Luis’s pieces

Luis Rojas

If you want to know why Met fans call for manager Luis Rojas’s execution every other day, Tuesday night’s loss to the Cardinals handed the prosecution incontrovertible evidence.

Maybe it’ll be better all around if the Mets end up out of the postseason picture, after all. If the manner in which manager Luis Rojas ran Tuesday’s 7-6 loss to the Cardinals is any indication, the Mets would be lucky to get past a wild card game, never mind to it in the first place.

No, we’re not taking the Mets’ hitters off the hook for going a measly 4-for-14 with runners in scoring position. We’re not taking them off the hook for killing four rallies by hitting into double plays.

We’re not taking them off the hook for one of those double plays coming in the tenth inning, after a walk to Jonathan Villar added to the free cookie on second to start the inning. And we’re not taking Pete Alonso off the hook for hitting into two of those double plays plus striking out with first and second to kill a fifth-inning chance at tying or taking a lead.

But we’d like to know what on earth Rojas was or wasn’t thinking, after he lifted his starting pitcher Marcus Stroman following six innings of two-run ball in which his only troublesome inning was the fourth, when the Cardinals scored those two runs on a deep infield hit and a sacrifice fly.

Since Rojas entered the game knowing he wasn’t going to use either Seth Lugo or Miguel Castro, he brought Aaron Loup in for the seventh. Watching Loup use only seven pitches to get two fly outs and a swinging strikeout, it didn’t cross Rojas’s mind that Loup might have another healthy and even economical inning in him.

No, Rojas went instead to Jeurys Familia, who’d been less than effective in his previous two outings, rather than giving the ball to his usual eighth-inning option Trevor May. May might have been pried for three runs in his previous outing (against the Yankees, in the 9/11 anniversary game), but he’d been sharp and un-scored upon in nine of his prior ten gigs until then.

Familia surrendered a one-out walk (to Paul Goldschmidt) and a two-run homer immediately to follow (by Tyler O’Neil). Not until the Cardinals followed at once with Nolen Arenado singling and Yadier Molina reaching on catcher’s interference did Rojas finally remember May. And May only caught Dylan Carlson looking at strike three before getting Edmundo Sosa to ground out for the side.

Rojas also didn’t read the deep text when inconsistent Edwin Diaz pitched a scoreless ninth with only thirteen pitches needed. Sure, Harrison Bader led off reaching on an error, but the Cardinals handed Diaz and the Mets a present by ordering pinch-hitter Lars (Sometimes You Feel Like a) Nootbaar to sacrifice. After such Cardinal generosity, Diaz needed only two pitches to get rid of Tommy Edman on a ground out and four to get Goldschmidt to foul out for the side.

Then Javier Baez led off the bottom of the ninth against Cardinals reliever Geovanny Gallegos by hitting the first pitch of the turn over the left field fence to tie it up at four. Three Met outs later, Diaz might well have been able to pitch the tenth successfully, leaving Rojas the option of Heath Hembree for the eleventh.

But no. He lifted Diaz and sent Hembree out for the tenth. Hembree struck O’Neil out swinging to lead off. The Mets ordered Arenado to first on the house and got exactly what they bargained for, Molina hitting into a double play to end the inning. It only cost Hembree seven pitches (remember, you don’t have to throw four wide ones for an intentional walk anymore) to do it. There might have been no harm, no foul if Rojas sent Hembree back out for the eleventh, either.

“I can’t ask any more from the guys,” Rojas said post-game, when asked why he didn’t push his pen men just a little bit harder considering the time running out on the Mets’ hair-thin postseason chances.

“Right now, it would be unfair,” he continued. “I can’t put them in a situation where it would compromise anything else, their stuff, their health. You might run a guy out there and he might not be the same pitcher you’re asking the guy to be, as well. There’s just a lot of things that go into it. Ideally, the manager wants to pitch everyone every day, but there’s some other things that come into play when you talk. It’s the player’s feel, the pitching coach’s feel, my feel.”

Where was the feel when the best options Rojas played pitched so economically in their effectiveness that an extra inning from any of them might have made a phenomenal difference?

There came harm and foul when Rojas instead went to Jake Reed, a 28-year-old rookie not long returned from the injured list and not having thrown a major league inning since mid-August. The good news was Reed, too, pitching economically enough—eight pitches total.

But then there’s the bad news: 1) His third pitch was hit for a leadoff single, sending the free cookie on second to third post haste. 2) His sixth pitch was hit for an RBI single to break the four-all tie. 3) His eighth pitch was turned into a two-run single.

Then Rojas brought in Trevor Williams, his import from the Cubs and normally a starter but well between assignments and able to throw part or all of an inning if necessary. Williams shook off a base hit to get Goldschmidt to dial Area Code 6-4-3 for the side.

Now the questions would include why not have Williams open a clean inning (if you didn’t count the cookie on second) instead of opening it with a rusty rookie? Said Rojas: Well, Reed’s a reliever and Williams is a starter. There’ve been how many skippers burned alive when they went by The Book instead of what their eyes, ears, and actual numbers whispered in their ears?

Going his Book enabled Rojas to pull the lulu of the night—turning to spaghetti bat Albert Almora, Jr. to pinch hit in the bottom of the eleventh, after the Mets pulled back to within a run on an RBI double and a throwing error by Cardinals reliever Kim, and with Williams’s lineup slot due up.

