Maybe if Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert and Adam Engel were healthy, none of the admitted mistakes manager Tony La Russa has made in his first 29 games would be viewed as monumental.
Maybe Jimenez hits one out of the park against Sonny Gray, and the Sox beat the Reds 1-0 on Wednesday instead of losing 1-0 in 10 innings. Then maybe La Russa wouldn’t have used closer Liam Hendriks needlessly and wouldn’t have been exposed for not knowing a rule.
Maybe good speed, no bat outfielder Billy Hamilton wouldn’t have been put in the difficult position to drive in the tying run in the 10th, an assignment La Russa allowed him to undertake. Maybe Leury Garcia, in an inexplicable decision in the view of almost everyone except La Russa, wouldn’t have tried to steal second base and gotten thrown out by Gold Glove catcher Tucker Barnhart, an attempt that led perplexed Sox radio analyst Darrin Jackson to say on the air, “I don’t know what we’re doing out there.”
Because of the injuries, the Sox aren’t the team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf thought he was handing to La Russa to manage. And because they aren’t that team, the margin for error in the dugout has been lessened.
And so the spotlight has brightened on a Hall of Fame manager who has a growing number of people in the Sox’ organization wondering if he’s up to the task.
“There are a lot of things where you watch and say, ‘It’s isolated,’ ” a source in the organization said of La Russa’s decisions and the latest misstep (not knowing a rule). “But yet it’s not. They keep happening.”
The rest of the baseball world has watched the 76-year-old La Russa guide the Sox to a 16-13 record. They trail the first-place Indians (17-13) by a half-game going into a weekend series against the division-rival Royals (16-14). One scout in the division said it’s too soon to declare the hire a mistake. But the concerns that were immediately voiced when La Russa was hired haven’t gone away.
“There have been some obvious questions whether he has the energy and focus to really stay locked in for a whole game,” the scout said. “Not knowing the extra-inning base-running rules isn’t good, but it’s not the end of the world, either. Let’s see how he handles the bullpen, pinch-hitting, defensive replacements, how often he mixes and matches to supplement the injury losses.”
The buck stops with La Russa, and he accepted blame for not knowing the rule. But he has an entire staff, including bench coach Miguel Cairo, third-base coach and former bench coach Joe McEwing, former manager Jerry Narron and others, who apparently didn’t know that Jose Abreu could have been the free runner at second base in the 10th inning instead of having $54 million closer Hendriks risk an injury trying to score the tying run while running the bases for the second time in his career.
That, along with La Russa saying he didn’t know Lucas Giolito was out of gas when he was left in to let a game get away April 27 and admittedly leaving Matt Foster in too long while he took a pounding against the Mariners on the first road trip, added to the head-scratchers. Things like batting Jake Lamb fifth, not batting Andrew Vaughn enough and giving Hamilton too many at-bats also have been disputed.
All of it has left observers wondering what happens if there’s another misstep, and whether it gets to a place where Reinsdorf asks La Russa — because he has admitted mistakes — if they should reconsider the remarriage, although that quite possibly could be the furthest thing from the mind of either one. Few would expect Reinsdorf to pull the plug in La Russa’s first year back after he called letting former general manager Ken Harrelson fire him in 1986 one of his biggest regrets.
La Russa is, after all, the third-winningest manager in baseball history and has won three World Series titles. With starting pitching that leads the AL in ERA, a talented bullpen and probably enough offense to get by, the Sox aren’t going down in flames any time soon. Perhaps he needs a few more weeks to get a handle on the capabilities of his roster.
“We haven’t hit our stride yet,” the organization source said. “Is Tony going to cost us some games? I hope not.”
NOTES: The first game of the Sox’ doubleheader against the Royals next Friday at Guaranteed Rate Field was switched from 1:10 to 2:10 p.m. Game 2 is 7:10 p.m. Both games will be seven innings.
• Despite Tony La Russa’s relationship with 41-year-old future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols from their days with the Cardinals, the Sox were not expected to sign the DH-first baseman, who was released by the Angels.
• Friday starter Carlos Rodon has a 3.69 ERA in seven career starts against the Royals. Rodon led the AL in April in ERA (0.72), average (.085), slugging percentage (.146), OPS (.348), WHIP (0.64) and hits per nine innings (2.52) over four starts.
• Veteran outfielder Brian Goodwin, signed to a minor-league deal this week, was assigned to Triple-A Charlotte.