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2011 Cardinals Might Be Tony LaRussa’s Best Job Ever

2011 Cardinals Might Be Tony LaRussa’s Best Job Ever

 

Tony LaRussa might be the Alex Rodriguez of managers in the sense he is polarizing and everyone seems to have an opinion of him. He gets blamed for pitch counts, for bullpen specialization, and 4 hour games. He isn’t warm and fuzzy with the media; rather he is uncomfortable to watch interacting with them, as you saw in the dugout last night with Craig Sager of TBS. Back in 2009, Joe Posnanski called him “the Mozart of overmanagers” in an article for Sports Illustrated. The same magazine that called him a genius when he was managing Oakland in the early 90s. When talking about LaRussa with an industry insider earlier this week he mentioned how many players detest him. Maybe he uses too many lineups, makes too many pitching changes, annoys his players, and has a public persona of a brick wall, but you can’t argue with his track record. In a 33 year managerial career he’s made the playoffs 14 times, won 12 division titles, 5 pennants, and 2 World Series championships. Maybe only Joe Torre has a better resume in the modern game, and unlike Torre, LaRussa hasn’t done it with the best players or most expensive payroll. The Cardinals are actually the anti-Yankees as their success is done the blue collar way.

Look up and down the Cardinals roster the last decade and see how many non-descript players have excelled under LaRussa. Just this year players like David Freese and Skip Schumaker have become household names in the postseason. Rafael Furcal‘s career, which looked dead and buried in Los Angeles earlier this year, was revived the minute he put on Cardinal red. The Cardinals have become the Yankees of the National League in the sense that players seem to do better once they step into that environment. You can’t call it a coincidence since LaRussa has been running the ship for 16 years.

The Cards went from a second division team to a game away from the World Series his first season. They almost became the team to upset Atlanta in 1996. His 2006 team that beat the Mets and won the World Series has been called the “worst postseason team in history” by some pundits. Have you heard from Jeff Weaver since? LaRussa was able to get 3 postseason wins from a pitcher that has been an utter failure in every other big league stop, including one here in New York. Let’s not forget his Oakland dynasty of the late eighties. That team had the Bash Brothers of McGwire and Canseco, but it was LaRussa that converted Dennis Eckersley to one of the best closers in the game and redefined the bullpen.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention his long-time pitching coach, Dave Duncan, who’s revived the careers of Dave Stewart and Bob Welch in Oakland, and seems to turn every damaged arm into gold when they pitch for the Red Birds. Think of him as the pitching coach version of an animal shelter. Bring them in battered, get them healthy, and then send them on their way. How many riches have pitchers collected due to Duncan?

This Cardinals team might be his best job ever. The ’06 team had injuries to Jason Isringhausen and Mark Mulder, but they won 100+ games the prior two seasons. They were considered one of the better teams in baseball going into that season. This year’s Cardinals team was shaky all year. They were 10.5 back of the Wild Card in late August. The Mets looked to have dealt their playoff hopes a knockout blow with a 6 run ninth inning to steal a game a week before the season ended. That would crush most teams. LaRussa’s bunch just won 4 of their next 6 and passed Atlanta on the final day of the season.

Now comes the ultimate upset- the Phillies. The team with “4 aces” looked to be way too tough to beat in a short series. Maybe seven games, but how can you beat Halladay, Lee, Hamels, and Oswalt 3 of 5 in a short series? Knowing that Game 5 is at Citizens Bank Park with “Doc” on the mound makes it really necessary to take 3 of the first 4.

The Cards looked dead. They blew a sixth inning lead and were blown out 11-6 in Game 1. They were on the verge of getting the doors blown off their season when Cliff Lee and the Phils held a 4-0 lead early the next night. Chris Carpenter, last night’s hero, was out after 3 innings. The “Mozart of overmangers” used 6 relievers to secure a 5-4 victory and make it a series. After splitting in St. Louis you had to think last night would result in Doc Halladay doing what he was brought to Philly to do: pitch them to the NLCS. A funny thing happened as Chris Carpenter found his 2009 self and beat Halladay and the Phils 1-0. This game reminded me of the Mets 2006 Game 7 loss. Did you ever see an entire city leave a ballpark as hurt as the Phillies fans last night? This was supposed to be the next step on the way to their coronation. Now they are just another team that makes the playoffs, but can’t advance very far. We have seen other versions of the Phillies in Seattle, Oakland, Minnesota, and Atlanta. Those teams had nice runs, but history looks at them as disappointments, not dynasties.

Tony LaRussa did it again. The sum of his team’s parts is greater than the whole. Is there a better manager left in the postseason?  With all due respect, Ron Washington or Ron Roenicke aren’t in the same league. Unless Jim Leyland and the Tigers are facing them in two weeks I think LaRussa is going to win his second title in St. Louis. Even if he doesn’t, he deserves manager of the year for what he has done with this club. Just look at the roster and tell me if this group had any business making the playoffs over Atlanta, much less beating the Phillies. It’s probably LaRussa’s best managerial job ever.

By Mike Silva
Sunday, 9 Oct 2011

 

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