La Russa doubles down cluelessly

Tony La Russa

Tony La Russa may be more clueless than he accused his own player Yermin Mercedes of being.

Tony La Russa wanted his live rookie Yermin Mercedes to learn a lesson in respect for the game. A Hall of Fame manager who came out of retirement to take the White Sox bridge, La Russa should remember that respect cuts in more than one direction.

If it was “disrespectful” and “clueless” for Mercedes to swing 3-0 in the top of the eighth with the White Sox blowing the Twins out 15-4 at the time, what was it for the Twins to send an infielder named Willians Astudillo out to pitch in the first place?

Astudillo threw a meatball that couldn’t even be called a knuckleball on 3-0. Whether Mercedes didn’t hear or chose not to listen to La Russa hollering to take the pitch, he drove it over the center field fence for the sixteenth White Sox run.

Mercedes and his teammates celebrated the blast when he returned to the dugout. La Russa was more than unamused. He called Mercedes out to the press after the game and again Tuesday morning. It was practically an engraved invitation to the Twins to do what relief pitcher Tyler Duffey finally did—in the seventh inning.

Duffey threw behind Mercedes with the first pitch of the plate appearance, which turned out to be the first and last of Duffey’s evening. Both Duffey and Twins manager Rocco Baldelli were ejected post haste for the drill attempt.

The attempt was foolish on a pair of levels. If you need that badly to send an opposing hitter a message, you do it the first time you see him at the plate and be done with it. You don’t do it near the potential end of the game, especially when you’re down a pair of runs and you can’t really afford an enemy baserunner who has the potential of coming home on a followup hit or two.

Lucky for the Twins that Alex Colome relieving Duffey wrapped a second walk around a pair of strikeouts for the side. They were even luckier that Miguel Sano hit his second homer of the night in the bottom of the eighth to tie before Jorge Polanco walked it off with an RBI single in the bottom of the ninth.

For a story he seemed to think was one big nothingburger in the first place, expressing surprise more than once previously that it took hold as firm and long as it did, La Russa doubled down on a Wednesday Zoom call with the press.

“If you’re going to tell me that sportsmanship and the respect for the game of baseball and respect for your opponent is not an important priority,” said La Russa on a Wednesday Zoom call with the press, “I can’t disagree with you more. You think you need more [runs] to win, you keep pushing. If you think you have enough, respect the game and opposition. Sportsmanship.”

La Russa’s Wednesday starting pitcher Lance Lynn demurs. It was probably the most intelligent observation amidst the entire debate. “The way I see it, if a position player is on the mound, there are no rules,” Lynn was quoted as saying. “Let’s get the damn game over with. And if you have a problem with whatever happened, then put a pitcher out there.”

Maybe you got why the Twins decided it might not be wise to spend any more of their pitching staff when they looked dead and buried by eleven runs with a couple of innings left to play. But maybe La Russa, the Twins, and those applauding La Russa while trying to shame Mercedes would care to re-learn a little baseball history.

Specifically, they might care to re-read the pages that remind you it’s not unheard of for a team to recover from a double-digit deficit before the last inning’s played and either win the game late or force the final decision to extra innings. We take you back to 1925, presumably one of the golden years the Old School/Old Fart Contingency has in mind when speaking of how much more grand was the grand old game in those grand old days.

The Indians had the Philadelphia Athletics buried 14-2, 15-3, and 15-4. Until they didn’t, thanks to the eighth inning. You know, the same inning during which Mercedes drove the infielder’s 49-mph canteloupe over the fence. Listen up, students: The A’s arose from the dead and buried with a thirteen-run eighth—a two-run triple, six RBI singles including two sending pairs of runs home, and Hall of Famer Al Simmons with the exclamation point of a two-out, three-run homer before the inning ended.

Those A’s overcame deficits of twelve, twelve, and eleven runs to nail a 17-15 win.

