Monday, October 16, 2000

LaRussa gambles and loses

        NEW YORK -- Tony LaRussa was pressing his luck. Circumstances left him little choice. The New York Mets showed him no mercy.

        The manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, trying to nurse his depleted pitching staff through a seven-game playoff series, tried to be daring and wound up desperate. He gambled that Darryl Kile could succeed on short rest, and then grimaced as his erstwhile ace was repeatedly rocked.

        The New York Mets moved to within one win of the World Series Sunday night with a 10-6 victory over St. Louis. Their first seven runs were on Kile's watch.

        “I pitched terrible,” Kile said, standing stoicly before his locker. “I made a lot of bad pitches and they hit every one.”

        Whether pitching on three days rest reduced his fastball to fumes or compromised his trademark curve is unclear. But the Mets had five doubles before Kile could record his second out and they would own a 7-2 lead by the second inning. It was a performance unbecoming a 20-game winner, and indicative of just how flimsy LaRussa's starting rotation has become.

        Injury has robbed the Redbirds of Garrett Stephenson. Rookie Rick Ankiel has been afflicted by a bout of wildness worthy of David Lee Roth. LaRussa, consequently, elected to test Kile's limits rather than risk his season on a lesser arm. The plan was to use Kile on three days rest in Game

        4 so that he might be available again on three days' rest in Game 7.

        Game 7 looks like a longshot this morning. Mets' ace Mike Hampton can close out the Cardinals tonight, and he has had four days between starts. A Subway Series is not yet certain, but it is well past probable. When in doubt, pick the team with the deeper pitching.

        “I know (Kile's) history is not great with three days' rest,” LaRussa said before the game. “But we're not in an ideal situation with our rotation, which is ironic, because we were ideal all year long.”

        Once upon a time, before pitching became so specialized and its practitioners so delicate, three days rest was regarded as plenty. Starting pitchers tended to work more often, pitch more innings, and (LaRussa says) break down at an earlier stage of development. By the late 1960s, the pitcher who worked every fourth day became primarily a post-season phenomenon. (See Gibson, Bob).

        Pitchers remain baseball's most fragile commodity, but they are rarely abused anymore. Kile has made 283 regular-season starts, only 13 of them with fewer than four days' rest.

        “I think physically, guys are trained to take four days and then pitch,” LaRussa said. “I think mentally they're conditioned -- four days to pitch. When you see a guy pitch short, it's usually guys that are real strong between the ears. In Darryl's case, he's a pro's pro.”

        Kile took the mound Sunday with a 2-0 lead, and he made it stand up for precisely three batters. Timo Perez, Edgardo Alfonzo, Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura opened the Mets' first inning with back-to-back-to-back-to-back doubles. Kile retired Todd Zeile on a ground ball to third base, then yielded an LCS-record fifth double to Benny Agbayani.

        None of the doubles were bloops. All of them were bullets.

        “I felt great,” he said. “It all comes down to making good pitches and I didn't make any today ... I went out there and the ball was up and they hit it hard.”

        “It's probably the opposite of what you expect,” LaRussa said. “Normally, when you pitch every fourth day, you get a better feel for the baseball, you get better command, you may not have as much stuff. He was firing, but they were elevated and (the Mets) didn't miss him. Usually that's the kind of stuff you get when you've got a couple of extra days' rest.” Kile left the game in the fourth inning-- as did Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, ejected for arguing balls and strikes -- and his pitching line was an eyesore. Kile faced 19 New York batters, allowed eight hits and walked three.

        On the bright side, if the Cardinals can't force a Game 7, Darryl Kile should have six months before his next start.



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