He picked Almora over Luis Guillorme. After opening 0-2, Almora wrestled his way to a full count—and grounded out modestly to end it. Why Almora over Guillorme? “Against a lefty,” Rojas said, “not the right matchup.”

Which part of his Book did Rojas ignore, in deciding the righthanded Almora was his best chance to tie or win despite the fact that Almora’s been hitting like . . . a pitcher, this season? (Slash line: .115/.148/.173.)

Which part of that Book did Rojas ignore in deciding Guillorme the lefthanded bat had no business going to the plate in that spot . . . even with his .344 on-base percentage against portside pitching in 33 plate appearances this season?

(What’s the name of his Book, anyway? For Whom the Bell Tolls?)

Maybe Guillorme would have poked an RBI hit to tie or even win the game. Maybe he would have ended the game the same way Almora did; maybe he might have flied out to end it. But he’d have given Rojas and the Mets the absolute better shot at keeping the game alive or winning it.

The only time Rojas did set his Book to one side Tuesday night was taking Familia over May. As Casey Stengel might have said, there comes a time in every man’s life and he shouldn’t have had that one.

You want to know why frustrated Met fans call for Rojas’s summary execution after just about every other Met loss and sometimes after oddly-managed Met wins? Tuesday night was gilt-edged evidence for the prosecution.

This morning they’re thanking God and His servant Stengel that Tuesday night wasn’t a postseason game. They may even thank both if the Mets finally don’t make the dance at all. How sad is that?

When sucking it up sucks

Jack Flaherty

If you’re ailing, speak up. You might save yourself some worse injury grief—even immediately.

The one pitcher the Cardinals could not afford to lose, especially missing two other key starting pitchers, is lost to them now. For who knows how long. It raises a dilemna almost as old as baseball itself: Who’s responsible for knowing or revealing when a player, any player, is injured enough to remove him before further damage is done?

Jack Flaherty admitted he started feeling tight in his side while pitching in the bottom of the fifth in his hometown Dodger Stadium Monday evening. But his turn in the batting order was due up in the top of the sixth and—right after Justin Williams led off with a home run to cut the Dodger lead to 2-1—he went out to the plate.

Flaherty swung on 0-1 at an outer-edge service from Dodger righthander Trevor Bauer, foul ticked it, and grimaced noticeably during the swing before hopping around the plate area in discomfort. He remained at the plate to finish the turn, taking a low ball one and then a called strike three. Then Cardinals manager Mike Shildt removed him from the game.

Now Flaherty’s on the ten-day injured list with a no-doubt oblique strain, and the Cardinals expect him to miss more time than that. With fellow key starters Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson already on the list—and baseball suffering quite the injury epidemic already this season—this is exactly what the Cardinals don’t need.

The question before the house—provoked in part by a social media debate into which I fell after noting Flaherty gone to the ten-day injured list Tuesday but likely to be out longer—is this: Should Shildt have been aware his man was ailing and either a) pinch-hit for him right off the bat in the sixth; or, b) removed him at once following the fateful swing to let another hitter finish the turn?

You might think the manager’s job includes awareness of his pitcher’s condition in the moment. Sometimes that awareness causes managers unwarranted grief, as Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash can tell you from Game Six of last year’s World Series. But often as not that awareness does the manager a big favour when he has all his other marbles in the right place.

Should Shildt himself have noticed Flaherty feeling tight in the bottom of the fifth? Open to debate. Should he have seen Flaherty in obvious discomfort swinging on that foul tick and pulled him on the spot for a pinch swinger to finish the plate appearance? Open to debate likewise.

It’s not unprecedented for a batter to be pulled for assorted reasons during a plate appearance and for a pinch hitter to finish the turn. But there’s a missing link between the fifth and the sixth: Flaherty himself, and whether he thought to speak up and admit he wasn’t feeling quite right.

The Cardinals’ most valuable pitcher probably had no business at the plate or staying in the game to get there in the first place. If last year’s universal designated hitter had been made permanent from this year forward, as it most assuredly should have been, Flaherty wouldn’t have even had to worry about checking in at the plate.

Maybe in that instance, the tightness he felt in the fifth would have eased up with a half-inning off for good behaviour and allowed him to pitch one more inning—this time, with a one-run lead. Maybe.

Shildt had an option on his bench if he wanted it, lefthanded swinger Matt Carpenter. Carpenter hasn’t been the hitter he once was for about three seasons, now, but he would have been a hitter at all. He’s not historically the most dangerous man at the plate with two strikes, but he does have ninety hits including 23 home runs lifetime when hitting with two strikes on him.

With the bases empty, nobody out, and the Cardinals back to within a run of the Dodgers after Williams’s leadoff blast, do you really want a pitcher—a breed that’s hitting a whopping .109 with a glandular .146 on-base percentage and a swollen .141 slugging percentage—at the plate to start turning a one-run deficit into a tie game at minimum? (Sit down and shut up, Old Fart Contingency.)

No, you wouldn’t, if you could help it. Flaherty himself is no big bopper at the plate. Not hitting .185 this season, he isn’t.

Talking during a post-game press conference, Flaherty admitted he doesn’t like coming out of games on his own volition if he can help it. Bulldogging pitchers earn plenty of gold stars. But they like other players also bulldog themselves into bigger trouble when they don’t give their bodies the benefit of the doubt.

