning his No. 2 catcher without a plate appearance (in the event that La Russa did bring in Dotel, resulting in the lifting of Torrealba).

La Russa's got an edge in these spots because he's got a left-handed reliever who's pretty good against right-handed hitters, and Washington doesn't have a single good right-handed hitter on his bench. None. Not when a right-hander starts for the other team. The Rangers, for all their success and all their depth, don't have a good right-handed hitter on their bench. They didn't have one all season, which was largely irrelevant in the American League. When they play in Arlington this weekend, La Russa's roster edge will nearly disappear.

But there's at least one more game in St. Louis, and there might be one more moment just like that moment in Game 1. You should watch for it; you know Tony La Russa will be.

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