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Tony La Russa’s Missed Opportunity

To see the definition of an expertly handled bullpen we need to merely look three days in the past, to Tony La Russa’s masterful performance Sunday against Philadelphia. After Chris Carpenter sputtered on three days rest, La Russa’s bullpen maneuvered deftly through the last six innings, holding the Phillies scoreless. All six of the Cardinals’ relievers — Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs, Fernando Salas, Octavio Dotel, Mark Rzepczynski and Arthur Rhodes — appeared in Sunday’s game, and thus a long start from Jaime Garcia on Tuesday would have been a boon for the bullpen.

Naturally, in the bottom of the sixth inning Tuesday in St. Louis, Tony La Russa was confronted with a conundrum: in a 0-0 game, Garcia came to bat with two outs and runners on first and second having thrown a mere 74 pitches. La Russa left Garcia in, and the decision would eventually lead to both their downfalls. Garcia would strike out to end the inning, and minutes later, with two outs in the top half of the seventh, Garcia would give up a three-run home run to Ben Francisco to effectively end the game.

Although Garcia certainly should have been able to retire Francisco, a .244/.340/.362 hitter on the season, La Russa’s decisions, first against pinch-hitting and then against removing Garcia, ultimately cost the Cardinals Game 3 and a 2-1 series lead.

Jaime Garcia is not a complete black hole at the plate — I watched him effectively win a game against the Brewers earlier this season with a three-run home run — but, as tends to be the case with pitchers, he’s not good. This season, he put up a mere .097/.111/.145 line at the plate and is a .137/.172/.171 hitter in his career. Carlos Zambrano he is not (in this situation, yes, that would be a good thing).

The Cardinals also have a tremendously deep bench, as La Russa opted to keep 15 position players partly due to Matt Holliday‘s injured hand. Holliday can’t play the field yet, but he was available to pinch-hit in game three, and was successful when called upon against Brad Lidge in the bottom of the eighth inning. The Cardinals also had right-handers available in Nick Punto and Gerald Laird, but if any situation calls for Matt Holliday — he of the 154 wRC+ — it was the bottom of the sixth yesterday. When Garcia came up to the plate against Hamels, there was a leverage index of 2.51, the highest of the game to that point. By leaving Garcia in, he effectively conceded the baserunners, assuming his pitching staff could hold the Phillies down long enough for the Cardinals to start another rally.

The move was misguided in a few different ways. As good as Cole Hamels is, things aren’t going to get much easier as the bullpen comes in. By the seventh inning, the Phillies are able to go to Antonio Bastardo, Vance Worley, Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson, all pitchers who kept their ERAs and FIPs both under 3.40 this season. By taking the runners of the bases, La Russa is making it so his batters have to restart the process all over just to get into the same situation, attempting to get a string of consecutive baserunners instead of hoping one hitter — the team’s second or third best hitter at that — can produce.

Also, the attempt at saving the bullpen was likely unnecessary. For as long as the Cardinals’ relievers were in the game, they didn’t actually throw many pitches. Salas and Dotel each threw 19 pitches, and that tops the list. Rzepczynski threw 12, Motte nine, Boggs four, and Rhodes three. Especially with the day off between games, this should have been a bullpen near, if not at full strength.

All of this makes me feel as if La Russa was managing the game in regular season mode. In the regular season, you simply don’t take out a pitcher at only 74 pitches, because over 162 games, a team needs to keep its bullpen fresh due to the lack of scheduled off days and how quickly constant work can pile up. In the playoffs, with a day off after every two games (at least in the divisional round), this shouldn’t be as much of a concern. In the playoffs, every run is important now, particularly in a tie game in which runs are scarce such as Tuesday’s. La Russa’s bullpen is very much capable of getting outs — they went another two scoreless innings in Tuesday’s tilt.

There wasn’t going to be a better chance at using Matt Holliday to score runs and gain a lead, and La Russa let it pass him by. He paid once as his team left the sixth scoreless, and he paid again as it left the top of seventh behind for good.