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The Pitching Plan

Tony La Russa has been there before. The path has not always been exactly the same, but in the 14 previous seasons when his clubs have made the post-season, there always has been a plan. Even after being absent from the dugout for 10 years, he knows the drill.

Just in case the 76-year-old isn't quite as sharp as he used to be - not necessarily an accurate assumption based on some of the moves he's made this season - he has all kinds of data, along with a more than ample coaching staff, to keep him current. After a sweep of the decrepit and depleted Chicago Cubs over the weekend, La Russa finds himself and his team with a 10½-game lead in the American League Central, its biggest margin of the season.

The Sox have posted a mediocre 12-11 record since the All-Star Game. They dropped three-of-four to the Kansas City Royals prior to invading Wrigley Field last Friday, but his closest pursuer, if you choose to apply that handle to the Cleveland American League Baseball Club, has won just nine of 22 games in the same time frame.

When asked how he was going to spend his time during the All-Star break, La Russa bristled, a not unknown reaction on the part of the crusty skipper. He was working on The Plan, the centerpiece of which is mapping out the handling of his pitching staff for the remainder of the campaign. Chances are La Russa and his pitching guru Ethan Katz charted who was going to start each and every game until the end of the year, how many innings his starters were going to pitch, and how the bullpen was going to be organized.

Then general manager Rick Hahn dumped Craig Kimbrel and Ryan Tepera in La Russa's lap at the trade deadline just in case the Sox manager needed to strengthen The Plan. So here we are the morning of Aug. 9 with 50 games remaining. Half will be played against teams with subpar .500 records, a group that the Sox have pummeled so far to the tune of 52-25. Against the fellows who have won at least half their games? Well, not so hot, a disturbing 14-21. That will require improvement.

Looking back on La Russa's previous playoff teams the morning of Aug. 9, we find that only his 2004 Cardinals enjoyed a larger division lead than his current crop at this point in the season. Just one of those teams, the 2001 Cardinals, stood some place other than on top of its division. The table below chronicles all 14 seasons of La Russa's October participants.

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Overwhelming success during the regular season does not guarantee a World Series victory, the goal most often mentioned pertaining to the 2021 White Sox. The 2004 Cardinals won 105 games only to be swept by the Red Sox in the Series.

Take a look at what the White Sox did in 1983 when they went 40-12 from Aug. 9 until the season's end. They had all the momentum required to beat Baltimore in the ALCS, the only hurdle at that time for getting into the World Series, especially after the Sox took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series. With starters Floyd Bannister, Richard Dotson and Britt Burns rested and ready to face the Orioles, Soxdom was euphoric over the team's prospects.

But it was not to be. After Baltimore took a 2-1 lead in games, one of the most heart-breaking losses in team history followed when Burns shut out the Orioles over nine innings in a scoreless tie. Tito Landrum broke the deadlock with a home run in the top of the 10th, and the Sox were eliminated 3-0.

Conversely, La Russa's final team before his re-emergence this year, the 2011 St. Louis club, was a wild card entrant in the post-season, a berth it narrowly earned by a single game. The Cardinals that season finished six games behind Milwaukee in the NL Central. But that underdog crew wound its way to the World Series and edged the Texas Rangers in seven games, an unlikely scenario that few could have predicted.

While La Russa's current outfit has been majorly challenged by injuries, none of its five starting pitchers has missed any significant time. Of the team's 112 games thus far, only seven have been started by pitchers not in the regular rotation. That, as much as any other factor, has accounted for the team's success. Perhaps this simply has been Lady Luck shining on the South Side, but don't discount La Russa's record in handling a pitching staff.

Case in point is Carlos Rodón who blanked the Cubs on Saturday over five innings, allowing only two hits while walking two and striking out 11. La Russa removed Rodón after 89 pitches when he walked the leadoff hitter in the bottom of the sixth. With the luxury of having Michael Kopech, Aaron Bummer, Kimbrel and Tepera to cover the final four frames against a primarily Triple-A lineup, the Sox scored a 4-0 win.

La Russa had kept Rodón idle for eight days prior to Saturday. In Rodón's previous two starts, both four-inning losses against Milwaukee and Kansas City, he yielded four home runs in those eight innings. Three came against Rodón's fastball, none clocked faster than 93 mph. In the first inning Saturday, Carlos struck out the side, two on fastballs of 98.5 and 97.9. For a guy who's pitched just 42 innings over the past two seasons, he showed that it is not unreasonable to think that he has sufficient gas left in the tank, especially if he is handled astutely by his manager and pitching coach.

Not unlike the Sox this season, La Russa's previous playoff teams have been characterized by solid starting pitching. Beginning with his Sox '83 squad, his clubs have had strong starters like Dave Stewart, Bob Welch and Mike Moore in Oakland. He also turned starter Dennis Eckersley into a Hall-of-Fame relief pitcher with the A's.

Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright led Cardinal staffs under La Russa, and lesser names like Kyle Lohse, Jason Marquis and Mark Mulder thrived with La Russa at the helm. His five-man rotation on the 2005 Cardinal team started 160 games. In fact, of La Russa's 14 playoff teams, his starting pitchers took the ball in at least 154 games in eight of those seasons.

In the past when the game was played in a different manner, La Russa most often stuck with his starting rotation the final two months of the season. For instance, in 1983, no one other than his starters got an opening assignment after Aug. 9. In fact, LaMarr Hoyt, who won 24 games that season, pitched five compete games the final seven weeks of the season.

When La Russa's 2011 eventual World Series champion Cardinals were chasing a wild card berth, he used only one non-starter after Aug. 9. Bullpen games hadn't been invented 10 years ago, but even if that was an option, La Russa couldn't afford to use it.

This season is different. All indications are that the Sox will win the Central Division in a waltz. Even if they play .500 ball from here on out, Cleveland would need to finish 37-16 just to tie, and there is no evidence that can happen.

Will we see people like Reynaldo Lopez, Kopech, Jimmy Lambert or someone else get a starting assignment between now and October? We can only wait and see. The only given is that La Russa already knows the answer. It's all part of The Plan.

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Oct 11, 2021