The injury you try playing or pitching through today can and too often does turn into the one that knocks you out for a lot longer than you’d like. Depending on the time of the season, it also might help cost your team a postseason shot. With twelve players on the IL before Flaherty joined them, and a bullpen faltering (and overtaxed) too often already, the Cardinals could afford to have him among the missing about as much as a cobra can afford dinner, dancing, and a hotel reservation with a mongoose.

Even in today’s baseball there remains a cultural dilemna. Speak up when you’re hurting, there’ll still be those who look at you as a softie, maybe whisper thus half behind your back. Clam up when you’re hurting, they’ll call you a bulldog now but curse the day you were born when you’ve been disabled awhile with a far more severe problem and they find themselves in the pennant race’s rear view mirrors.

The old school managers weren’t always the most empathetic lot when it came to injuries, either. Maybe none was more notorious than Leo Durocher, whose problems blowing the 1969 National League East title including demanding his Cubs speak up when ailing—then denouncing them as “quitters” whenever they did speak up.

When Fred Hutchinson managed the Reds before his death of cancer in 1964, he once lifted his ace-in-the-making Jim Maloney—despite Maloney working on a potential no-hitter—beause he spotted Maloney in forearm discomfort. “When you have an arm like that,” Hutch told reporters post-game, “you don’t take chances.”

His successors Dick Sisler and especially Dave Bristol treated injuries as mortal sins, especially involving pitchers. “If he can just get the ball to the plate, he’s not hurting,” Bristol was once quoted as saying. Hutchinson was a former pitcher who knew better. Bristol was a former minor league infielder who pitched now and then, and his brains went to sleep on him. Maloney developed rest-of-career shoulder trouble after Hutchinson was gone and a concurrent unfair reputation as a crybaby when he did speak out now and then about his continuously barking shoulder.

Remember when another former Reds pitcher, reliever Rob Dibble, snarked his way out of a Nationals broadcasting job for zapping young Stephen Strasburg coming out of a game with what seemed forearm issues at the moment? “Suck it up, kid. This is your profession,” Dibble huffed. “You chose to be a baseball player. You can’t have the cavalry come in and save your butt every time you feel a little stiff shoulder, sore elbow . . . stop crying, go out there and pitch. Period.”

Turned out Strasburg had more than just a forearm issue—he faced Tommy John surgery. He’s had injury issues throughout his career; until last year, he pitched damn well when healthy. Including when he stood as the 2019 World Series MVP. Dibble should have known even better than Hutchinson actually did—he’d missed the entire 1994 season after shoulder surgery and was gone within two years. Suck it up, kid.

Sandy Koufax sucked it up in 1965-66, after learning his pitching elbow was arthritic. He’d already gone from no great shakes through 1960 to off the charts from 1961-64. In 65-66, he went from off the charts to the tenth dimension aided by a medical regimen that could have killed him if the workload (699 innings over those two seasons) didn’t.

Then—gone. Koufax decided sucking it up, even to win two of his three Cy Young Awards, back-to-back pennants, and a World Series, wasn’t worth living what he feared would be a compromised life. Good for him. It ensured his baseball immortality. And, it let him make a liar out of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the author’s maxim about the lack of second acts in American life.

(It also spared us the sight of a Hall of Famer in decline, letting Koufax leave at 30 frozen forever as a young lancer who turned plate appearances into battles against the unarmed.)

By the way, Shildt eventually did call upon Carpenter to pinch hit Monday, an inning later. Except that Dodger manager Dave Roberts promptly lifted Bauer and compelled Shildt to pull Carpenter back, when Roberts brought in lefthander Victor Gonzalez, in favour of righthanded hitting Lane Thomas. Gonzalez struck Thomas out for the side.

An inning earlier, perhaps Roberts would have let Bauer work his way through. As it was, after Flaherty finished his standing plate appearance before leaving the game entirely, Tommy Edman reached on an infield throwing error and Dylan Carlson hit one over the center field fence to give the Cardinals their only lead of the game.

Maybe if Carpenter had pinch hit to finish Flaherty’s plate appearance, he might have tagged a hit or reached otherwise (he’s walked fourteen times this year and still has a good enough eye at the plate to keep doing it) and instead enabled a 4-2 score after five and a half inning. (The Cardinals went on to lose, 9-4.)

From every account and appearance, Shildt is not an insensitive man. He’s had his moments of snark and foolishness, but they’ve been few enough so far. Right now, he’s in a pennant race in which he’d love to stay all the way. He can’t afford to let his wounded stay quiet before they go from ailing to disaster.

Unless you believe as I do that the universal DH is an idea whose permanent time is overdue enough, Flaherty didn’t get injured doing something he shouldn’t have been doing. He got hurt on the job doing his job. As one Twitter respondent said to me, it sucks that he got hurt but that’s part of the game.

Indeed. Not just to pitchers, either: Fernando Tatis, Jr. took an early exit in the sixth Tuesday night when he felt tightness in the same area, too. The Padres are keeping him day-by-day to be safe. Young as he is, Tatis probably knows any compulsion to suck it up risks making things more painful.

If Flaherty felt compelled to keep quiet about his side tightness after the bottom of the fifth Monday, Shildt might consider talking to him and the rest of his players. He could tell them it does themselves or the club no good to stay quiet when hurting.

