2011 World Series

Thank Heaven for Game Seven

 


Since I am known as the nation’s leading sports conspiracy theorist, it goes without saying that I have to question certain games and their outcomes. While I don’t believe that many baseball games are subject to manipulation, that doesn’t mean it cannot happen. Baseball’s history is rife with scandal, some of which is little mentioned. Yet it would take more in terms of participation from players and managers to fix a baseball game than say a basketball game, but it’s certainly not impossible (just ask the 1919 Chicago White Sox).

With the 2011 World Series, there were many interesting developments that when put together bare further inspection. Perhaps the first would be what came out in the press last – the retirement of the St. Louis Cardinals future Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa (who at the very least was a profitable bystander in the birth of steroids in baseball when he managed the Oakland A’s during the Mark McGwire/Jose Canseco era). LaRussa quietly told a few members of the Cardinals organization in August that he was stepping down at season’s end. Just then, the Cardinals began their historic comeback.

As soon as they reached the playoffs, thanks to the collapse of the Atlanta Braves, the Cardinals became the story of note. This, too, is interesting considering the Tampa Bay Devil Rays—sorry, the Rays—reached the playoffs in a similarly unbelievable fashion on the heels of the epic Boston “we like drinking in the clubhouse” Red Sox collapse. But it was the Cardinals that got more attention, likely due to the fact that they made up a 10.5 game deficit in a scant few weeks. Their story overshadowed the other teams: the Yankees, the Phillies, the Brewers, the Tigers, the Diamondbacks, and even their World Series counterparts, the Rangers.

When it was determined that the 2011 World Series was going to played between two “fly overs” in the Rangers and Cardinals (even though the Cardinals are one of the most winning teams in National League history), everyone seemed to assume the disappointment of both Major League Baseball and their broadcast partners Fox Sports. This was a ratings nightmare. Why couldn’t it be New York vs. Philadelphia? That would draw in the television viewers.

The only thing that would save this ratings “disaster” would be a seven…game…series.

While it is true that the World Series started off with a disinterested silence, by the time Game 4 rolled around, sports writers ears began to perk up as that game defeated the NFL in ratings in prime time. Granted even though Game 4 beat a Sunday Night Football game featuring a 62-7 blow out of the Peyton Manning-less Indianapolis Colts at the hands of the New Orleans Saints, it was still a rare win for the MLB.

The following night, Game 5 amazingly beat out Monday Night Football in the ratings battle as well. Again, the NFL didn’t put up much of a fight as the Jacksonville Jaguars barely scored enough to beat the hapless Baltimore Ravens who didn’t make a first down until midway through the third quarter.

But there was more going on in Game 5 than the ratings win for Fox Sports. Managerial “genius” Tony LaRussa had a complete meltdown…one that became national news and spurred on interest in this lackluster World Series.

I’ll let Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci explain the gory details from his post on SI’s website on Oct. 25:

 Fittingly, it was upon La Russa's 63rd pitching change of the postseason -- a record for the most manic bullpen usage in postseason history -- when the game blew up on him. (His relievers-used odometer is now at 65.) What is apparent now is that La Russa, 67, like a power pitcher without his fastball, did not run the game in a manner fitting of his usual care, attention and reputation. What came through Tuesday, in what can be described as his explanations of his explanations, was that Game 5 was a breakdown not in bullpen telecommunications equipment, but in process. His strategy was weak but his execution was worse.

What we found out Tuesday as the story changed was that ballpark noise was not as important a factor in a World Series game of playing telephone as he first led us to believe. Now La Russa said that when he first called bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist to get Jason Motte warm along with Mark Rzepczynski in the eighth, Lilliquist wasn't even on the phone when La Russa said, "Motte."

 


La Russa explained that his intention was to get Rzepcynski "hot" and to have Motte play catch in anticipation of a full-blown warmup if needed.

"I thought yesterday the first mention of Motte was probably after he had hung up," La Russa said. "Maybe I didn't say it quickly enough."
There was a new story, too, about the second time La Russa tried to get Motte up. La Russa said he didn't speak Motte's name clearly enough.

"Maybe I slurred it," he said.

Wait: you already were stunned to find out your first bullpen order was miscommunicated, and now you're not bothering to give the next order with absolute clarity and repetition? Spell it out if you have to: M-o-t-t-e. Shout. Bark. Anything to make sure it doesn't happen again.
How does this happen? How does a master of detail not give orders clearly? How is there not a fail-safe system of protection, such as the coach repeating the orders to the manager to verify them? How does the coach not have the empowerment -- or better still, the common sense and worth as a staff member -- to simply verify that La Russa wants to get a pitcher up who was not supposed to be used at all except for an emergency?

"Lynn? You want Lynn?," is all that would have sufficed.

La Russa's "slurred" order of Motte led to Lynn -- rookie Lance Lynn -- being told to warm up. Every team produces a card before the game identifying who is available and not available with notations on their limitations. Lynn was hands-off except for an emergency, such as an extra-inning game. But Lilliquist thought he heard La Russa say "Lynn" so Lynn it was without daring to question the master's orders.

Eventually it led to the most embarrassing moment of La Russa's managerial career: having just blown the game, La Russa was left to stand on the mound waiting for a new pitcher, except it was not the pitcher he was expecting and it was a pitcher who couldn't pitch.”

Verducci added more as he detailed the Cardinals manager’s woes from Game 5:

Here are questions that remain:

1. Why did La Russa have right-handed slugger Allen Craig bunt in the third inning with a runner at second against a shaky lefthander, C.J. Wilson? A third inning bunt with a runner already in scoring position with a guy with a career .542 slugging percentage against lefties? A waste of an out and a potential big inning.