You don’t even have to go that far back, students. In 2001, the 116 game-winning Mariners sat on the wrong side of such a comeback. They’d had the Indians pinned 12-2 . . . until the Tribe told them, “you only think you have us pinned.” Three runs in the seventh, four in the eighth, five (all with two outs, yet) in the ninth. John Coltrane, call your office: they call it Ascension. (The Indians eventually won it in the eleventh, 15-14.)

Fifteen years later, the Padres only thought they had a somewhat different crew of Mariners sunk with a 12-2 lead after five. The Mariners ordered, “Up periscope!” Five runs in the sixth, nine in the seventh. Deficit overcome: ten runs. Oops. That all happened before the eighth. Double oops: what’s the point?

The points include that you should also get Lynn’s point. Lynn’s, and and Dodger pitcher Trevor Bauer’s:

Dear hitters: If you hit a 3-0 homer off me, I will not consider it a crime.

Dear people who are still mad about a hitter hitting: kindly get out of the game.

Can’t believe we’re still talking about 3-0 swings. If you don’t like it, managers or pitchers, just be better.

La Russa was far less aware of the aforementioned and other double-digit deficit closures than he was of his immediate need to school Mercedes. “There will be a consequence he has to endure here within our family,” he said after Monday’s game. “It’s a learning experience.”

No wonder any Twin pitcher thought he had a license to kill on Tuesday. And after Duffey attempted just that, La Russa went weasel about it: “It wasn’t obvious to me. The guy threw a sinker. It didn’t look good. So, I wasn’t that suspicious. I’m suspicious if somebody throws at somebody’s head. Then I’m suspicious. I don’t have a problem with how the Twins handled that.”

Translation: If one of you lot breaks the Sacred Unwritten Rules on my watch, your back means nothing to me.

Further translation: A Hall of Fame manager didn’t think there was anything wrong with waiting through four preceding plate appearances on Tuesday night before deciding it was time to teach Mercedes a lesson in manners. Mercedes’s teammates probably had every reason to believe the Twins really did shake off the Monday night mash until Duffey went behind his legs.

The Twins were probably lucky Duffey didn’t trigger a bench-clearing brawl over it.

There were moments over this week’s first three days when you’d have thought baseball’s worst problem of the week was Mercedes swinging on 3-0. As if the continuing free cookie on second to start each extra half inning, the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, the continuing metastasis of hit batsmen courtesy of control-challenged pitchers built for speed and not smarts, and the continuing embarrassment of the National League lacking the permanent designated hitter, were just nuisances like a fly at a picnic.

There were moments, too, when you’d have thought La Russa was merely the unappreciated genius trying to teach the no-respect millenials a little lesson in manners. He’d certainly like you to think so. “What did I say publicly?” he asked aboard that Wednesday Zoom conference, before answering. “I said a young player made a mistake—which, by the way, he did—and we need to acknowledge it. Part of how you get better as a team is, if something goes wrong, you address it.”

Who’s the genius who decided to address it in the public media, instead of keeping it behind clubhouse doors, and thus leave his own player prone to a duster? Who’s the genius who didn’t stop to ponder what sort of “respect” was shown his team when the other team sent an infielder to face them in the eighth instead of continuing an honest effort to come back even with two innings left to play at minimum?

Who’s the genius who also didn’t see his own starting pitcher Lucas Giolito gassed in the early seventh on 27 April, then left him in anyway and watched him surrender back-to-back an RBI double and a two-run homer, giving the lowly Tigers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish?

Who’s the genius who let pool-noodle-bat Billy Hamilton hit with two on and one out in the top of the tenth on 5 May, despite better than decent bench help ready and waiting—then watched his lead runner get thrown out trying to steal third, before Hamilton struck out for the side? In a scoreless interleague game the Reds would win when Jesse Winker walked it off with an RBI single in the bottom of that inning?

