CINCINNATI -- If Tony La Russa had been managing chess rather than baseball he would have been in check throughout the match here last night.
This was an unusual situation for the Oakland A's chief strategist. Instead of being his usual two moves ahead, he always seemed to be two plays behind. Which is exactly the situation facing his team, which is two giant steps behind Cincinnati instead of being in position to declare checkmate at home over the weekend.
In Game 2 of the World Series, La Russa violated the cardinal rule of managing -- the one that says don't lose while waiting to make a move. Then, at least, you've played all your cards.
Last night La Russa didn't play his ace until he was out of trumps. By then it closely resembled desperation. When Dennis Eckersley finally arrived, with the score tied in the 10th inning, the A's were clearly on the defensive, which is not a familiar position for the defending world champions.
If there is one thing about La Russa that has made him one of baseball's best manipulators, it has been his willingness to move swiftly, and sometimes boldly. He has never been accused of being timid when it comes time to unload his gun. But last night he passed up at least two glaring opportunities to squeeze the trigger.
His starting pitcher, Bob Welch, had struggled through seven efficient, but not highly effective, innings and was nursing a 4-3 lead. Ron Hassey, who is Welch's personal catcher and one of the slowest men in baseball, led off the inning with a single.
Time to go for the jugular. A pinch runner, a sacrifice bunt and a pinch hitter (for Welch) and Rickey Henderson to go after the extra run. With an off-day today there was no reason to hold Eckersley back.
"My preference was to have Bob start the [eighth] inning, and get another run," said La Russa. Evidently his priorities were in that order because after Mike Gallego fouled off the first pitch attempting to bunt, the shortstop eventually hit into a force play.
"If we got into scoring position, I was going to hit for him [Welch]," said La Russa. "When we didn't I used Welch to put him into scoring position for Rickey. My preference was that I wanted Bob to start the next inning unless there was a great chance to score a run."
Without a pinch runner for Hassey, and a second attempt by Gallego to sacrifice, the odds dropped considerably. As it turned out, so did the A's chances of going home with a split in the first two games.
Billy Hatcher led off the bottom of the inning with a triple that probably was catchable by Jose Canseco in rightfield, and suddenly La Russa was between a rock and a hard place. He let the righthanded Welch pitch to lefthanded hitting Paul O'Neill, who walked, and also to Eric Davis, a righthander who hit a fly ball that should have tied the game, but didn't.
Then the wheels started spinning, too late to save the A's. Lefthander Rick Honeycutt came on to face Glenn Braggs, who pinch hit for Hal Morris, and delivered the tying run with a ground ball that couldn't be turned into a double play despite a good effort by Gallego.
Eckersley was still in the bullpen, where he would stay for two more innings. "The big thing in that situation [after Hatcher's triple] is that it's going to be tough to dodge a bullet there," said La Russa. "Then you have a tie game and I really don't want Eck pitching in a tie game on the road if I can help it. Honeycutt getting a ground ball for a double play is as good a chance as it is to punch [strike] somebody out."
Forget that Eckersley ultimately came into a tie game, and was the losing pitcher -- at that point La Russa really had no choice. What happened before that was the important stuff. Eckersley is the best relief pitcher in the game -- he was charged with only two blown saves in 48 chances all year. There were two opportunities to get him into the game with a lead -- at the start of the inning, or anytime after Hatcher's triple. Either choice represented the A's best chance to protect the lead and, uncharacteristically, La Russa passed both times.
If the situation dictated Honeycutt be used, why not against O'Neill, with Eckersley coming in to face Davis? At that point, with the A's in the process of being shut down by the Reds' vaunted bullpen, it represented the best chance to keep Eckersley away from a tie game -- and give him a chance to protect a lead.
But this was a game the A's played defensively all night. They started out by sabotaging a potentially big first inning by having Carney Lansford bunt with Henderson on second base and nobody out -- before anybody had a chance to find out that Cincy lefthander Danny Jackson didn't have his good stuff.
And when the game was on the line, when the A's needed to take their best shot, they played it the same way. Once Hatcher got to third base, La Russa, in effect, conceded a tie game and ducked with his ace.
It was a finesse play, which is not the style of La Russa or the A's, who are now scrambling to avoid a checkmate situation.