La Russa leaving options open

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - Tony La Russa's announced aim is to always give it his best shot. His job is to determine exactly what that entails at any given moment.

The manager of the St. Louis Cardinals is a flexible fellow, open to suggestion, subject to change. As his playoff pitching plans have proven increasingly impractical, he is not so stubborn as to stand pat. In his efforts to secure one more win, La Russa is prepared to cut his losses.

He spent Tuesday's travel day sending out cryptic signals about a possible pitching change for tonight's sixth game of the National League Championship Series. Instead of using Donovan Osborne on three days' rest, La Russa was leaning toward starting rookie Alan Benes tonight. Osborne would then be available to pitch a possible seventh game on his normal turn.

Twice in succession, Cardinal starters have been strafed on short rest. St. Louis still leads the best-of-7 series, 3-2, but its three-man rotation is in ruins.

Better to admit a mistake than to perpetuate a problem. Better to scrap Plan A than to defend it to the death. If at first you don't succeed, consider the alternatives.

''If our best shot changes,'' La Russa said, ''we'll change.''


La Russa had thought his best chance to compete with Atlanta's peerless pitching was to put his starters on an accelerated schedule. The advantage of the three-man playoff rotation is it maximizes the mound appearances of a team's best pitchers. The drawback is that it foments fatigue.

The Braves batted only .234 against Andy Benes and Todd Stottlemyre in Games 1 and 2 of the NLCS, but hit .452 against the same pitchers in Games 4 and 5. The first time around, Benes and Stottlemyre retired the Braves in order seven times in 12 total innings. In their encore performances, they managed only one three-up, three-down inning.

What a difference a day (of rest) makes. Especially in October.

''Let's face it, right now I'm working on 270-some innings - 277 I think,'' said Atlanta's John Smoltz, who co-authored Monday's 14-0 shutout on the fifth day following his Game 1 victory. ''Anytime you can get a rest at this point of the year, it helps. Emotion will drive you as far as it can, but when you start logging a bunch of pitches and a lot of innings, it can take its toll.''

Because their bullpen is deep, and dependable, the Cardinals are careful not to abuse their starters. Benes threw just 88 pitches in Game 1; Stottlemyre had 97 in Game 2; and Osborne was pulled after 108 deliveries in Game 3. None of those pitch totals would be regarded taxing. (In the American League, where the strike zone is as narrow as an arrow, this would amount to about three innings of work.)

''What we have done is really pay attention to their pitch counts the entire season,'' said Dave Duncan, the Cardinals pitching coach. ''They've never been pushed hard. We've been very concerned about that and it's a lot different than if you pushed your staff all year and let their pitch counts get way up there.''

A long season

Still, if Osborne were to start tonight's game, it would be the first time he has pitched on three days' rest all season. Under those circumstances, he would not seem the ideal candidate to be doing battle with Greg Maddux.

''It's a push after a long season,'' La Russa acknowledged Tuesday. ''That's why there's a decision to make.''

This is not to say Alan Benes is without risk. Andy Benes' brother won 13 games for the Cardinals during the regular season, but has worked only 1ô innings since Sept. 25. He is a first-year player who has never started a playoff game.

Has Benes had so much rest he will have rust? Are there barnacles on his breaking pitches or cobwebs on his fastball? These were the kind of questions La Russa was contemplating Tuesday.

He promised to give it his best shot. He could not say if that would be good enough.

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Oct. 16, 1996.