(Who’s also the genius who did enough of his part—with a lot of help from a cronyism-stacked Today’s Game Committee—to jam Harold Baines down the Hall of Fame’s throat three years ago, when Baines’s only qualification for the honour, if that, was a 22-season major league career that amounted to making the Hall of Fame the Hall of the Gold Watch?)

Funny thing about “traditions.” Baseball’s include that the game isn’t over until the final out. Baseball’s late Hall of Fame philosopher Yogi Berra interpreted it to mean, “It ain’t over until it’s over.” If you’re worried about a hitter swinging 3-0 against a reserve utility infielder, maybe you should worry more about that infielder’s team deciding the game was over two innings early regardless of the score and on which end of they sat short.

The Twins weren’t trying to be sportsmen as much as they were trying to save their pitching staff to fight another day. Well and good, and with its own risks attached. Throwing at Mercedes late in the following night’s game doesn’t mitigate that.

The Old School/Old Fart Contingency still fuming over Mercedes squaring up the infielder’s meatball like to think they’re standing up for the game’s integrity. They might want to ponder how much “integrity” is present when a team playing a game with no clock surrenders before the game’s actually over.

2 thoughts on “La Russa doubles down cluelessly

  1. How old are you Jeff Kallman?

    One of the many great things about baseball is that through the years there are right ways to play the game and wrong ways.

    You asked the question why would the Twins send Austidillo out there? Very simply because their bullpen is decimated and has been struggling for the whole season. This save one guy’s or maybe even 2 guy’s arms to play another day. When you’re up by more than 10 to the worst team in baseball, you don’t take extra bases, you don’t steal and you for sure don’t swing at a 3-0 pitch. Tradition has been lost in most sports and it’s really sad. There is no respect for opponents nor the game. There is winning with grace and there is winning to stick players noses in it.
    Try to be gracious just in your every day life. It’s amazing to see how people react.
    Sincerely—— Keith Rock

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    • Keith—I hit 65 last November . . . and thank God it didn’t hit back.

      (For the further record: I saw my first live baseball game at age six in 1962—in the Polo Grounds, then the rambling wreck of a home to the original New York Mets. Who really did have Abbott pitching to Costello, with Who the Hell’s on First, What the Hell’s on second, You Don’t Want to Know’s on third, and You Don’t Even Want to Think About It at shortstop.)

      Where is the “tradition,” and even the “sportsmanship,” when the Twins virtually surrendered to the White Sox with two innings yet to play by sending that middle infielder (he also catches now and then) out to the mound for the eighth? (Even on the wrong end of a blowout, the “tradition” usually seems to be saving that route for the ninth inning, though there have been exceptions now and then.)

      I repeat: I get why the Twins would want to save their real pitching, understanding that “real” may indeed be relative. I also get the blow they took when Byron Buxton hit the injured list. (I always wonder how some teams can be injured enough that their yearbook could be the “New England Journal of Medicine” and still manage to win when it defies belief and medicine.)

      But if the Twins still expected a position player to take the mound and get the side out unscathed, without getting an absolute meatball destroyed (on any count, never mind 3-0), they expected impossibilities. Would it have been any less lacking in grace if Mercedes took the 3-0 meatball (likely for called strike one, since it hung in the upper part of the zone, assuming the ump called the pitch properly) and then destroyed a 3-1 meatball?

      I repeat further: it’s not unheard-of to come back from double-digit deficits late in games. But the Twins didn’t even seem to try with two innings left to them to hit. What about the “tradition” that says you keep playing until the final out? What about the “tradition” that says you keep trying no matter how deeply you look buried, and you don’t give up without putting up the best battle you can wage? (Suppose those 1925 A’s—who ended up finishing eight games out of first place that season—just gave up in the eighth inning instead of pushing back and finally winning?)

      One of the many better things about baseball is that, unlike too many fans, the game itself isn’t immune to throwing enough “traditions” over the side when they ought to be thrown there. It never has been. Hopefully, where appropriate, it never will be.

      Cordially,
      Jeff

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