TOWER GROVE • Although his comments were curious and a tad circuitous, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa clearly had sound reasons if not sound explanations for rewriting the planned starting rotation as it opened the second half.
This past Sunday morning, La Russa notified pitching coach Dave Duncan that he was going to take Duncan's original plan, as reported by Joe Strauss in Sunday's Post-Dispatch, and shuffle the starters. Instead of lefty Jaime Garcia getting only one turn on the upcoming nine-game road trip, he was going to get two. Instead of opening the second half with former Cincinnati Red Kyle Lohse starting at Great American Ball Park the Cardinals were going to go with Jake Westbrook, who had the most inconsistent first half of any of the Cardinals' starters.
La Russa said he wanted to "play the edge," though some took that to mean that the "edge" was Lohse starting in New York and others believed the manager was hinting at Garcia's unbeaten record against the rival Reds. In truth, it was probably more the latter, and the schedule ahead. One look at the two plans - Duncan's original and the final version - reveals the "edges" La Russa sought to play.
The Duncan Plan
Tonight, at Cincinnati: RHP Kyle Lohse
Saturday, at Cincinnati: RHP Chris Carpenter
Sunday, at Cincinnati: RHP Jake Westbrook
Tuesday, at New York: RHP Kyle McClellan
Wednesday, at New York: LHP Jaime Garcia
The La Russa Rewrite
Tonight, at Cincinnati: RHP Jake Westbrook
Saturday, at Cincinnati: RHP Chris Carpenter
Sunday, at Cincinnati: LHP Jaime Garcia
Tuesday, at New York: RHP Kyle Lohse
Wednesday, at New York: RHP Kyle McClellan
It's not unusual for a team to hold its ace for the second game or third game to create a better matchup. In a way, the Cardinals are out to steal tonight's game from the Reds' best pitcher. Instead of going into the series with a wash in the first game's pitching matchup, the Cardinals have created a series where they, on paper, hold the pitching edge in two games. That's not scheduling, that's strategizing.
By moving Garcia into the Reds' series the Cardinals have the opportunity to get their two best pitchers into the two division series on this road trip. Both Carpenter and Garcia will start one game against Cincy and in Pittsburgh. La Russa said that the move also gets Garcia an extra start at home, where he has the lowest ERA in the majors. It does not. But his answer does reveal what else he was thinking when he decided to push Garcia's first appearance of the second half up a few days.
"The biggest thing that I was taught to do was to take at least the first two weeks ... since you're in one of the few times that you can really rearrange it," La Russa explained. "If somebody has an edge against a club, you try to not have them miss it."
When La Russa and Duncan first looked at the rotation coming out of the break they did start a few weeks down the road and work backward. That's not unusual. Once they determine the ceremonial opening day starter each season, the Cardinals often look at the entire month of April and spot specific series they would like to setup for specific pitchers and work backward from there all the way to the first bullpens and live BPs of spring training. They did the same thing here, and when you look at what's ahead on second-half schedule, it makes it clear why La Russa wanted Garcia to face the Reds.
It puts the Cardinals top two pitchers in all three series the Cardinals have coming up against the other top four teams in the NL Central. Consider:
Thurs, at NYM: Westbrook
July 22, at PIT: Carpenter
July 23, at PIT: Garcia
July 24, at PIT: Lohse
July 25, vs. HOU: McClellan
July 26, vs. HOU: Westbrook
July 27, vs. HOU: Carpenter
July 28, vs. HOU: Garcia
July 29, vs. CHI: Lohse
July 30, vs. CHI: McClellan
July 31, vs. CHI: Westbrook
Aug 1, at MIL: Carpenter
Aug 2, at MIL: Garcia
Aug 3, at MIL: Lohse
With that explored, it's time to catchup on some game balls before the second half opens in a few hours at Cincinnati.
Diamondbacks 7, Cardinals 6: Kelly Johnson, a .217 hitter entering the game, hit a grand slam off Lohse in the seventh that decided the game. Done deal. Game ball. The more telling part of Johnson's at-bat was that he is slugging .467 this season off righties and .354 off lefties, yet the Cardinals were so reluctant to go to their bullpen and use one of the lefties out there that Lohse, 6 1/3 innings into his start, faced Johnson and the grand slam was the result. Moving on.
Cardinals 7, Diamondbacks 6: Tony Cruz had the walk-off hit that won the game, but Albert Pujols got the Cardinals to that point. Less than a week removed from his return to the active roster, Pujols had the game where his results matched his swing. The Cardinals' three-time MVP reached base four times in five plate appearances, and he had three hits in four at-bats. In the eighth inning, Pujols cracked his 18th home run of the season and tied the game to set up Cruz's winner. The home run was the 426th of Pujols' career, tying him with Billy Williams for 42nd all-time on the career homer list. That's game ball-worthy.
Cardinals 4, Diamondbacks 2: David Freese gets this one for driving in the final three runs the Cardinals scored, including a tie-breaking home run to right field. It was a fitting coda to the first half, what with Freese batting behind the big boppers and producing the key runs. This is the lineup the Cardinals imagined at the start of the season and the production from Freese that even the third baseman said is necessary for the Cardinals to win the games they should in the second half.
2011 Game Ball totals: Mitchell Boggs 1, Chris Carpenter 1, Tony Cruz 2, Daniel Descalso 1, Brandon Dickson 1, Ryan Franklin 1, David Freese 1, Jaime Garcia 1, Jon Jay 1, Lance Lynn 2, Kyle McClellan 1, Jason Motte 1, Albert Pujols 1, Colby Rasmus 2, Fernando Salas 1, Skip Schumaker 2, Ryan Theriot 1, Raul Valdes 1, Opponents 10, Grounds crew 1, Replay 1.