“Talk up and sit down now, rather than hit disaster down the stretch. You’re not less of a man for being injured, but you’d be less of a man if it went from bad enough to worse.” That’s what Shildt could and should tell his Cardinals. That’s what Jayce Tingler might want to tell his Padres, too. That’s what any manager should want to tell his team.

Enough is way beyond enough, already

Jack Flaherty

Flaherty in discomfort after fouling off an outer-edge pitch in the sixth Monday. He grimaced with gritted teeth as he swung—and could face IL time with an oblique strain.

Bad enough: Someone had to drag it out of Jacob deGrom that his freshly-ended stay on the Mets’ injured list came because he strained his side while . . . swinging the bat. Worse, now: Jack Flaherty could miss a start at minimum for the Cardinals now that he’s got an apparent rib cage injury after he dinged it . . . swinging the bat.

As if the overall futility of pitchers swinging at the plate isn’t enough reason to implement the universal designated hitter. (Anyone who says deGrom with his .450 hitting average isn’t an outlier is either blind or willfully ignorant.) The injury risk isn’t just someone’s equally perverse fantasy.

Flaherty was pitching well enough against the Dodgers Monday evening when he batted against Trevor Bauer in the top of the sixth. He swung with a slight lunge at an outer-edge pitch on 0-1 and fouled it off, a clenched-teeth grimace very visible on his face as he swung. Then he hopped around the plate area in plain discomfort.

Cardinals manager Mike Shildt took no chances. After Flaherty struck out looking, Shildt lifted him from the game at once. With a 2.90 ERA, a 9.7 strikeout-per-nine-inning rate, and a 1.03 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, Flaherty is the one Cardinals starting pitcher above all whom Shildt cannot afford to lose for any length of time.

The good news was the Cardinals dropping a three-spot on Bauer in the inning: Justin Williams leading off with a home run off the right field foul pole; then, after Tommy Edman reached on a throwing error, Dylan Carlson hitting one over the center field fence.

The bad news was the Dodgers jumping the Cardinals bullpen for four in the bottom of the sixth to re-take the lead. Max Muncy’s one-out double against reliever Ryan Helsley was followed a base hit later by another Cardinal reliever, Genesis Cabrera, walking Cody Bellinger to load the pads, then walking Will Smith to re-tie the game at three, striking Gavin Lux out looking, but surrendering a three-run double on the fifteenth pitch to Chris Taylor before . . .

Well, now. What was that Thomas Boswell wrote two years ago about getting tired of watching rallies killed by the cop-out of pitching around competent number eight hitters to strike out the opposing pitcher? Cabrera put Dodger second baseman Zach McKinstry aboard and then struck Bauer himself out for the side. “In the AL,” Boswell wrote then, “you must pitch your way out of a jam, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.”

Flaherty’s batting injury threw a stone into Shildt’s gears. The righthander working in front of a hometown crowd had surrendered two runs on back-to-back solo bombs but checked in at the sixth-inning plate after wiping out eight straight Dodgers including one string of five straight strikeouts. Then Flaherty went from cruise control to road hazard with one swing.

Barring unforeseen circumstances there was no way the manager wanted to go that early to the bullpen that leads the entire Show with 120 walks this season. They’ve also walked more batters with the bases loaded (fifteen) than they’ve surrendered hits (fourteen) with ducks on the pond.

“I felt a little tightness, and it was more just felt we should check it out more than anything,” said Flaherty during a post-game press conference. “A little bit of tightness I felt, and thought it was something to bring up. More just to be safe . . . I’m sitting here just fine. I’ll get up out of this chair just fine. I’m moving around all right. I don’t ever leave games. I don’t ever come out of games. It was just something just wanted to check out.”

That’s his story, and he’s sticking to it, never mind that averaging five and two thirds innings per start this year he comes out of games, all right, just never during a working inning. He felt the little bit of tightness first while pitching the fifth. Then after swinging on that foul tick it looked like enough that Shildt decided enough was enough.

“The tightness is in the torso,” wrote the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Derrick Goold, “and the concern will be that Flaherty has an injury to the oblique that could lead to a lengthy absence. He was being re-evaluated late Monday night, and it’s likely the team will have scans taken of his torso.”

If those scans show further damage than just a little tightness, it’s disaster for the Cardinals as well as for Flaherty. They’re in second place and half a game behind the Cubs in the NL Central despite the Cubs leading the Show with their current injured list population.

We’re not exactly talking about one of the great hitting pitchers here, either. Flaherty’s hitting average is .125 this season. Jacob deGrom he ain’t. Not on the mound, of course, as good as he is out there, but especially not at the plate.

The entire Cardinal pitching staff is hitting .070 this season to date. The team is fifteenth in Show for runs scored and runs allowed, but you might see them a little higher for runs scored if they didn’t have to waste plate appearances with those .070-hitting pitchers.

DeGrom’s Mets are rock bottom in the entire Show for runs allowed. They’re also at rock bottom for runs scored, alas. Think they might have a few more runs on the board if their pitchers didn’t have to drag their happy hides to the plate? The Mets’ pitchers are hitting .167 as of this morning’s stats. Remove deGrom and it wouldn’t be that high by a long shot.

