La Russa's leadership key to Cards' success
MILWAUKEE -- It is time once again to acknowledge, appreciate and applaud the managerial greatness of Tony La Russa.
His 2011 St. Louis Cardinals will be going to the World Series. Just the blink of an eye ago, they were 10 1/2 games back in the National League Wild Card race and obviously not going anywhere.
"Improbable, incredible, overwhelming," was the way La Russa characterized this saga. That still might have been understatement given the historical nature of the Cards' achievement.
The Cardinals wrapped up the NL Championship Series in six games, finishing with a resounding 12-6 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday night at Miller Park.
La Russa deflected all credit in the direction of the players, which is exactly what an intelligent man would do in these circumstances. Defeat is not the only outcome that offers opportunity for grace.
But the best Cards teams adopt the La Russa way of playing, and thinking. That can be grinding, day after day, night after night, and it can be, in the circumstances of 2011, as the manager put it before Game 6: "We're going to play this game like it's the last game of our lives."
That's the way the rest of the Cardinals put it, too.
"We played every game just like it's our last," said lefty reliever Marc Rzepczynski, the winning pitcher in Game 6. That is the manager's influence at work in the most basic way.
"You know, he's been great," Rzepczynski said of La Russa. "He takes every day, day by day. We've done that. When the next day game comes on, we get ready for that game, and at the end, we get ready for the next one."
And the Redbirds believe in themselves, in each other, in the manager, in the whole concept of what it means to be a St. Louis Cardinal.
"I think that's what you've got to do in this game," said third baseman David Freese, who was named MVP of this series. "We got a group of guys with some talent, desire, and just a ton of heart.
"Coming back from 10 1/2 or whatever it was, obviously it's a tough battle. But we kept plugging; we kept pushing. The fans deserve that. The organization definitely deserves that. It's kind of surreal that we're here, but this team deserves what we've been rewarded."
Staff ace Adam Wainwright was lost for the year after having Tommy John surgery during Spring Training. The disabled list, at times, seemed to be dominated by Cardinals. There were times when injuries were surplus commodities, but warm bodies were in short supply. These Cards became more than familiar with the concept of adversity. But this is when La Russa does some of his best work.
"A lot of it has to do with character," La Russa said Sunday night. "We have a very strong-character team. And when it started to get away from us, I just reminded them... Look, I tell you exactly, the first four months we had a ton of respect from our peers. And for two weeks in August, we started mugging games left and right. And we had to say: 'Hey, look, unless we go about this better, we're going to ruin everything we accomplished, as far as respect.'
"And we started winning a little bit. And literally played every game like it was the last game of our life. And they did today. I was listening to the guys, 'This is like the last game we'll ever play.' It's good character, good talent."
This Cardinals club, suffering important injuries, dropping way off the pace, written off by many, but never themselves, eventually epitomized La Russa's approach to the game. The relentless day-to-day focus, the unwillingness to concede anything, the inability to quit; that's all in the play book. But La Russa isn't claiming any credit in that area, either.
"You know, it's not my approach; it's the Cardinal approach," he said. "That's what this franchise is famous for: Play hard every day, minimize mistakes.
"We have a good coaching staff that preaches that, teaches that. All we need is the game for the players. I said in Spring Training, our group, anyone associated with a Major League club, likes this club. They're talented, good people, fun to be around, and they've got good guts. That's why that lull in August was so disappointing, because we're mugging it. And it turned out we didn't."
In winning this NLCS, La Russa used his bullpen even more aggressively than usual. What was he doing lifting those starters in the fifth inning with leads? He was winning, that's what. This strategy would wear out a bullpen by the end of April if used during the regular season, but here, in the confined space of a short series, it meant only sustained success for the Redbirds.
Tony La Russa is one of two managers to win World Series championships in both leagues. He is third all-time in managerial victories. This will be the third St. Louis team he has taken to the World Series in the last eight seasons. Yes, he has talented players and human beings with character on his side. But so often his teams take on his own relentless, competitive, persevering nature. And then they just win.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.