Most Memorable Game of 2010: The Day We All Thought We Were Smarter Than LaRussa

Most sports fans love to second-guess coaches and managers. We love to do it, especially when things go completely wrong for our team. Dare I say it can be therapeutic to help get over a tough loss by burying the manager’s decision making.

“Had we only done this, we would’ve won.”

It doesn’t happen every time the team losses, and when it does happen, it usually comes down to one or two decisions made in crunch time that completely backfire. But there was one big exception to that rule during the St. Louis Cardinals’ 2010 season, because on April 17th, “crunch time” lasted 11 innings longer than usual.

Forget the walk-off wins, comebacks, and that oh so glorious mid-August sweep of the Cincinnati Reds. For me, the most memorable game of the season was that crazy, dramatic, exhausting 20 inning loss to the New York Mets.

Tony LaRussa is no stranger to criticism and second-guessing. This is a man who has regularly batted the pitcher eighth in the lineup, rests his best players if his team is in position for to sweep a series, platoons middle-infielders and corner-outfielders like a little league team, and benched All-Star Scott Rolen in the 2006 NLCS, and decided that with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning in an All-Star game with his team trailing by 1 run to keep Albert Pujols on the bench “just in case it went into extras.” What?!

But on this day… in this game… LaRussa outdid himself.

Let me set the stage for you. It was a Saturday afternoon, and an epic pitchers’ duel was taking place. Mets ace Johan Santana had shutout the Cardinals through 7 innings, and Cardinals rookie Jaime Garcia had held the Mets to just 1 hit. To this point, the Cardinals have all five of their bench players remaining, and all seven of their relief pitchers rested and in the bullpen.

Heading into the top of the 8th, LaRussa decides he’s seen enough from his young pitcher, and brings in Kyle McClellan to try and keep the Mets at bay. Garcia’s pitch count was up to 97, and he was due to lead off the bottom of the 8th. It’s an understandable move, probably the right one. LaRussa goes ahead and makes it a double switch, putting Brendan Ryan into the nine-hole, McClellan into the 6-spot in the order, and David Freese comes out of the game. The Cardinals are left with 4 bench players, 6 relievers.

The score remained tied 0-0 heading into the bottom of the 9th. McClellan was due up second in the inning, so naturally LaRussa sends in a pinch-hitter, Nick Stavinoha. He singles up the middle, but that’s immediately wiped out by Felipe Lopez’s inning ending double play. With Stavinoha still 8 spots away from hitting next, LaRussa decides to plug Mitchell Boggs into the game in his place: 6th in the order. The Cardinals are now down to 3 bench players and 5 relievers as we head into extra innings.

The bottom of the 10th inning is what really set the stage for all the second-guessing to begin. The Mets bring in left-hander Pedro Feliciano with Colby Rasmus due up first. LaRussa counters with a right-handed batter, Joe Mather. Mather grounds out, but eventually Matt Holliday comes up the bases loaded and 2 outs. He fouls out to the first baseman, sending the game into the 11th inning. With the pitcher’s spot due up 2nd in the bottom of the 11th, LaRussa makes a big gamble, taking Holliday out of the game. After the top half of the 11th, LaRussa would plug in new reliever Trevor Miller into the cleanup spot, and inserting Allen Craig into the 6th spot where Boggs was scheduled to bat. So if you’re keeping track, that’s now 1 remaining bench player (rookie catcher Bryan Anderson), and 4 relievers.

In the top of the 12th, Trevor Miller retires lefty Jose Reyes and is immediately pulled from the game. Say it will me: 1 bench player, 3 relievers, and still no runs for either side. Now Jason Motte is in the game…and consequently in the cleanup spot.

Fast-forward to the bottom of the 12th, and the Cardinals have 2 on and 2 out with Albert Pujols at the plate. The Mets decide to walk Pujols, and everyone in the stadium is expecting Bryan Anderson to come walking out of the dugout. But it was not to be. LaRussa sent reliever Jason Motte up to the dish, and to his credit, he did foul off a couple pitches, but was eventually overmatched and struck out swinging.

LaRussa keeps Motte in the game to face three more hitters, but yanks him in favor of Dennys Reyes when John Maine reached with no one on and 2 out in the 13th. One bench player, and now just two relievers remaining.

In the 14th, LaRussa inexplicably lifts Reyes with no one on and two outs. Blake Hawksworth comes into the game and it looks like things are going to completely unravel. The first two batters he faces reach base, but he manages to get Jason Bay to bounce into a fielder’s choice to end the threat. One bench player, 1 relief pitcher.

The Cardinals looked like they had the game won in the bottom half of the inning: runners at second and third, no one out, and the top of the order coming to bat. But after Skip Schumaker and Ryan Ludwick both struck out, it was decision time again for Tony LaRussa. Albert Pujols watched on as the Mets intentionally walked him for the third straight time, and LaRussa had Blake Hawksworth on deck. With one reliever left in the bullpen, it seemed like it was definitely time to go for the win with Bryan Anderson. In 6 minor league seasons, he hit .294 with 236 RBIs. But Tony decides to let Hawksworth hit for himself…and like Motte, he fails to deliver under the improbable circumstances.