You tell me which is more important to the Mets or any team—a .450-hitting pitcher who’s a too-obvious outlier among his breed? Or, a pitcher whose 0.71 ERA (with a 1.08 fielding-independent pitching rate) could hold up all season long and leave him in a league of his own? (DeGrom isn’t shown atop the leaderboards for ERA and FIP only because—with the Mets having played only 46 games, plus his IL turn—he’s pitched only 51 innings so far; or, just shy of seven innings a start.)

Commissioner Nero decided last year’s universal DH wouldn’t be this year’s at minimum. The issue will return to the table when the current collective bargaining agreement expires after this season. Some say the days of NL pitchers hitting will end there. Some say not quite yet. Those days deserve to end permanently at last.

From the end of the 20th Century’s first decade through the end of the 21st Century’s first decade, pitchers overall have hit .155. They’ve made Willy Miranda resemble Willie Mays. Do Nero and the chump contingent insisting that pitchers taking turns at the plate means “real” baseball need more evidence on behalf of ending the National League’s “traditional” refusal of the designated hitter? (Which really amounts to refusing an idea that was first hatched by one of its own owners before the turn of the 20th Century.)

Try just two items to start:

* Continuing regular-season interleague play makes a further mockery of that NL “tradition,” since pitchers have to bat when such games are played in the NL team’s park but NL pitchers get a breather at the plate when the games are played in the AL parks.

(Incidentally, 2020’s pan-damn-ically inspired irregular season was the first time the leagues tied in regular-season interleague play. Since the interleague virus was introduced in 1997, the American League has fanned the National League’s behind: 3,315-3,047. The National League has led in interleague play only four times since 1997 and not once since 2003.)

* This season’s slash line at the plate for all Show pitchers as of this morning is .108/.145/ .140. The slash line for National League pitchers at the plate as of this morning: .107/.145/.137. Now, remove deGrom from the picture—the NL’s pitchers would be hitting .101.

Go ahead, call for continuing to send outlier deGrom to the plate for a lousy six-point hike in the pitchers’ overall hitting average. In a year where nobody can really decide what to think about offense and how declined it is in the first place.

In a year when deGrom has spent time on the injured list because of a plate appearance,  Flaherty is now in danger of spending likewise because of one, and Diamondbacks pitcher Zac Gallen is missing “weeks” due to an ulnar collateral ligament strain he first incurred during late spring training . . . taking batting practise.

You want to continue risking pitcher health through non-pitching injury? You really want to continue watching pitchers not named Jacob deGrom (or even further-outlying Shohei Ohtani—who doesn’t bat on his pitching days normally and damn well shouldn’t) wasting precious outs at the plate? You really want to keep watching rallies die when the opposing pitcher pitches around your good number eight batter to strike your pitcher’s ass out?

Be my guest. If “traditionalists” don’t care about exposing themselves as baseball bigots by rejecting real evidence on behalf of lamely-excused prejudice, neither do I.

———————————-

Situation update: Jack Flaherty did indeed hit the ten-day injured list Tuesday—with an oblique strain that may keep him out more than ten days or “just a couple of weeks.” Was it worth it for a foul tick followed by a called strikeout?

Genius playing with mental blocks?

Tony La Russa

Even Hall of Fame managers aren’t always the geniuses they’re cracked up to be.

No baseball manager is a perfect specimen, whether he lucks into the job, performs it long enough and well enough, or gets himself elected to the Hall of Fame because of his actual or reputed job performance. Many have been the managers whose reputations for genius are out of proportion to their actual performances.

Even the certified geniuses made their mistakes. Maybe none was more truly egregious than Casey Stengel’s failure to set up his rotation so his Hall of Fame lefthander Whitey Ford could start three 1960 World Series games instead of two. Unless it was Tommy Lasorda deciding it was safe to let Tom Niedenfeuer pitch to Jack Clark, with first base open and the Dodgers one out from forcing a seventh 1985 National League Championship Series game.

Maybe it was Dick Williams, placing public perception ahead of baseball to start gassed ace Jim Lonborg instead of a better-rested arm in Game Seven, 1967 World Series. Unless it was Gene Mauch, the Little General panicking down the 1964 stretch (with the Phillies, using his two best pitchers on too-short rest and blowing a pennant he had in the bank), or in Game Five (with the Angels) when he was an out away from winning the 1986 American League Championship Series.

Regardless of his foibles since what proved his first retirement, Tony La Russa still has an outsize reputation as one of the most deft ever to hold the manager’s job. He’s been called a genius. He’s been called one of the smartest baseball men of the last half-century. They point to his Hall of Fame plaque, the 33 years he managed prior to returning to the White Sox this season, eleven division titles, six pennants, and three World Series rings.

Those plus his longtime reputation for volumnious pre- and post-game thinking and analysis (observed perhaps most deeply in a chapter of George F. Will’s Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball) still allow La Russa absolution from his most egregious errors.

He threw his 2021 White Sox star Yermin Mercedes under the proverbial bus, and maybe even invited the Twins to retaliate the following day, after Mercedes swung on 3-0 (violating La Russa’s fealty to the Sacred Unwritten Rules) in the eighth inning of a White Sox blowout, and hit a home run . . . off a middle infielder sent to the mound.

La Russa is still considered one of the smartest of the Smart Guys whatever they think of Mercedes’s homer or La Russa’s definition of “sportsmanship.” (They don’t always stop to ponder what La Russa thought of the Twins’s “sportsmanship” in giving up the ghost with two innings left to close even a fat deficit and sending a position player to the mound with real pitching still available to them.)

