HOUSTON — When the White Sox hired Tony La Russa to return as their manager last October, they spoke of his 30 years of experience. One of the specialties that supposedly came with that was the way he manages his bullpens, especially in the postseason.
But in a game set up for him to thrive with a full assortment of rested relievers, he failed Friday. That cost the Sox in a 9-4 loss to the Astros. They now return to Chicago down 2-0, facing elimination in the division series.
Removing starter Lucas Giolito, who got himself into some trouble in the fifth inning, was the right decision. But every move La Russa made after that is subject to questioning.
The Sox brought in left-hander Garrett Crochet to face lefty slugger Yordan Alvarez, followed in the order by righties Yuli Gurriel (this year’s American League batting champion) and Carlos Correa. Crochet walked Alvarez before Gurriel lined a two-run single to center, tying the game at 4. Correa then grounded into a double play, allowing Crochet to escape the inning without additional damage.
A similar situation happened in the seventh, but this time, the Astros didn’t let the Sox off the hook. The Sox went with lefty Aaron Bummer, and although he struck out Michael Brantley, he surrendered singles to Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Alvarez, making it 5-4. La Russa then brought in Craig Kimbrel, who promptly surrendered a two-run double to Correa and a two-run shot to Kyle Tucker, expanding the Astros’ lead to 9-4 and putting the game out of reach.
“Our left-handers can get right-handers out,” La Russa said after the game. “They’ve been doing it all year long. But they also get left-handers out.”
Yes, Brantley (.691 OPS vs. left-handers) is a fitting batter with Bummer on the mound. But the other four hitters Bummer faced crush lefties. Bregman, Gurriel and Altuve have a combined .894 OPS in their careers against southpaws. Alvarez, while left-handed, also thrives against lefties with a career .945 OPS — almost identical to his .950 OPS against righties.
Although La Russa used right-hander Ryan Tepera in the sixth, from the time he removed Giolito, it felt as if the Sox were trying to avoid using right-hander Michael Kopech in situations they’ve used him in before and where he may have been the better option.
Asked about Kopech’s availability later, La Russa’s answer left a lot to be desired.
“We were going to play the game today, and if we needed him to win the game, we would have pitched him,” he said.
The problem was, they did need Kopech and had multiple opportunities to get him in. But instead, they saved him for Game 3, even with a scheduled day off Saturday.
Now their season is on the line.
Regardless of which relievers are used, giving up a combined five runs and seven hits in the postseason can’t happen. It’s the job of a manager to put those relievers in a position to succeed. And when the Sox needed it the most, La Russa didn’t do it.