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CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

La Russa loses golden touch, Cards lose control of Series


ST. LOUIS -- The words that came before the game bounced as wildly afterward as Jon Jay's throw when Albert Pujols misplayed it.

"The same compliment can be a criticism the next day," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa was saying.

The words that came before the game had longer hang time than the two ninth-inning sac flies from Josh Hamilton and Michael Young combined.

"Mostly, it comes down to you make a move and if it works, hey, what a good move," La Russa continued. "And if it doesn't work, 'What was he thinking? He should have done something else.'"

The Cardinals were three outs from flying to Texas in control of this World Series. Moments from having the Rangers roped and tied.

Then just like that, the manager who had pushed all the right buttons in this postseason pushed one that led to a trap door opening. Right underneath the mound, swallowing the Cardinals whole.

Texas 2, Cardinals 1.

What was he thinking??

"It stinks," said Jason Motte, the first of three Cardinals relievers to parade through the inning.

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Should he have done something else?

"I changed my game plan up," said Arthur Rhodes, who threw a first-pitch slider to Hamilton because he had started the ailing Texas lefty with five straight fastballs a night earlier. "It was up a little bit. If I would have got it down, I would have gotten a ground ball."

Live on the high wire of bullpen matchups, die falling off the high wire.

"The only time you have regrets is if you didn't compete the proper way, and we did." La Russa said. "We just got beat."

La Russa made a record 28 pitching changes in the NL Championship Series, and just about every one of them paid off more than a three-cherried slot machine. So far this postseason, St. Louis' bullpen was 4-0 with a 2.38 ERA.

Starter Jaime Garcia was splendid for seven innings, leaving with a 1-0 lead. Fernando Salas and Marc Rzepczynski ("I don't know how to pronounce his last name, so I'm not even going to try," Rangers manager Ron Washington had said earlier) protected that lead in the eighth.

On came Motte to start the ninth. Ian Kinsler dumped a cutter onto the lawn in shallow left field, just out of the reach of Rafael Furcal, for a single. Elvis Andrus tried to bunt and missed. Kinsler decided on his own to steal, and barely beat a pinpoint throw from Yadier Molina. Second base ump Ron Kulpa did great work making the right call on a by-his-fingertips grab of the bag just ahead of the throw.

Then Andrus blistered another Motte cutter into center for a single ... and that's where the fun began.

Kinsler rounded third hard. Pujols, the cutoff man, alligator-armed Jay's throw in the middle of the diamond and misplayed it. Alertly, Andrus sprinted to second as the ball bounced.

"I was three or four steps off the base," said Andrus of what he saw just after rounding first. "I have to read the situation."

He read it perfectly.

"If he catches it, in that situation I'm on first base," said Andrus, who also played shortstop as beautifully and as gracefully as a ballerina. "You have to be ready for anything. A lot of things happen in a short period."

More than an hour after the game, the official scorers changed their original call and gave Pujols an error. It was the right thing to do. Pujols, by the way, skated out of the clubhouse early and was not available to comment on the game-turning play. This is a leader?

So runners were at second and third, instead of first and third.

Motte, 5-2 with a 2.25 ERA and nine saves during the season, still hadn't been designated as the official closer by La Russa despite the fact that he morphed into the ninth-inning guy late in the season. Now we saw why.

Out came La Russa with Hamilton due up. The choices were either to let Motte pitch to a man with a strained groin -- intentionally walk him with first base open to set up a double play while leaving Motte in to face righties Young, Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli -- or call for the lefty Rhodes for a one-batter matchup.

"Load the bases, that's a really difficult thing to do," La Russa said. "We had a chance to do something with Hamilton with Rhodes, maybe they score a run but they don't advance the other guy. ..."

"If you ask Josh, his goal wasn't to get the run in in that situation," Young said. "It was to get the guy over to third. If you get [Andrus] over to third, [Kinsler] is going to score naturally."

Thinking man's game? Yeah, the Rangers can play that one, too.

So Hamilton tore into the first pitch he saw from Rhodes, that pedestrian slider. Yep, Kinsler scored and Andrus moved up to third.

In came Lance Lynn, who threw three straight balls to Young. He battled back into the count at 3-2, then Young launched a curveball for a second consecutive sac fly.

Not often has the Cardinals bullpen spent the night explaining a train wreck this October. This is the group that has turned water into wine time after time again.

"It was a nice little run we were on," Motte said. "It's one of those things that happens.

"I blame myself."

That's very harsh. When the ninth inning started, Motte had retired 27 of 28 hitters had had faced this postseason. The guy had been more lights out than a power company going after a consumer with an unpaid bill.

"I saw Arthur warming up, and I knew Hamilton was up," the right-handed Motte said. "I figured I was out of there.

"Tony's the boss. He makes the moves. I didn't do my job tonight."

What was he thinking? Should he have done something else?

All postseason, La Russa has had the magic touch.

The lesson from Game 2 was, there are no absolutes in baseball. Wear the genius cap one day, you may get the dunce cap the next. Night before, it was Texas' Washington on the griddle. How dare he even think about matching wits with La Russa.

It ain't rocket science. It ain't black and white. La Russa isn't infallible. Washington isn't a rube.

This Series is on, and man is it going to be fun.


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