Perhaps they haven’t read Keith Law, writing in The Inside Game last year: “Sometimes you do all the right things and are stymied by bad luck. Other times you do everything wrong and are subsequently rewarded for it. That’s outcome bias.” There’s a case to be made that La Russa’s reputation, and maybe even his Hall of Fame case, is a little more than half a product of such outcome bias.

It’s hard to argue against a manager with three decades plus on his resume plus those division titles, pennants, and three Series rings. But maybe it’s easy to forget or dismiss how often La Russa either outsmarted or short-sighted himself when the games meant the absolute most.

“Tony, stop thinking,” Thomas Boswell wrote, after La Russa’s Athletics were swept out of a 1990 Series they could have tied in four and gone on to win, instead of being swept by a band of Reds upstarts who didn’t know the meaning of the words “shrink under pressure.”

If the A’s had picked an usher at random to manage them in this Series, they’d have been better. The usher would have brought in [Hall of Fame reliever Dennis] Eckersley to start the eighth inning of Game Two with a 4-3 lead. The usher would have brought in Eckersley to start the eighth inning of Game Four with a 1-0 lead. And this Series would be two-all.

La Russa could write a book on why did he did what he did. But the bottom line is that every manager in the Hall of Fame would have brought in the Eck. Twice Tony didn’t and twice the A’s lost. This time, the goat’s horns stop at the top.

Outcome bias didn’t help La Russa then, a year after he’d won his first Series. But it sure helped him after a 2011 Series he won despite himself. Because smart baseball men don’t do even half of what La Russa did to make life that much tougher for his Cardinals than it should have been.

Tony La Russa

La Russa’s 2011 Cardinals won a World Series despite the skipper’s missteps.

Smart baseball men don’t take the bats out of the hands of future Hall of Famers with Game One tied at zero. La Russa took it out of Albert Pujols’s hands by ordering Jon Jay to sacrifice Rafael Furcal, guaranteeing the Rangers wouldn’t let Pujols swing even with a swimming pool noodle, walking him on the house. (The next batter got lured into dialing Area Code 5-4-3.)

Smart baseball men don’t lift better clutch hitters (especially those shaking out as Series MVPs) with late single-run leads for defensive replacements who might have to try a lot harder to do the later clutch hitting with insurance runs to be cashed in—and fail. La Russa did that lifting David Freese (after he scored a single tiebreaking run) for Daniel Descalso (grounded out with two in the eighth) in Game Two.

Smart baseball men don’t balk when their closers surrender two soft hits in the Game Two ninth with a groin-hobbled bopper due up and a double play possibility very distinct. La Russa balked. He lifted Jason Motte for Arthur Rhodes with Josh Hamilton coming up. Rhodes gave the lead away and Lance Lynn gave the game away—on back-to-back sacrifice flies.

Smart baseball men don’t look past three powerfully viable and available bullpen options with their teams down a mere 1-0 and reach for . . . a known mop-up man, with the opposition’s hottest Series bat due up. La Russa learned or re-learned the hard way in Game Four. Mike Napoli thanked him for offering Mitchell Boggs as the sacrificial lamb—Napoli hit the first pitch for a three-run homer. (Final score: Rangers 4, Cardinals 0.)

Smart baseball men don’t snooze for even a moment and forget to flash the red light when their batter (Pujols, in this case) signals their baserunner Allen Craig to try for a steal in the Game Five seventh.  Craig got arrested by half a mile, inviting another free pass to the bopper and—following a base hit setting up second and third when the batter advances on the throw to third—another free pass and an inning-ending fly out.

Smart baseball men also don’t let a little (ok, a lot of) crowd noise interfere with getting the pen men up that he wants to get up in the bottom of the Game Five eighth—after ordering one relief pitcher tough on righthanded hitters to put a righthanded hitter aboard on the house, yet, instead of getting the second out—then try sneaking a lefthanded pen man past a righthanded danger who sneaks what proves a game-winning two-run double.

They don’t try to make the Case of the Tangled Telephone out of it, either, after they end up bringing in the wrong man when nobody claimed to hear them ordering the guy they really wanted to get ready. (La Russa wanted Motte but got Lynn. Oops.)

Neither do smart baseball men drain their benches in the eighth of even a do-or-die Game Six. La Russa did. It compelled his Cardinals to perform their still-mythologised ninth and tenth inning feats of down-to-their-final-strike derring-do without a safety net beneath them. Freese took one and all off the hook with his eleventh-inning, full-count, game-winning, Richter scale-busting leadoff bomb.

The Cardinals won that Series despite their skipper. (And, because they pinned the Rangers in Game Seven, after allowing a 2-0 first-inning lead on back-to-back RBI doubles. They made it impossible for La Russa to overthink/mis-think/mal-think again after they tied in the bottom of the first and scored four more from there.) La Russa was thatclose to blowing a Series his Rangers counterpart sometimes seemed to do everything within reach to hand him.

Fairness: La Russa did plenty right and smart winning those division titles. He did plenty right and smart winning the 2006 Series in five. (It didn’t hurt that he knew what he had turning his resident pest/Series MVP David Eckstein loose.) That was two years after nobody could have stopped the Red Sox steamroller from plowing the Cardinals in four, following their self-yank back from the dead to take the last four ALCS games from the Empire Emeritus.

