When a manager has been at the job as long as Tony La Russa has, there are going to be continued debates about the best job he’s done. Certainly the 2006 post-season ranks up there for La Russa, as does the 1992 season in Oakland, when the A’s had just one .300 hitter (Mike Bordick), yet ranked fourth in the AL in runs and won 96 games.
La Russa’s crowning achievement, however, was the 2002 season. Nine years ago, Darryl Kile died in his sleep in a Chicago hotel room as the Cardinals were playing a series with the Cubs. While the offense was good, 14 different pitchers started games, and only Matt Morris started more than 24. In fact, 101 ESPN’s Jason Simontacchi was second on the club with 24 starts and 11 wins. Travis Smith, Luther Hackman, Josh Pearce and Jamey Wright all started games for the Cardinals, and they still won 97 games and the NL Central crown.
While Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty did add third baseman Scott Rolen and lefthander Chuck Finley at the trading deadline, La Russa had to do an incredible job of leading. In addition to keeping the Redbirds ship sailing despite the well-liked Kile’s death, there were other distractions. Everyone around the team loved broadcaster Jack Buck, who died four days before Kile did.
During the second half of that season, the players were distracted by the possibility of a work stoppage. The MLBPA was ready to walk out at midnight on Aug. 30, but an agreement was reached at the last minute and play continued. Former staff ace Andy Benes was essentially retired, but worked his way back and actually learned a pitch from Finley to continue his career. La Russa navigated the team through all that turmoil, and lost the NLCS in the ninth inning of Game 7. That managerial performance will always stand as No. 1 for No. 10.
But this year may join it, as La Russa would say, “tied for first.” The 2011 season has been as trying as any year that didn’t include the tragedy of death, and they’ve only played 73 games. If the Cardinals are able to battle through everything that’s happened this season and make the playoffs, then this year will go down as right there among the best La Russa has managed.
On opening day, Ryan Franklin blew a ninth-inning lead by allowing a game-tying home run to Cameron Maybin. A struggling Cardinals defense contributed to that loss to the Padres, as well, setting the tone for a disturbing trend of poor defense all season.
By the end of the first week, the Cardinals had lost their cleanup hitter, Matt Holliday, to appendicitis, and pitchers Brian Tallet and Bryan Augenstine to arm injuries. By the end of the second week, Franklin had let three more ninth-inning leads get away, costing him his closer’s job, and it became painfully apparent that Albert Pujols was out of sorts at the plate.
To this point, they’ve lost eight games in which they led or were tied after eight innings. The bullpen has blown 14 saves. Injuries have piled up. Starting second baseman Skip Schumaker missed more than a month with a bad elbow. Starting third baseman David Freese will wind up missing two months after breaking a hand when hit by a pitch. Holliday, after missing 10 days with the appendectomy, missed nearly another month with a quad injury. Lance Berkman missed time with a strained wrist.
Key utility men Nick Punto and Alan Craig have been out with arm and knee ailments, respectively. Key backup catcher Gerald Laird was felled when hit by a pitch. And that all came after staff ace Adam Wainwright was lost for the season before the club had played a spring-training game. By the way, Wainwright’s replacement, Kyle McClellan, missed a couple of weeks with a hip injury, and replacement ace Chris Carpenter has won a single game during the team’s first 73 of the season.
Now, three-time MVP Pujols will become the 13th use of the disabled list for the Cardinals and the eighth player on currently. When Pujols suffered a broken radius bone against Kansas City during Sunday’s game, you could almost hear Vince Lombardi yell “What the hell is going on here?” The injury bug has been remarkable, and the luck has been all bad for the Cards.
Yet, the team will open a three-game series against Philadelphia in sole possession of first place in the NL Central. And, they still have enough players to compete through the injuries and be in the race heading into September.
Why do they have that chance? Because their manager fosters an environment of competitiveness, toughness, and resiliency. Is this a really good team? Heck no. They don’t play very well defensively, they have some issues in the bullpen, and those are exacerbated by a pitching staff that hasn’t been able to get through six innings for more than a month. But La Russa gives them a chance to win late with the attitude he instills, and because of those aforementioned qualities, many times they do win late.
It’s going to be tough for this 2011 version of the Cardinals to battle through all of the adversity they’ll have to deal with. But if they do, La Russa will deserve a lion’s share of the credit, and this managing job will rank right there with the best of his 33-year career.