Hawksworth manages to shut the Mets out for 2 more innings, bringing us to the bottom of the 16th. After Schumaker flied out, Ludwick and Pujols stroke back to back singles…setting the stage for the cleanup spot…again. But with one out this time instead of two, it will at least give the pitcher an opportunity to sacrifice the runners to second and third, right? Wrong. LaRussa decides that now is the time to let Bryan Anderson come off the bench and hit. Not in the 12th with the bases loaded and 2 outs, not in the 14th with the bases loaded and 2 outs, but right here in this situation. Stunning. LaRussa admitted after the game that he was saving Anderson in case of an injury/fatigue situation, which is fair, but 1) neither of those options come into play if he delivers a game winning hit, and 2) if that was the case, then why not send Adam Wainwright up to pinch hit and fool the Mets into a situation where maybe he shows bunt, draws back, and slaps the ball through an open hole in the infield. Wainwright is a good hitting pitcher after all, and Hawksworth was coming out of the game regardless with 3 innings under his belt. As it turns out, Bryan Anderson hits into a bizarre inning-ending double play, where the second baseman flips a groundball to the shortstop for a fielder’s choice…who then guns down Ludwick trying to take home all the way from second and catch the infielders napping.

Into the game comes closer Ryan Franklin in the top of the 17th, and with that, the Cardinals have no one left on the bench… and no relievers in the bullpen. The scoreboard also showed 0-0. Franklin shutout the Mets in the 17th, but that was all he could give the team coming off a save the night before (remember, this began as a day game, so he had less than 20 hours to rest). The Cardinals went down in order in the bottom half of the inning, and that’s when things got really interesting.

With no other options other than to try and use a starter in relief in week three of the new season, LaRussa sends Felipe Lopez to the mound. In turn, the defense shifts around, and starting pitch Kyle Lohse enters the game to play in left field (also making him the 3rd pitcher of the game to bat cleanup behind Albert Pujols). Honestly, with as crazy as everything was going and as frustrated as I was watching this game… seeing Lopez on the mound was actually pretty entertaining. I was, after all, just one game out of 162, and most of the Cardinals’ players got a chuckle out of it. Lopez got Henry Blanco to pop out to short… the smiles got bigger. The Mets next batter actually reached on an infield single…but a wild throw to first actually allowed Albert Pujols to throw out the runner as he tried to take second. The crowd went wild…I went wild. It was a great moment in an epic game. The Cardinals were 1 out away from sending a position player to the mound in a tie ballgame and getting away with it. And get away with it, they did. After walking the next batter, Lopez got a fly-out to end the inning.

The Cardinals went down in order again in the bottom half of the inning, setting the stage for Joe Mather to try his hand at pitching. Mather walked Jose Reyes to lead off the inning. Surprisingly, the Mets elected to sacrifice him to second, giving the Cardinals backup outfielder a free out in his first trip to the mound as a big leaguer. After another walk and a hit batter, Jeff Francoeur comes up. He launches a hanging, 55 mile-an-hour pitch into deep left field, missing a homerun by inches…but getting home the game’s first run by way of a sacrifice fly (Kyle Lohse makes the catch). 1-0 Mets, top of the 19th. After Mather’s third free-pass of the inning, he retired Raul Valdez to end the threat.

The bottom of the 19th came with yet another chance to second guess Tony LaRussa. Ryan Ludwick leads off the frame with a walk. At this point, the game is more than 5 hours old, the bench and bullpen are depleted, and the Cardinals will send a position player to the mound for a third straight inning if they fail to win the game right here. In other words: they need to go for the win. But LaRussa allows Ludwick to try and steal second base. That’s right, stealing with Albert Pujols at the plate when you need two runs, not just one. Ludwick, not known for his speed, is thrown out. Albert drives the next pitch off the center field wall for a double. Of course he does. Now instead of 2 on with no outs, the Cardinals are left with a runner on second and 1 out. Kyle Lohse, you might recall, is batting cleanup. He grounds out to short… Pujols takes third. Molina comes up as the Cardinals’ final hope. He gets a pitch in on his fists…puts and inside-out swing on the pitch… and wills it just over the outstretched glove of Mets second baseman Luis Castillo. The crowd erupts. Tie game…again. This time, it’s 1-1. Allen Craig strikes out and we head to the twentieth inning.

And that’s when the fun came to an end for the Cardinals.

Joe Mather was able to hold the Mets to just one more run, but that was enough to get the unforgettable 2-1 victory for the Mets.

So take your pick on the second guessing. Was it the liberal use of relievers and pinch hitters in the late innings and early extra innings that gets you? Maybe sending Ryan Ludwick to steal second base in the 19th inning with Albert Pujols at the plate? How about making a double-switch involving cleanup hitter Matt Holliday, opening the door for three pitchers and a rookie catcher to provide “protection” for Albert Pujols.

How about all of the above.

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