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La Russa may have done finest work in 2011

La Russa may have done finest work in 2011

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La Russa may have done finest work in 2011
ST. LOUIS -- He lost his Opening Day starter before the first pitch of Grapefruit League play was thrown. His best player held a massive news conference on the first day of camp to discuss the fact that he had not agreed to a new contract. A franchise icon announced he was returning to the team, then aborted that comeback. A member of the team's ownership passed away.

This was all before Tony La Russa's 2011 Cardinals team ever left Florida. Never mind the plague of injuries that beset his team as the year went on, or the nasty case of shingles that forced La Russa himself away from his team for a while.

All of it preceded an August slump that left the Redbirds 10 1/2 games out of playoff contention with barely a month of baseball to be played. And perhaps hardest of all for the manager, personally, his top lieutenant, Dave Duncan, took a late-season leave of absence to tend to his ailing wife.

Anyone who knows La Russa knows that not one bit of that adversity daunted him. Quite the opposite: It steeled him. And so it steeled his team. They kept coming in waves, all year long, until they had forced themselves into October.

If it wasn't La Russa's finest job, it was pretty close to it, culminating with a victorious Game 7 of the World Series on Friday night against the Rangers.

LARGE AND IN CHARGE
Tony La Russa is just the ninth manager in Major League history to lead three World Series champions.
Manager Titles Years
Joe McCarthy 7 24
Casey Stengel 7 25
Connie Mack 5 53
Walter Alston 4 23
Joe Torre 4 29
Miller Huggins 3 17
Sparky Anderson 3 26
Tony La Russa 3 33
John McGraw 3 33

"[Losing Adam Wainwright] was a bad hit in Spring Training, and Tony was great," said the team's principal owner, Bill DeWitt Jr. "He said it's not fair, but we're not going to give up. This is a good club and we've got a shot. We'll just do everything we can to win with what we've got."

The job of managing a baseball team is a strange one, and a mismatched one really, requiring two very different skill sets. On one hand is the one most fans think of: tactics. It's writing out a lineup card, handling a bullpen, positioning the defense and handling the running game. On the other is the harder one to quantify: managing 25 human beings.

Most managers excel at one and fall short at the other. In 2011, it's hard to find fault with either half of La Russa's game. He kept a sometimes struggling club thinking about October. And when they got there, he did nearly everything right with his lineup and his bullpen.

"I think Tony's leadership is exactly why we're here, in the sense that he knew the right buttons to push," said general manager John Mozeliak. "He understood the hot hand. He always kept players fresh. And I think that was critical in the success."

On the tactical side, La Russa was at his best in this postseason. He showed an extremely aggressive hand with his pitchers, pulling starters at the first sign of trouble in favor of a deep and skilled bullpen. He hewed to the most fundamental law of managing in October, that you must win today before you ever worry about tomorrow.

So he pushed, and pushed, and pushed. And it kept working. Even when it blew up -- and in Game 5 of the World Series, somehow it blew up -- the Cardinals weren't sunk. They came back and won one of the greatest games in baseball history the next time out.

Which comes back to that personal part. If there's one trait that defines La Russa teams, year in and year out, it's a businesslike approach to the game. Win today's game, don't worry about yesterday or tomorrow. He hammered that home prior to Friday's game, when he stopped reporters from pursuing a line of questioning regarding that already famous Game 6.

If he was going to ask his players to focus only at the game at hand, he was going to do the same. And they certainly did, playing crisply while the Rangers stumbled.

"We've been doing this before, and as a club, we said, take Game 6, put it in a box, and forget it today," La Russa said. "Because you can't be distracted. We had to be ready to compete. ... And now you enjoy it all. Not just six but the whole thing."

He becomes the ninth manager in history to win three World Series, and he joins Billy Southworth as the only skippers to win two with the Cardinals. And it's hard to say he didn't earn it.

"This team had adversity early, in particular with injuries," DeWitt said. "[Matt] Holliday was out, he had some crazy injuries. ... Albert [Pujols] was out for a while. [Nick] Punto was gone, [Skip] Schumaker, a lot of players. I know teams have injuries, but we had more than our share, particularly to key players. And Tony just [kept saying], 'Hey, we'll win with what we've got.'"

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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