(ARLINGTON, Texas) – Hey, St. Louis, if your team loses the World Series this year, blame a bad phone connection.
World Series goats are usually human. Back in 1985, for example, umpire Don Denkinger blew a call at first base that allowed the Kansas City Royals to stay alive against the Cardinals in Game 6; the Royals won it all in seven. The following year, Bill Buckner let a ball slip through his legs against the New York Mets, and Boston Red Sox fans cursed him for years (though all would eventually be forgiven).
But we may soon be adding fuzzy fiber optics to this infamous list. (Insert joke about your least favorite phone company here: Does Rangers Ballpark use AT&T?)
On Monday Night, the St. Louis Cardinals lost to the Texas Rangers, 4-2, in Game 5 of the World Series. The Rangers now have a 3-2 lead in the Series; with a win Wednesday night in St. Louis, Texas will clinch its first title. More than the actual phone, a bullpen coach hard of hearing, or Texas crowd noise that drowned a call from St. Louis manager Tony La Russa to the pen, might have played key roles in a miscommunication that directly impacted the outcome of Game 5. Or maybe La Russa, who also made a separate ninth inning decision that cost the Cardinals, needs to speak more clearly into the receiver.
No matter who – or what – should bear the blame for the mishap, it was absurd. And going into Game 6, a game St. Louis must win, the Cardinals are all mixed-up. And what makes what you’re about to read doubly confusing is that, until now, La Russa’s expert use and reliance on the bullpen is the reason the Cards have excelled in this post season.
The whole thing sounds like a follow up to Abbott and Costello’s ”Who’s on first?” routine. In the bottom of the eighth inning, with the score tied 2-2, La Russa called the bullpen to request that both left-handed reliever Marc Rzepczynski, and righty Jason Motte, warm up. St. Louis bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist heard La Russa ask for Rzepczynski, but not Motte.
After noticing that Motte wasn’t throwing, La Russa called the bullpen back a second time, repeating his request that Motte get loose. However, by the time Texas catcher Mike Napoli, a right-hander whom La Russa wanted Motte to face, came up to the plate with the bases loaded, La Russa figured Motte wasn’t ready. So La Russa kept lefty Rzepczynski, who had entered the game earlier, on the mound, mucking up La Russa’s righty-righty strategy. Sure enough, Napoli hit a bases-loaded double off Rzepczynski that scored the deciding runs. It’s turning into quite the Fall Classic for Nap0li as he becomes only the second player to have four multi-RBI games in a single World Series, joining a certain Mickey Mantle of the 1960 New York Yankees.
But from the sublime to the ridiculous as things then got comical. After Rzepczynski struck out Mitch Moreland for the second out, La Russa went to the mound again, thinking Motte was finally ready. He signaled for Motte, but the pitcher who arrived from the bullpen looked strangely like Lance Lynn, another Cardinals reliever. Lynn wasn’t even supposed to pitch on Monday. “I saw the big fella come in, and I said, ‘Why are you here?’” Turns out that when La Russa asked Lilliquist to warm up Motte for a second time, Lilliquist heard La Russa say “Lynn” instead of “Motte,” even though the names don’t really sound alike.
La Russa ordered Lynn to intentionally walk Texas’ Ian Kinsler, affording Motte some time to finally warm up. When La Russa removed Lynn for Motte after Lynn walked Kinsler, America thought La Russa was losing his mind. Why, especially in a close game, bring in a pitcher to just intentionally walk one batter, completely wasting him for the rest of the game?
Only afterwards did we discover that conversations between La Russa and Lilliquist, talking like two first graders in a broken game of telephone, produced St. Louis’ bizarre bullpen strategy. “It must be loud,” La Russa says of the crowd noise in the bullpen. “I give the fans credit . . . Maybe we need to come up with some ear mikes or something.” How about texting? La Russa offered another potential solution. “Smoke signals from the dugout,” he says.
In the visiting locker room, NewsFeed asked Lynn if the bullpen was unusually loud. “I didn’t hear anything,” Lynn said. Wait, La Russa just said that the crowd noise caused the miscommunication. And now you’re saying you “didn’t hear anything,” that it was quiet? Lynn stares back blankly. Remind us: Who’s on first?
“The bullpen phone is kind of tucked back in there,” Lynn says. “Everything is kind of huddled over. It’s hard to know. It’s hard to hear. We can’t even hear the phone ring out there. It’s not very loud or anything like that.”
Wait, now you’re saying it’s hard to hear, but it’s not very loud. “Phone wise,” Lynn replies. Ah, the phone isn’t very loud. Got it, I think. Now I want to bash my head against your locker. The Cardinals are very confusing.
The second mishap actually didn’t hurt the Cardinals, since Motte – remember him? – wound up striking out the Texas shortstop Elvis Andrus for the third out, keeping the score at 4-2. Still, no Cards fan can be comfy with this circus.
Plus, in the top of the ninth, La Russa really cost the Cardinals; here, he only had himself to blame. Texas reliever Neftali Feliz hit Allen Craig with a pitch to start the inning. With Albert Pujols at the plate, La Russa ordered Craig to steal on a 3-2 pitch, even though the upside of that move – Craig scoring on a Pujols extra-base hit – is meaningless, since it’s Pujols who represents the tying run.
Sure, Craig’s jump-start could have prevented a double play. But given the nastiness of Feliz’s pitches, a Pujols strikeout was a real risk. Pujols whiffed, Napoli threw Craig out by eight feet, and Cardinals fans clutched their hair. The double play destroyed the rally: two batters later, Texas won it.
(PHOTOS: The Golden Age of Baseball)
As if this game wasn’t muddled enough for St. Louis, yet another goof hurt the Cardinals. In the top of the 7th, with one out and the game still tied, Craig also tried to steal second with Pujols at the plate. This move made even less sense. Even if Craig stole the base, he’d just be taking the bat out of Pujols’ hands; the Rangers would have walked Pujols intentionally.
Instead, Napoli nailed Craig at second, and just like in the ninth inning, the play wasn’t even close. Did La Russa order Craig to steal? “It was just a mix-up,” La Russa says. Mix-ups, like summer heat, are a St. Louis specialty. He wouldn’t elaborate on this one. “On our team, nobody gets thrown under the bus,” says La Russa. (Except, apparently, for the bullpen coach who botched the phone call).
Craig said it was supposed to be a hit-and-run play. “I got the sign, and I ran,” says Craig. “Simple as that.” Yet, Pujols didn’t swing at the pitch. Did he miss the sign? Did third-base coach Jose Oquendo misread La Russa’s intentions? Did five people give different sets of directions? Did a game of rock-paper-scissors determine that decision?
With the Cardinals, all absurdity is possible. And if St. Louis doesn’t cut the confusion, the Rangers will be riding back to Texas with a title.