- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
- 0 Shares
ST. LOUIS -- Cardinals manager Tony La Russa isn't best-selling book material and a future Hall of Famer because of his engaging personality. Let's put it this way: When they cast La Russa in the film version of "Three Nights in August," Tom Hanks will take a pass.
But La Russa's obsessive preparation and eye for detail sure come in handy on game day. It's no accident that he seems to have a knack for picking the right time to call for a suicide squeeze, a hit-and-run or a steal.
The suicide squeeze, St. Louis' 13th successful attempt in 16 tries this season, came in the fourth inning of Thursday's 6-2 Division Series win over San Diego. When little David Eckstein dropped down a bunt to score Abraham Nunez, he elicited a grand slam-caliber roar from the crowd of 52,599 fans at Busch Stadium.
"I could almost smell that squeeze," said teammate Larry Walker. "We went like 10 days without a squeeze, so it was time for one."
The hit-and-run unfolded in the seventh, off the bat of none other than the imposing Albert Pujols. As teammate Jim Edmonds bolted for second base and the Padres' Mark Loretta raced to cover the bag, Pujols swung at a high fastball from Rudy Seanez and grounded a single through the vacated hole.
It was fundamental baseball at its finest, so pure and supremely executed that you could imagine George Will's pulse quickening as he watched the game in his living room.
"Tony tells me when to do it," Pujols said later in recounting the sequence. "That's why he's the manager. That's why he's got an office and I've got a locker."
The Cardinals won 100 games this year for the second straight season and were prohibitive favorites over San Diego because they have more talent across the board. But as they've shown in taking a 2-0 Division Series lead, they're a versatile bunch with a knack for taking instruction.
Two days after pounding the Padres over the head with a mallet, the Cardinals tickled them with a feather to the point of torment. They took an early 2-0 lead against Pedro Astacio on three walks, a sacrifice bunt and a Khalil Greene error; executed two hit-and-runs and a squeeze; and won easily despite being outhit 10-6. It was a stark contrast from the series opener Tuesday, when they beat the Padres 8-5 on homers by Reggie Sanders and Edmonds.
Oh yeah, the Cardinals also turned four double plays to give them seven for the series. Nowhere does the routine groundball elicit a sense of joy the way it does in St. Louis these days.
Since the TV folks have designated St. Louis-San Diego as the not-ready-for-prime-time opening-round series, the starting times are all over the map. Game 2 began at 3 p.m. local time, when the Busch Stadium outfield was bathed in sunlight, shadows covered the infield and hitters had a heck of a time trying to pick up the spin on the ball.
St. Louis starter Mark Mulder entered his first National League postseason start with a statistically split personality. During the regular season, Mulder was 14-3 with a 2.26 ERA in night games and 2-5 with a 6.86 ERA during the day. Since this one began mid-afternoon, the outcome was a coin flip.
Joe Randa, who entered the game with a career .375 average in 40 at-bats against Mulder, continued his personal assault against the lefty. With a runner on first and one out in the second, Randa stroked a line drive off Mulder's pitching arm for an infield hit. The play put a scare into Mulder's teammates, silenced the crowd and produced a golf ball-sized welt on Mulder's bicep.
La Russa and assistant trainer Greg Hauck came to the mound and watched Mulder throw two or three warmup pitches, at which point Mulder said he was good to go. Score one for fortitude.
"If I was a pitcher and I got hit like that, I'd have to think twice about staying in," Pujols said.
Walker, a former hockey player growing up in British Columbia, was similarly impressed.
"He ain't the buffest of guys," Walker said of Mulder, who stands 6-6 and 215 pounds. "He's built like a fungo bat. But he's a tough guy, and he's got that mentality where nothing fazes him. It didn't surprise me that he could stay in there like that and give it his all."
Mulder stayed loose by flexing his arm in the dugout and using a heat pack. And oddly enough, the bruise on his arm might have helped counteract the adrenaline rush he was feeling. Mulder began throwing his sinker with slightly less oomph; as a result, it began moving all over the zone. When Mulder departed for reliever Julian Tavarez in the seventh, he had recorded 17 outs on groundballs, one by flyout and two by strikeout.
St. Louis' flair for doing the little things right was magnified when contrasted with the Padres' ineffectual play. If right fielder Ben Johnson wasn't getting a slow break on a Nunez double, catcher Ramon Hernandez was failing to block the plate. Astacio walked in a run, Greene kicked a sure double-play grounder and the Padres continued to come up empty in clutch situations.
Hernandez whiffed with the bases loaded to end the series opener, and Johnson and Mark Sweeney both struck out with the bases full to kill threats in Game 2. Toss in those four double plays and you can understand how the Padres have outhit St. Louis 23-16 and still been outscored 14-7 in the series.
"We hit the ball hard, but we can't guide it," said Padres outfielder Brian Giles. "We keep putting ourselves in situations where we have guys on and we can get a big rally going. But we haven't been able to do that yet."
While the Padres might have a better chance Saturday night against the erratic Matt Morris, they're not going to beat St. Louis because of a letdown. The Cardinals' manager is too terminally wired to let that happen.
"We're not real fond of relaxing and being comfortable," La Russa said at his postgame press conference.
Well, at least he isn't.
The Cardinals can bash the ball with the best of 'em. But in their Game 2 win, they also showed how fundamentally sound a team they are.