2. Why did Albert Pujols not swing after calling his own hit-and-run play in the seventh? I have no problem with La Russa trusting an inner circle Hall of Famer like Pujols with the power to put on his own hit-and-run plays -- though this was such a dumb spot (0-and-1 against a pitcher, Alexi Ogando, who didn't figure to be around the plate) that La Russa admitted that if Pujols ran the idea past him before the at-bat, as Pujols often does, he would have nixed it. But once Pujols calls the play, he must make an attempt to put the ball in play or at least foul it off. Pujols never made an attempt at the high and outside pitch, leaving Craig to get thrown out. It was more important for Pujols to stay out of an 0-and-2 count for himself than it was to protect his teammate on the bases. (He was intentionally walked anyway after leaving Craig hung out to dry.)

3. Why did La Russa, through pitching coach Dave Duncan, order Octavio Dotel to walk Nelson Cruz with one out and a runner on second in the eighth? Was it the small sample of two plate appearances? (Home run, groundout.) One problem is that Dotel is your best right-on-right specialist and you're running away from strength. The other is that the walk brings into play the lineup spot of Mike Napoli, the Rangers' hottest hitter.

"I didn't think Cruz was the best way to go for us," LaRussa said.

4. Why didn't La Russa, the master of the stall, order enough time wasted to get Motte warmed up in time for Napoli? Motte said he can warm up very quickly. (In fact, he said he got loose for his eventual entry in the game in the time it took Lynn to throw eight warmup pitches and four intentional balls.) La Russa said even with his usual delay tactics, he didn't think there was enough time to get Motte from sitting down to properly warmed up. I'm not buying it. We've all seen La Russa bring a game to a halt for minutes.

5. Why did La Russa start Craig from first base with a full count in the ninth on Pujols? LaRussa wanted Pujols to ground a single through the right side and to stay out of a double play. It was a horrendous decision with his best longball threat to tie the game. It was bad even on the grounds of a potential line drive that would have been a double play.

Now think about all the collateral damage on La Russa's desk:

--Two runners thrown out on the bases unnecessarily.

--The equivalent of forfeiting one of his nine turns at bat -- three sacrifice bunts that led to nothing.

--Ten free base runners (nine walks and one hit by pitch) and yet he lost the game with two runs -- a feat never seen before in a World Series game with so many free runners.

--A pitcher who couldn't pitch entering the game to the surprise of the manager.

--Letting the other team's hottest hitter, a right-hander, take the biggest at-bat of the game against a lefty while five righthanders sat in his bullpen.

These moves by LaRussa led to a 3 games to 2 hole for his Cardinals. Even at this point, the World Series looked to rank as one of the lowest rated ever.

Then came the now immortal Game 6 where the mismanagement of LaRussa’s counterpart, Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington (who tested positive for cocaine in 2009, but was never disciplined by MLB), created a Game 7 and with it, a ratings winner.

In Game 6, the Rangers held a 5-2 lead entering the 8th inning, but it wouldn’t hold. Perhaps this wasn’t Washington’s fault, but his relief pitchers’. However in the 9th inning, still holding a 5-3 lead, Washington made no defensive substitutions even though the World’s Championship was held in the balance. This was costly, as with two outs and two strikes against him, Cardinals 3B David Freese laced the ball to deep right field.

With everything on the line, watch how RF Nelson Cruz plays (or misplays, or underplays) Freese’s hit (skip to 7:40 in this video):

A better fielder gets that ball and the Rangers win their first ever World Series.

Instead, Freese’s triple tied this epic game and in the 10th, each team somehow scored 2 runs to send it to the 11th. There Washington brought in relief pitcher Mark Lowe to hold the game.

Who?

Mark Lowe? The same Mark Lowe who had not pitched in either the Division Series or the League Championship Series and had only seen the mound once in the World Series, that being in mop up work in Game 3 when the Cardinals destroyed the Rangers 16-7.
Where was C.J. Wilson, the former Rangers closer? Sitting in the bullpen, unused.

One batter into the 11th, Lowe serves up the game-winning home run to David Freese. Hello Game 7.

The national buzz generated from Game 6 made certain Game 7 would be must-see TV as people somehow thought the magic would continue. And it seemed to hold true in the 1st inning as both teams each scored two quick runs.

Then Washington’s management woes continued as the Rangers pitchers somehow gave up 2 runs without allowing a batted ball – 3 walks and 2 hit-by-pitches. The Rangers season quickly faded out as the Cardinals popped the champagne, winning the final game 6-2.

As was reported on the Boston Herald’s website Oct. 30: “Even with the audience being smaller than if the game had been played Thursday, it [Game 7] created some milestones. It was the highest-rated Friday night program in Fox’s history, and was the most-watched Friday show on TV since the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics last year on NBC.”

As the vice chairman of Fox Sports Media Group, Ed Gorin, was quoted as saying in the same Boston Herald piece, “Game 7 is Game 7, it doesn’t matter when you play it. You don’t get to pick the night, you don’t get to pick the weather. You’re just happy to have a Game 7.”

Indeed.

So do I think the Cardinals historic run was scripted? No. Did the MLB want or need the Cardinals to win the championship, and made it happen? I don’t think so. But did the MLB and Fox Sports want a Game 6 and would have loved to get a Game 7? Certainly. Did they make that happen? Well, you decide for yourself.