But the 2011 Series got La Russa compared in the long term to . . . Bob Brenly, the Diamondbacks manager who won the 2001 World Series in spite of his own mistakes, too. Batting his worst on-base percentage man leadoff; ordering bunts ahead of and thus neutralising his best power threat; overworking and misusing his tough but sensitive closer, even throwing him out a second straight night after the lad threw 61 relief pitches the night before. (You’re still surprised Scott Brosius faced a gassed Byung-Hyun Kim and tied Game Five with a home run?)

Lucky for Brenly that he had one Hall of Fame pitcher (Randy Johnson) and another should-have-been Hall of Fame pitcher (Curt Schilling, his own worst enemy) to bail him out. Brenly hasn’t managed again since the Diamondbacks fired him during a 2004 skid to the bottom of the National League West.

When La Russa retired three days after that 2011 Series ended, he didn’t announce it until after the Cardinals’ championship parade and after he called a meeting with his players. “Some grown men cried,” he said of the meeting, adding, “I kind of liked that because they made me cry a few times.”

The smartest men in baseball with even half La Russa’s experience don’t invite comparisons to comparative newcomers who trip, tumble, and pratfall their way to World Series rings. Three Series rings keeps him a Hall of Fame beneficiary of the outcome bias Law described. It’ll probably keep La Russa cushioned with the White Sox for now, despite his early tactical mistakes.

And, despite the perception the Mercedes incident leaves that he’d rather burn his players in the public eye than handle real or alleged issues the mature way. (Name one manager who ever invited the other guys to retaliate for a real or alleged rookie mistake.) All that previous outcome bias won’t save him, if he costs himself his clubhouse and the White Sox turn from early-season surprise to season-closing bust.

Clean, legal, case closed

Manny Machado, Tommy Edman

Machado (left) checks on Edman after the Sunday drop slide that blew enough social media up Monday.

Manny Machado isn’t now and never has been a controversy-free baseball player. He’s one of those players who can trigger an uproar  without doing or saying a thing. Sometimes all he has to do is smile.

But it isn’t every day that a man to whom controversy seems as natural as playing third base kicks up a little storm for doing the right thing. Especially when it’s something fundamental he was taught very early in his career.

On Sunday, the Padres’s third baseman reached base in the fourth inning, when the Cardinals’ own third baseman Nolan Arenado committed a very rare (for him) throwing error. Then, Machado ran toward second on a Jake Cronenworth ground ball to Cardinals second baseman Tommy Edman.

Edman fielded the ball cleanly while still a few steps behind the proper basepath. Then he stepped into Machado’s path with thoughts about starting a double play. He got the force tag on Machado. At that moment, Machado dropped into an almost excuse-me, soft slide that still upended Edman to keep him from throwing the none-too-fast Cronenworth out at first.

You couldn’t blame Edman for looking about as thrilled as a dental patient after he recovered from the upending. But the first thing Machado did immediately after the slide was move to see whether Edman was injured on the play. (He wasn’t.)

Whether Machado went rogue yet again ran over social media and enough of the sports press well into Monday. That was after Cardinals starting pitcher Kwang Hyun Kim told reporters he thought Machado should have been called for interference, which would have made Cronenworth out at first. Kim also seemed surprised Cardinals manager Mike Schildt didn’t argue for a review to get the call.

It wouldn’t have done Schildt any good if he’d tried, and he probably knew it. The written rules give the baserunner the right of way on the proper basepath, and you can watch the play fifty times from fifty angles and see nothing indicating Machado interfered with Edman fielding the ball in the first place.

Machado was well prepared to execute such a play. His long-enough-time Orioles manager Buck Showalter taught him the play. “I’m still trying to figure out what the story is,” Showalter told The Athletic‘s Dennis Lin.

Showalter told Lin the play was routine business in the Yankee system from his years managing in that system and finally the Yankees themselves. If the runner executes the drop-slide, it breaks up double plays no matter how far you get caught before second base and with little damage otherwise. Showalter indicated to Lin that not only were players taught how to do it running the bases but infielders were taught to be prepared for such drop-slides.

“The first thing I did,” Padres manager Jayce Tingler told Lin, “was I gave him a high-five. I thought it was a play, honestly, that won the game.”

The Padres entered the bottom of the fourth in the hole 2-0. Machado’s reach on the Arenado error led the inning off. After the force out during which Machado kept Edman from turning the double play, Kim walked Tommy Pham and surrendered a bases-loading line single up the middle to Austin Nola—before walking two runs home back-to-back enabling the Padres to tie the game.

Genesis Cabrera relieved Kim and surrendered a sacrifice fly (Patrick Kivlehan) and an RBI single (Ivan Castillo) back to back before catching Trent Grisham looking at strike three for the side. The Cardinals got a run back when Paul Goldschmidt scored as Yadier Molina dialed Area Code 4-6-3 in the top of the sixth, but Grisham made the game 5-3 with a two-out RBI double in the bottom of the inning. The Padres bullpen made sure the game finished with that score.

Tingler may well have been right. Machado’s slide as Edman crossed right into his proper basepath just might have won the game for the Padres, or at least set up their best chance to win.

