Broken (Bullpen) Telephone

In Leadership by Brock Bourgase

During Game 5 of the World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals were placed at a disadvantage when a miscommunication occurred between the dug out and the bullpen and incorrect pitchers were warmed up. Consequently, the Texas Rangers score two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning, enabling them to win a pivotal game.

Some have made light of the situation, citing Strother Martin’s famous quote from Cool Hand Luke (“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”) and others have criticized what perceive to be an inexcusable error for a manager of Tony LaRussa’s experience. Whether it was due to crowd noise, a poor telephone connection or a lack of critical thinking, the St. Louis coaching staff will feel worse than Luke ever did in “The Box” if the Cardinals lose the World Series.

It is impossible for an outsider to comment on the view of the bullpen from the visitors’ dugout at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, the validity of LaRussa’s current glasses prescription or the resemblance among the Cards’ many bearded pitchers. Nevertheless, any coach can avoid committing a similar mistake at a crucial time by encouraging clear and constant communication as a pillar of the team’s philosophy. The more time devoted to preparation before the competition, the fewer elements left to chance. Making a clearheaded decision after thoughtful reflection is always between than rushing under the pressure of a game.

The bullpen coaches should have realized that some information had been lost in translation because LaRussa almost always uses relievers in a situational capacity, especially in the playoffs. Throughout his career as a National League manager, it has been his habit to keep both right and left-handed pitchers reading to exploit match-ups with upcoming batters. When the coaches only heard Pitching Coach Dave Duncan say “Get (Mark) Rzepcinski ready,” they should have asked if he wanted a right-hander throwing as well.

All of the coaches should be on the same page in terms of philosophy and everyone should know the team’s detailed strategy for a big game or important series. The head coach is responsible to initiate this communication and the assistant coaches are accountable to ask questions if there is any uncertainty.

Apparently, LaRussa had commented that he would not use Lance Lynn until Game 6 because he felt the reliever was not sufficiently rested. When the bullpen received Duncan’s second call with instructions to “get Rzepcinski and Lynn ready,” they should have asked if he was certain or what to do with closer Jason Motte. Everyone on the team should have understood how they would handle the Texas right-handed power hitters, such as Mike Napoli who hit a game-winning two-run double.

If the plan was as simple as it seemed (Dotel [who had been used earlier] or Motte), coaches should have noticed that something was amiss. Assistant coaches should utilize their expertise and instincts to help the head coach reach a well-informed decision. Yes-Men have no place in sports; there is no shame in asking a question.

Ultimately, no coach should be a victim of circumstance. When LaRussa arrived at the mound to make the first pitching change (Rzepcynski) and observed that Motte was not warming up, he should have acted immediately (is it possible to text the bullpen?). The left-hander could have taken longer to warm up or catcher Yadier Molina could have visited the mount repeatedly during the subsequent at-bat. As a last resort, LaRussa could have signaled for Lynn to enter the game and let him warm up. Motte could then be brought in before a pitch had been thrown to Napoli.

Successful teams win because they consistently take responsibly for themselves instead of leaving matters to chance. An ounce of prevention would have been worth much more than a pound of cure for St. Louis, now on the brink of elimination. Fate and assumptions are no way to settle a competition between two top teams which should be decided by elite athletes and guided by master coaches.