ST. LOUIS – Sometimes, it seems Tony La Russa wishes he could put a dozen more players in his dugout. Just imagine how many moves he could make then.
The St. Louis manager employed most of his roster Wednesday night, mixing and matching his way through Game 1 of the World Series and guiding the Cardinals to a 3-2 win over the Texas Rangers.
La Russa looked like a genius once again, especially when Allen Craig pinch-hit for ace Chris Carpenter and delivered a go-ahead single in the sixth inning. The slicing drive off reliever Alexi Ogando fell inches shy of sliding right fielder Nelson Cruz — the opener was that tight throughout a cold, damp evening.
It was a game perfectly suited for La Russa — lots of bunts, intentional walks and pitching changes. And in a postseason in which he’s made all the right moves, the 67-year-old boss who’s spent more than half his life as a big league manager was at the top of his game.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out,” Cardinals outfielder Lance Berkman said. “But I feel like we have to win the National League-style games if we’re going to win this thing and tonight was a National League-style game — 3-2, good pitching, good defense, timely hitting.
“I don’t think that we want to get into a gorilla-ball-type series with these guys. We’ll see what happens when we add the DH and go to the American League ballpark, but I think when we have the National League style and we have the advantage we have to capitalize,” he said.
Texas star Michael Young could appreciate that. Sort of.
“This is real baseball. Your pitcher has to hit. More decisions come into play. A little more strategy comes into play,” he said. “I enjoy this style of baseball a little more.”
St. Louis used 17 of its 25 players, including five relievers.
The Cardinals even won without their Rally Squirrel. There were no sightings of the elusive critter still roaming Busch Stadium — good thing for the rodent, too, because La Russa probably would’ve devised a way to catch him.
Game 2 is Thursday night, with Jaime Garcia starting for the Cards against Colby Lewis. Texas has not lost two straight games since Aug. 23-25.
The key sequences in Game 1 came in the sixth inning. In the top half, first baseman Albert Pujols helped prevent Texas from taking the lead on Carpenter’s final pitch in the sixth, making a sliding stop on Young’s bid for a hit.
It was still 2-all in the bottom half when Rangers starter C.J. Wilson worked around eighth-place hitter Nick Punto with a four-pitch walk that put runners at the corners with two outs.
“I know they had either Carpenter coming up or a pinch-hitter, and with Ogando warming up behind me, I have confidence that he’s going to come in and get that guy out,” Wilson said.
La Russa did not hesitate, pulling Carpenter and sending up Craig, a versatile player who was injured for much of the season. Texas manager Ron Washington countered by bringing in the hard-throwing Ogando.
Rather risky lately, trying to play baseball chess with La Russa. As Washington said a day earlier: “Well, I don’t think I can ever live up to matching a wit with Tony La Russa.”
La Russa liked Craig’s chances, even though not everything was tilted in his favor.
“Cold weather game, sitting on the bench, Ogando. It’s not a very good situation,” La Russa said. “But he’s got a history in our system, that’s why we like him so much. He should have a really good career.”
All the pieces in place, it was time to play — and what followed was the play of the game.
Craig swung through two fastballs, then hit a drive toward the right field line. Cruz tried to make a sliding catch, except the ball bounced just before it reached him and thudded off his left leg for an RBI single.
“It was close. I think the dirt caught me,” Cruz said.
Craig’s single scored NL championship series MVP David Freese, the St. Louis-area prep star who led off with a double. Freese has hit in 11 straight postseason games.
“Man, he’s tough,” Craig said of Ogando. “He came right at me with fastballs, and I missed the first two. Then that last one I was trying to get the barrel on it, make the defense make a play. Fortunate, kept it fair, and Cruz made a great attempt on that. It was a great play all around.”
Ahead, La Russa coaxed three scoreless innings from his deep bullpen. Jason Motte closed for his fifth save of the postseason.
This was the first time Texas had ever played in St. Louis. Yet Josh Hamilton, Cruz and the big-hitting Rangers looked a lot like the team that fizzled at the plate in last year’s World Series against San Francisco.
Each team wound up with six hits. The wild-card Cardinals just did more with them.
Berkman put St. Louis ahead by chopping a two-run single in the fourth. Mike Napoli tied it with a two-run homer in the fifth.
Carpenter earned his eighth postseason win, breaking the team record he shared with Bob Gibson. Of course, all of Gibby’s victories came in the World Series.
Wilson fell to 0-5 in his last seven postseason starts, including last year.
The Texas lefty recently spent 2 1/2 minutes in a Dallas cryotherapy chamber, where liquid nitrogen lowered the temperature to 295 degrees below zero, trying to speed body recovery. It was a bit warmer at the ballpark, at 49 degrees for the first pitch.
Wilson became the first pitcher to lose an All-Star game, an AL division series game, an AL championship series game and a World Series game in the same year, STATS LLC said.
“I felt like I was throwing the ball pretty well tonight, giving up a ground ball right there that scores two runs. That’s unfortunate. Other than that, I minimized the damage and pitched pretty strategically to the guys I wanted to,” Wilson said.
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