Jaime Garcia, one pitch -- and one poor decision -- away from being the hero.
If you're surprised it was a double play that broke the Cardinals
' collective back, then you just haven't been paying attention.
The story of the season -- the historic number of double plays the Cards have grounded into this year -- popped up once again, killing an eighth inning bases loaded rally. Allen Craig hit the ball right on the nose, a bullet to be sure; you can't really ask for anything more. And of course, because it was the 2011 Cardinals, that bullet hopped once and right into Chase Utley's glove. Inning over, uprising quelled.
The Cards did make a go of it in the ninth, but too little, too late. Really, though, by that time they deserved to lose. Four walks, twelve hits, just two runs. Something just doesn't add up there. When you miss out on scoring opportunities again and again, it's eventually going to jump up and bite you squarely on the ass.
I really wish I could tell you I saw Jaime Garcia
giving up that home run a mile away, and was shouting for the manager to take him out of the game. I wish I could say I was right, and I called it. However, telling you that would be a lie, and I try very hard to be at least relatively honest in these pages.
Jaime was cruising right along, and there's no way in the world I would have pulled him. Now, I will say I was on the fence about pinch-hitting for him at the end of the sixth, when he came up for a third time in an RBI situation. But even then, it had nothing to do with the way Garcia was pitching, and everything to do with the need to score some runs. I cannot in any way, shape, or form blame Tony La Russa for leaving Jaime in the game the way he was pitching. He was brilliant, all the way up until the moment he wasn't.
I will, however, take issue with one decision: intentionally walking Carlos Ruiz. It was unnecessary, established no real advantage, and ultimately put a run on the board the Cards could ill afford to give up.
The situation: after reaching base to lead off the seventh inning, Shane Victorino advanced to second base on a passed ball by Yadier Molina. Jaime Garcia retired John Mayberry Jr. on a fly ball to right and Placido Polanco on a grounder to third. Two outs, runner on second, Garcia on the verge of getting out of what looked to be a very sticky inning at the outset.
Carlos Ruiz was up next, batting eighth, and La Russa called for four wide ones. Up came Ben Francisco, pinch-hitting for Cole Hamels. Jaime made his first real mistake of the game, and the Cards' hopes of winning landed out beyond the left field wall.
Here's my problem with the intentional walk: there was absolutely no justification for it. Ruiz is a solid hitter, yes, but not so good you would rather pitch to absolutely anyone but him. You might not expect a pinch-hitter to be quite as good a hitter as Ruiz, but the difference in quality isn't worth putting another runner on base. There was no platoon advantage to be forced, either; the Phillies had hitters of both handedness on the bench. I wasn't a huge fan of walking Hunter Pence intentionally earlier in the game either, but Ryan Howard's struggles against left-handers in general and Jaime in particular made the move at least somewhat palatable.
If Hamels were sitting at, say, 85 pitches I could understand it. Force Charlie Manuel's hand and get Hamels out of the game for a pinch-hitter. But Hamels was at nearly 120 pitches. Playoffs or no, Cole Hamels was not going back out to the mound.
There were two outs, so no double play. Not the sort of situation you worry about setting up a force play, either. Honestly, no matter how hard I think on it, I can't come up with one single good reason for putting Carlos Ruiz on base there. And that's maddening to me.
What happened was this: Jaime Garcia was on the verge of pulling off an outstanding escape act, and his manager decided to play some hunch and intentionally walk a hitter with no advantage to be gained. Even if Jaime gives up the home run he served Francisco to Ruiz instead, it's only two runs and we're talking about a tied game at the end of nine. Instead, the extra baserunner proved to be ruinous, and the Cards' season now teeters on the edge of oblivion.
After the game La Russa rationalized the move thusly:
"Ruiz had gotten as many big hits against [the Cardinals] over the years than the guys in the middle of the lineup. He just terrorizes us, and he's already hit two balls hard."
That's all well and good to spout off about, but what it comes down to is this: La Russa went with a gut feeling and fuzzy logic of the highest order rather than trust his pitcher could do the job.
Like I said earlier, I can't fault La Russa for not pulling Jaime. I can understand the argument some might have for going to a reliever there, whether it be to get a right-hander in the game or the simple belief a pitcher coming in fresh and throwing hard is more likely to succeed than the starter throwing his 90th pitch, and I wouldn't blame anyone for arguing that. I personally would have left Garcia in, but reasonable people could certainly disagree. But putting an extra runner on base when your pitcher is nearly out of the jam, without gaining any kind of tangible benefit at all, just to satisfy your own need to do something
to leave your mark on the game just isn't a defensible position.
I can deal with losing. But seeing a tactical decision with no upside put a player at such a disadvantage is something different entirely. Tony La Russa chose to make the game about his hunch and his strategy instead of letting his players succeed or fail on the field, and I have a real problem with that.