We all know that the Braves have no equals when it comes to finding ways not to win postseason games. Call the roll: Lonnie Smith dallies at second base; Jeff Reardon is undone by Ed Sprague; Mark Wohlers throws a slider to Jim Leyritz; Bobby Cox starts a Class AAA lineup in Games 3 and 6 of the 1998 NLCS; Kyle Farnsworth yields two home runs in one appearance against Houston; Brooks Conrad commits three errors on one dark night against San Fran.
That said, even the Braves never messed up a game as completely as the Cardinals — who, as we’re aware, surged from 8 1/2 games behind on Sept. 5 to shade these Braves for the wild card — did last night.
The game’s key at-bat featured a game who throws with the wrong arm (in this case, his left) facing a hitter who destroys lefthanders, and even before Marc Rzepcynski had delivered his first pitch to Mike Napoli the guys on the Rangers’ radio crew were going wild over Tony La Russa not having a righthander ready. (I choose to listen to the local feeds on Sirius XM because of two words — Tim McCarver. And the Rangers’ crew of Eric Nadal and Steve Busby is very good.)
Why didn’t La Russa have a righthander ready to face Napoli? Because La Russa said afterward, he’d called down to the bullpen twice asking that closer Jason Motte, a righty, start warming, and twice the request had gone unheard. Said La Russa:
“They heard ‘Rzepczynski’ and they didn’t hear ‘Motte,’ and when I looked up there, Motte wasn’t going. [Later] I called back and said ‘Motte,’ and they heard [righty Lance] ‘Lynn.’ So I went out there, wrong guy. [Lynn] is not going to pitch today …”
Apparently it was loud in Rangers Ballpark as the home team was rallying to take the lead. Apparently it’s impossible to see the visiting bullpen from the visiting dugout. Whatever the case, the whole thing went so badly wrong that La Russa — who’s generally considered one of the game’s best, if sometimes excessive, strategists — wound up with the worst possible matchup at the worst possible time and then, just to add excess to error, had to order Lynn, the righty who did show up to pitch (albeit late), to walk a hitter intentionally just so the correct righthander could be summoned. Amazing.
And who, you’re asking, is the Cardinals’ bullpen coach? Who’s charged with answering the phone when it rings? Why, none other than Derek Lilliquist, the former Georgia Bulldog pitcher whom Cox, then the Braves’ GM, made the sixth overall pick in the 1987 amateur draft. Lilliquist and Chris Carpenter — not the same Chris Carpenter who started Game 5 for the Cardinals — had just led UGA to the College World Series. (For the record, Lilliquist was — and presumably still is — left-handed.)
Along with Pete Smith, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, Lilliquist was one of the Braves’ original Young Guns. (Steve Avery came along a bit later.) Lilliquist went 10-18 in two seasons with the big club and was traded to San Diego in 1990 for reliever Mark Grant, whose claim to fame as a Brave was in posing for a photo sequence in this newspaper demonstrating how to do the Tomahawk Chop.
Lilliquist was done as a player by 1996, having compiled a career record of 25-34 for five different teams. He has worked in the Cardinals’ organization since 2002. This is his first season on the big-league staff. And now he’ll be known as the guy who couldn’t handle the difficult task of answering the telephone.
Although it must be said that not many among the attending media were taking La Russa’s explanation at face value. Here, from Jeff Gordon of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is a roundup of national disbelief. So maybe poor Derek Lilliquist will, not to put too fine a point on it, be left off the hook.
By Mark Bradley