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Monday, April 27, 2009

Like it or not, La Russa gets credit here

Like it or not, La Russa gets credit here
Bernie Miklasz bjmiklasz@ 314-340-8192
Sunday, Apr. 26 2009
It's only April, not September, and baseball's long expedition always exposes
the counterfeit contenders.

So it is probably a bit premature to inform Cubs fans that they're only two
games out in the wild-card side of the National League standings. It is
probably too soon to declare that first place in the NL Central is pretty much
out of the question for the Cubs.

But the Cardinals are off to an impressive start, perched atop the division
with a surprising 13-5 record after Saturday's 8-2 demolition of the Cubs. The
Cardinals will go for the three-game sweep on Sunday at Busch Stadium.

It's not as if the opening month was set up as a carefree joy ride for the
locals. The Cardinals began the 2009 schedule with no established third
baseman, no set closer, and an outfielder playing second base.

After that launch came the detours: the Cardinals lost

rotation ace Chris Carpenter to the disabled list on April 14. They've
squandered three victories by immolating leads carried into the eighth inning.
They've committed 19 errors, the highest total in the majors.

All of that, and somehow it adds up to 13-5 and an early lead in the NL
Central. Having this Albert Pujols fellow batting third is a plus; a lightning
bolt of a grand-slam on Saturday jacked his April totals to seven homers and 25

After the game, I told manager Tony La Russa that he'd be foolish to retire and
walk away from the Cardinals as long as he can write the name "Pujols" on the
daily lineup card.

Every manager would covet Pujols as a weapon of choice, but it goes beyond
that. La Russa is scribbling a lot of other names onto those lineups. And he
wins with them, too.

I realize that La Russa will always have his critics, and they'll never declare
a cease fire. And that's fine. Your local heavyweight sports columnist (ahem)
has gotten into the occasional snit with the intense manager over the last
13-plus seasons.

But by now, isn't it obvious that the guy is pretty good at what he does?

No, it's not all about him, either. When I pursued this angle after Saturday's
game, an uncomfortable La Russa wanted to deflect compliments. He credited his
players, his coaches, the trainers, the equipment guys, the scouts, and key
front-office types.

Indeed the La Russa staff, anchored by pitching coach Dave Duncan, is terrific.
General manager John Mozeliak catches shrapnel from fans, but Mozeliak has
found some excellent bargains — Ryan Ludwick, Brian Barden, Joe Thurston —
during a phase of payroll reduction. (Walt Jocketty was the GM when Ludwick
signed, but Ludwick was scouted and recommended by Mozeliak.)

But La Russa's hard-driving personality and his two pillars of competition —
effort and execution — have created a winning culture here. And that's

Since La Russa became the manager in 1996, only Atlanta has won more
regular-season games in the NL, and only the NY Yankees have won more
postseason games. During this decade, the Cardinals lead the NL in
regular-season victories and have the most postseason wins by an NL team. Their
33 postseason victories since the start of the 2000 season are 14 more than the
NL team (Arizona) with the second-highest total.

One of the reasons for La Russa's success is that he consistently squeezes the
most from his roster. And he's doing it again this season. Not counting the
pitcher's spot, La Russa has used 18 different lineups in 18 games.

So far La Russa has gotten a combined .366 batting average, 17 RBIs and 14 runs
scored from Barden and Thurston, who are splitting time at third base. The
trauma of losing regular Troy Glaus to shoulder surgery has been lessened by
the surprising RBI production coming out of the third-base spot. So far in the
NL, only the Cubs and Dodgers have culled more RBIs from third basemen than the

And these highly effective patch jobs are nothing new. Think of all of the role
players, bit players, who have delivered some of the best baseball of their
careers or experienced a revival — while working for La Russa here.

That roll call would include Barden, Thurston, Thomas Howard, So Taguchi, Aaron
Miles, Joe McEwing, Scott Spiezio, Abraham Nunez, Miguel Cairo, Marlon
Anderson, Craig Paquette, Eduardo Perez, Felipe Lopez, Bo Hart and John
Rodriguez. And I'm sure I've left a few out.

And La Russa's top lieutenant, Duncan, has done the same on the pitching side,
getting improved results from the likes of Kent Bottenfield, Woody Williams,
Garrett Stephenson, Jeff Suppan, Kyle Lohse, Jason Marquis, Todd Wellemeyer,
Daryl Kile, Chris Carpenter, Braden Looper, Andy Benes, etc.

I believe this is one of the reasons why ownership has trimmed payroll; La
Russa and Duncan are victims of their resourcefulness. It is now expected that
they'll get overachieving performances from players who come to St. Louis with
thin resumes or deteriorating form.

Whether he wants it or not, La Russa gets a lot of the credit. And I'll be
happy to argue with him over that.

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