For a manager that prides himself on putting his players in a position to win, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa did just the opposite on Friday night. It cost Adam Wainwright his 20th victory of the season and certainly some Cy Young Award votes.
Coming off a 130-pitch outing in his last start and breezing through the mandatory five innings with a six-run lead, Wainwright’s first-ever 20-win season seemed assured.
Just the day before in a similar situation, La Russa took Chris Carpenter out after five innings with a nine-run lead in Cincinnati. The bullpen finished the final four innings to preserve Carp’s 17th win.
For reasons only La Russa knows, he kept Wainwright in for the sixth despite the 6-0 score. My guess is that he wanted Wainwright to put an exclamation point on his Cy Young candidacy in his final regular season start.
Back-to-back doubles with two out put visiting Milwaukee on the board, yet after ducking primary Brewers power threat Prince Fielder with an intentional-unintentional walk, Wainwright reached back to fan Mike Cameron to escape with only one run in.
Again, for reasons only La Russa knows, he had Wainwright bat in the bottom of the sixth and return to the mound for the seventh inning despite the 6-1 score. It was obvious his starter had struggled in the previous frame, but he asked Wainwright, already the NL leader in innings pitched, to get three more outs. He would get none.
After yielding a pair of singles, Wainwright exited the game in favor of reliever Kyle McClellan. Still all smiles, Wainwright took a curtain call from the cheering Cardinals faithful.
From there, it got downright ugly. Before McClellan was done, Wainwright’s smile was gone along with his 20th win and so was the Cardinals’ entire five-run lead.
After a walk and a strikeout, the first inherited run scored on a wild pitch. The second came home on a single, adding two runs to Wainwright’s ERA. Though he was getting pitches up and fooling no one, McClellan was left in the game. The third consecutive Milwaukee single plated the first run charged to McClellan to cut the Cardinals lead to two.
For reasons only La Russa knows, he kept McClellan in the game for more punishment. A double by number three hitter Ryan Braun plated two more, erasing the Cardinals lead and throwing Wainwright’s 20th win right out the window.
Only then did McClellan depart with two on and the score tied. After Trever Miller secured the second out, Jason Motte wild-pitched the lead run home. Amazingly, the Cardinals were suddenly down 7-6. Busch Stadium was transformed into a morgue.
The wheels fell completely off as five more Milwaukee runs came home, making the final score 12-6. Twelve unanswered runs for the Brewers in the Cardinals’ house, doubling up the score and untucking their jerseys, is inexcusable.
It would be easy to chastise McClellan for the rough outing, as five of his six batters faced reached base and four of them scored. Yet does anyone doubt that he was trying his hardest?
Just as La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan rode Wainwright too long, they compounded the problem by repeating their error with the floundering McClellan. With an expanded roster, there were plenty of fresh arms available.
During his earlier years in St. Louis, I was often critical of La Russa for keeping his starters in too long in appearing to chase individual goals, usually starters’ wins. In all fairness, I have not seen it very often in the last few seasons – until Friday, that is.
Now, everyone on the entire Cardinals team must feel terrible at the worst possible time as the club is just five days away from game one of the NLDS.
Wainwright lost his 20th and maybe his Cy Young Award. McClellan had his worst outing of the season and a blown save. Motte, Dennys Reyes, Mitchell Boggs and even the defense picked up the bad karma.
La Russa is a legitimate contender for the 2009 Manager of the Year Award for good reason, demonstrated over 159 games. Unfortunately, game number 160 meant more than many of the previous ones and this time, he pushed all the wrong buttons.
As a result, what should have been a night of celebration turned into a horror show.