The baseball world has been talking about Tony La Russa’s aggressive use of the bullpen en route to the World Series. But Octavio Dotel’s been living La Vida La Russa.
“It’s been a little bit tough, I can’t lie about it,” Dotel said during the National League Championship Series. “There’s no guarantee about the situation he’ll use you in. All you know is you don’t know … but sometimes, it’s good that you don’t know. During the regular season I wouldn’t go down to the bullpen until, maybe, the fourth inning but I can’t do that now. With Tony? You can be pitching in the fourth inning. All I know is in the World Series, I’m going to be down there for the second inning. Maybe the first.”
La Russa dipped into his bullpen on 28 different occasions in skippering the St. Louis Cardinals past the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Championship Series and into the World Series, which opens Wednesday night in St. Louis against the Texas Rangers. “Some people might be surprised, but we’re not,” left-hander Marc Rzepczynski said, smiling. “Tony’s been doing that since the first of September.”
That was made easier when general manager John Mozeliak sent Colby Rasmus to the Toronto Blue Jays for a package that included Dotel, a 37-year-old right-hander, and Marc Rzepczynski, a converted starter who added two to three miles per hour to a moving fastball when the Blue Jays moved him into the bullpen.
The Cardinals wouldn’t have made the playoffs without Rzepczynski and Dotel. And without Dotel owning the Brewers’ Ryan Braun and Rzepczynski turning Prince Fielder into an offensive afterthought, the Cardinals likely wouldn’t have found themselves in the World Series. “No chance, none,” catcher Yadier Molina said after Game 5, waving his hand for emphasis. “Without that trade, we’re home. Zep … if he stays healthy … wow, he’s one of those guys who’s going to have a long, long career.”
The Rangers also owe the Blue Jays a debt of gratitude, since Mike Napoli – who was flipped to the Rangers for Frank Francisco after the Blue Jays acquired him from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for Vernon Wells – has given manager Ron Washington’s lineup a depth it did not possess in last year’s World Series.
La Russa is going to have to manage the hell out of his team to win this Series. Instead of the duo of right-hand hitting Braun and lefty-hitting Fielder back to back in the order, La Russa will be faced with a team that often has powerful right-handed hitters – Michael Young, Adrian Beltre, Napoli and Nelson Cruz – between lefty hitters Josh Hamilton and David Murphy, the latter of whom is a platoon outfielder who hit .417 in the American League Championship Series with two doubles and a triple. Since Jaime Garcia is the Cardinals only lefty starter, Murphy’s going to be a regular: a land mine in the bottom of the order.
Neither team received much from its starting pitchers in their respective league championship series. Washington, his bullpen deepened by trade deadline acquisitions of Mike Gonzalez, Mike Adams and Koji Uehara and the continued health of howitzer-armed Alexi Ogando, will also match up with aplomb. But this is a Series where the NL’s home-field advantage – pitchers hitting – adds another dimension. His mettle will be tested against a manager who says his bullpen use is predicated on simply giving himself the best chance to get three outs in the inning at hand.
Dotel viewed his tenure with the Blue Jays as a pit stop, while Rzepczynski has the organization in his DNA.
“I had a run where things weren’t working for me earlier in the year, and [Bruce Walton, the Blue Jays pitching coach] sat me down and said: ‘Look, you’re not going back down to Triple-A. You’re in the majors. We’re going to work through it up here,’” said Rzepczynski. “I think of that, now.”
Four more wins and Rzepczynski will be much more than that: he will be a World Series winner.