Kim had more or less cruised through the first three innings, shaking off only a two-out base hit in the third while otherwise striking out the side. If he was staggered by the Machado slide enough that he couldn’t believe his manager didn’t demand a review and an interference call, on a play for which no interference and no foul play was involved at all, maybe the Padres pounced from there on a pitcher who just might have taken himself out of of his own concentration zone.

Showalter asked aloud whether Machado gave the Padres the best chance to win, and whether it was a clean play? Then, he answered his own question. “Of course it did,” he told Lin. “Outs are precious, and the game, as much as home runs seem to be there, it’s still about ninety-foot increments—who can keep the other team from getting ninety feet and who can gain ninety feet by something offensively. It should be embraced. It’s a great, thinking man’s baseball play.”

According to Lin, Machado’s former Oriole teammate Adam Jones called the play a legal and intelligent play. Also according to Lin, Jones’s comment got a resounding agreement from an old shortstop-turned-coach-and-manager—a fellow named Larry Bowa, who wasn’t exactly renowned for subtlety or gentility as a player or a leader.

The old Bowa might even have thought Machado’s comparatively dainty slide showed Edman a little too much mercy. Compared to Bowa in his time, the typical hard-nosed player often resembled a marshmallow stick figure.

Machado has faced accusations of dirty play in the past. Even if Tingler himself says it’s become a tired narrative. But Sunday’s play reminded too many fans of the play they think destroyed Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia’s career back in 2017, the takeout slide at second that injured Pedroia at the back of his left knee. What they don’t remember is that that by itself didn’t put paid to Pedroia’s career.

The tenacious second baseman actually—and perhaps foolishly—managed to gut 105 games out in all 2017 and finished with a .369 on-base percentage plus six defensive runs saved above his league average at second base. But he could play only three games in 2018 and six in 2019, before sitting 2020’s pan-damn-ically mandate irregular season out and retiring three months ago.

“It’s funny,” Pedroia told NBC Sports Boston’s John Tomase after his retirement conference. “I remember when I got the first MRI after the play, a doctor said, ‘Hey, man, you could not only ruin the rest of your career but the rest of your life with this injury. You tore all the cartilage off on your medial compartment on your femur and your tibia. Your cleat just got stuck, and it’s a bad deal.’

“And I said, ‘Well, can I play’,” Pedroia continued. “And he said, ‘Yeah, you could try to. It’s going to go. When it goes, you’ll know.’ So I just remember everyone there saying, ‘Hey, we need you.’ So it was a no-brainer. If I had to do it all over again, it wouldn’t even be a question. Of course I would.”

In other words, Pedroia knew the risk of trying to continue playing despite the severity of the injury. We’ll never know for dead last certain whether some sort of knee surgery at the time instead of trying to continue despite that injury might have saved and enabled continuing his career.

About the play itself? In the immediate moment after the actual play, Pedroia himself told anyone who’d listen that he never once believed Machado intended that slide to be either dirty or injurious. Indeed—just as he’d do with Edman on Sunday—the first thing Machado did after coming to his feet was try to aid Pedroia. Machado also sent Pedroia a post-game text apology to Pedroia, who replied that he knew Machado wasn’t trying to injure him.

Without now mentioning Machado by name, Pedroia told Tomase, “Unfortunately, I just got caught in the wrong position and that was it. But I think I’m at peace with everything knowing that I did my best and the training staff and the doctors did everything we possibly could’ve to try to continue to play baseball.”

That effort earned Pedroia serious points in the guts-and-glory department. It also forced him in the end into the partial knee replacement last December that guaranteed he can never run again.

Machado was no more responsible for ending Pedroia’s career than Yankee infielder Gil McDougald was for ending onrushing Indians pitcher Herb Score’s in 1957. Score recovered from McDougald’s liner into his face, returned in due course, looked like his old self opening 1958, then blew his elbow out on a cold, wet night. He sat ten days, then tried foolishly to pitch through it, and by his own admission changed his motion to overcompensate for it “and ended up with some bad habits.”

Score hung on with the Indians until they traded him to the White Sox following the infamous Colavito-for-Kuenn deal in 1960. He didn’t regroup any better with the White Sox or in their minor league system, finally retiring to the Indians broadcast booth in 1964. It didn’t stop Cleveland from believing McDougald drilled a hole into Score’s career any more than the actualities stop Boston and elsewhere from believing Machado plowed a hole into Pedroia’s career.

But that was then, this was Sunday, and Lin would remind you that Nationals shortstop Trea Turner executed an almost exact match slide against the Mets, earlier this season,  though Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor actually stopped short of Turner and didn’t tumble over Turner onto the ground.

Nobody went boo or ballistic over that play, by the way.

“If [Machado] would’ve stopped and they threw to first and threw back to second and tagged him, nobody would’ve said a word,” Showalter told Lin. “If he had let him tag him softly up top, like most people do, nobody would’ve said a word. But because he tried to figure out a way to keep that from happening, I mean, it should be extolled.”

For all we know, too, there may be those willing to rag and bag Machado because the actual slide made him resemble a large sack of dog food falling nonchalantly and accidentally off a low warehouse shelf.

If Machado just stopped short like a good little boy and let that nice Edman consummate the double play he was “entitled” to consummate (some of the social media flappers can make you think that’s what they’re thinking), his critics would probably rag and bag him for not trying to bust up that double play by any means necessary. Hell if you do, hell if you don’t.