CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

La Russa takes blame, but explanations still hard to believe

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ST. LOUIS -- Tony La Russa had a lot on his mind Tuesday, and he got right to it. Before even taking questions during a media session as the World Series swung back here for Game 6, he first requested time to speak.

OK, here it comes, I figured.

He's changing telephone service from AT&T to Verizon.

He's going to build a bullpen fire pit so the Cardinals can communicate in a foolproof manner, by smoke signal.

He's going to denounce Texas as a third-world banana republic that all these years later, still can't even perfect one of Alexander Graham Bell's proudest inventions.

None of the above. Instead, for nearly four minutes, he presented a spirited defense of Albert Pujols' going rogue by calling the failed hit-and-run in the seventh inning of the 4-2 loss Monday.

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Then, during his extraordinarily long 30-minute news conference, he shouldered 100 percent of the blame for the stunning and inexplicable bullpen confusion that ranks as one of the most bizarre sequences -- and screwups -- in World Series annals.

"That's got to be one of the weirdest things in major-league history," La Russa said.

It was a sequence that still might help cost the Cardinals a World Series title, though La Russa is still chafing at poor situational hitting as well. The Cardinals were 1 for 12 with runners in scoring position in Game 5 -- something even a brand new iPhone couldn't help them with -- and are hitting .186 (8 for 43) with RISP during the World Series.

Still, La Russa admitted, he has never replayed the seemingly simple act of picking up a telephone and placing a call as often as he has over the past 24 hours.

During a discussion with a handful of reporters in the hallway outside of his office following the media session and after the Cardinals' clubhouse had closed for the day, the 67-year-old manager slowly shook his head.

"I thought, 'This is not happening. This is a bad dream,' "he said. "But I was more upset with not scoring runs."

In a way, as the Cardinals attempt their final Houdini act of a season filled with escapes, you might say that Halloween has come early for the longtime manager.

"What a nightmare," La Russa said. "My House of Horrors stuff."

It was still difficult to ascertain the whys, wherefores and hows of an extremely complicated eighth inning in Texas in which the Rangers scored the two winning runs while the Cardinals had the wrong pitcher in the game.

The combination drama/Keystone Kops act covered multiple miscommunications over the telephone and the shocking lack of a safety net to prevent something like this from happening. Especially at the worst possible time of the season.

How it unfolded, step by incredible step:

 As reliever Octavio Dotel started the eighth inning in a 2-2 game with Michael Young at the plate, La Russa was on the bullpen phone telling coach Derek Lilliquist, "Get [Marc] Rzepcynski going and have [Jason] Motte play catch."

But only Rezepcynski warmed. A day later, the only thing La Russa could surmise was that he must have paused and taken a bit too long to spit out that second part -- "and have Motte play catch" -- and Lilliquist did not hear it before hanging up the telephone.

 Two batters later, with one out and Young on second following a double, La Russa elected to intentionally walk Nelson Cruz. Because Dotel usually balks at that strategy, he sent pitching coach Dave Duncan to the mound for a discussion. At this point, La Russa thinks Motte is warming in the bullpen -- which is not visible from the dugout. And unlike some other parks, there is no television monitor in the dugout in Arlington that shows the bullpen.

 Following the walk to Cruz, with runners on first and second with one out, La Russa called for Rzepcynski, the lefty, to face the left-handed David Murphy. This is when he notices, while on the mound as the reliever comes in from the bullpen, that there is not a second Cardinal warming up.

 So now there's a problem. Because up next is Napoli. And the manager wants Motte for Napoli but, normally, he said, a reliever takes two batters to get warm. And after Murphy's infield single loaded the bases, La Russa said stalling to get Motte ready was out of the question because with the bases now loaded, Rzepcynski could not throw to first once, let alone multiple times. La Russa discounted the notion of having catcher Yadier Molina visit the mound to stall because, again, he said, there just was not enough time now to get Motte ready. So La Russa said he did the only thing he could: He phoned the bullpen and told Lilliquist to get Motte up.

 Taking on water fast, another problem leveled the Cardinals: Molina called for a 1 and 1 slider to Napoli. Not the best option for the left-handed Rzepcynski to battle the right-handed Napoli, and especially not when the pitcher left it up. Boom. Two-run double, 4-2 Rangers.

 Now, with runners on second and third, Rzepcynski struck out lefty Mitch Moreland for the second out. Then, with right-hander Ian Kinsler up next, La Russa went to the mound and called for Motte. Except ... the right-hander who came in from the bullpen was Lance Lynn. "What are you doing here?" La Russa exclaimed. Answer: Lilliquist mis-heard, hearing "Lynn" instead of "Motte" during the previous phone call.

 Because Lynn had thrown 47 pitches on Saturday and missed two months late in the season with an oblique injury, La Russa had designed him off-limits for Game 5 for fear of injury by overworking him. So when Lynn unexpectedly showed up on the mound, the manager told him: "I'm not going to risk you. Throw your warm-ups, then throw four intentional balls. We'll get Motte ready."

 Back in the dugout, La Russa phoned the bullpen for a second time asking Motte to prepare to pitch (a third time, really, if you go way back in the inning when Motte was instructed to begin playing catch). "I got loose when Lance Lynn was warming up to pitch in the game out on the mound," Motte said. "They called, and they said, 'Get Motte going, quick.' "

 Following Lynn's intentional walk to Kinsler, which loaded the bases, the Cardinals finally got Motte into the game -- four batters after they had originally intended to. He fanned Andrus, ending the inning. But the Cardinals had already inflicted themselves with a mortal wound.

Some still do not believe this elaborate -- and somehow elaborately simple -- explanation for how the Cardinals lost their way along the bullpen path. One former major-league manager said Tuesday that we'll probably never learn what really happened.

It would be one thing if this happened to nearly any other manager in a World Series. But Tony La Russa? He's the Godfather of the modern bullpen. That's why this stretches the imagination like salt water taffy. The guy is a Hall of Famer, a genius with the bullpen, a master of matchups.

"Evidently not," said a chagrined La Russa, who also fiercely defended Lilliquist, saying that, ultimately, the coach was not to blame.

Many clubs have sort of a checks-and-balances system as a safety net, whereby the manager tells the bullpen coach over the phone who he wants warming up, and the bullpen coach repeats that back to the manager. La Russa said the Cardinals never have done that, nor have they ever needed it.

What happened Monday night occurred in part, La Russa said, because he was "locked in" to what was happening on the field and did not take time to double-check what was happening in the bullpen. Another hard-to-believe part of this tale: When La Russa gets the bullpen going, he and longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan have no system in which Duncan follows up by double-checking to make sure the right people are up and throwing.

Why?

"This has never happened before in 30 years," La Russa said.

And, he vows it won't happen again. He said Tuesday that bench coach Joe Pettini will be double-checking things for Game 6 and, St. Louis hopes, Game 7.

"I will guarantee," La Russa said, "the next two games, the right guy will be up."

Motte said it wasn't the subject of much discussion by Cardinals scratching their heads on the charter flight home.

"A lot of people had family with them," Motte said. "I don't try and second-guess why this happened or why that happened. I had my wife with me. I don't remember what we were talking about, but I don't think it was baseball."

As for how the Cardinals, who held a sparsely attended optional workout on a gorgeous, 70-degree day Tuesday, are handling the deficit, La Russa still likes his chances.

"We're upset," he said. "We're disappointed, but we're not heartbroken.

"We'll be out there playing our hearts out."

And, presumably, working the dugout phone like the champions they still hope to be.

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