On Tuesday, in what might be the Cardinals' most important game of 2011, La Russa pushed the wrong button, and it led to a jarring setback -- a tense 3-2 Philadelphia victory.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, on the other hand, fingered the right button and outmaneuvered La Russa, and his team can move to the NL Championship Series for the fourth consecutive year with a win Wednesday.
If Philadelphia falters Wednesday, look for a storybook decisive match between former Toronto teammates Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay in Game 5 on Friday at Citizens Bank Park.
On a magnificent autumn afternoon at Busch Stadium, the Phillies and Cardinals were walking a scoreless tightrope to the seventh inning. Philadelphia starter Cole Hamels, a seasoned postseason performer, was spent after throwing 117 pitches. St. Louis lefty Jaime Garcia, more conservative with his pitch count, was still at work.
The top of the decisive seventh went like this: Shane Victorino led off with a sizzling single to center and went to second on a passed ball. Garcia got two quick outs, with Carlos Ruiz the batter.
La Russa pushed the button. He elected to have Garcia intentionally walk the Phillies' catcher. Runners on first and second.
Manuel called on right-handed batter Ben Francisco, who lost his right-field job before the season was in full bloom. Garcia's second pitch to Francisco landed in the Phillies' bullpen, giving Philadelphia a 3-0 lead and, after snuffing threats by the Cardinals in the last three innings, the important 3-2 victory.
Walking Ruiz blew up in La Russa's face.
There was a long sigh throughout Busch Stadum. The sellout crowd of 46,914, which had been in a joyous mood much of the day, suddenly became quiet.
Why walk Ruiz?
Why keep Garcia in the game?
"Ruiz had gotten as many big hits [against the Cardinals] over the years than the guys in the middle of the lineup," said La Russa. "He just terrorizes us, and he's already hit two balls hard.
"The matchup [Garcia vs. Francisco] we liked, I liked. I made the decision. Francisco has had a tough time with Jaime, so it really wasn't a tough call."
Leaving Garcia in as long as he did was another question.
"He made one mistake and the guy hit it out of the park," said La Russa. "Usually, that doesn't happen."
Against Hamels, the Cardinals had runners on first and second with two down in the St. Louis sixth. La Russa let Garcia hit and he struck out.
"Well, it didn't work, and that's bad managing," La Russa said. "I'm watching him pitch, and [I] was really pleased. I just thought he was the guy to continue pitching. And I knew the matchups were in our favor. Francisco has not had a lot of success against [Garcia]. But it didn't work."
Earlier, La Russa rolled the dice and was successful.
With Chase Utley on second after a single and wild pitch, and two out in the sixth, La Russa ordered Hunter Pence intentionally walked, with Ryan Howard, one of the most dangerous hitters in the NL, coming up. The move worked, Howard grounded out.
Francisco, 1-for-18 in postseason at-bats before the homer, said the frustrations of 2011 are behind him. His last home run was on May 25 against Cincinnati.
"All that matters is that we're here today, and whatever you do today is going to pretty much define you," Francisco said. "Charlie put me in there, and I got a big hit ... and we picked Cole up. He pitched a great game, and then the bullpen kind of held us."
The Phillies have been heavily favored to advance to the World Series since GM Ruben Amaro Jr. put together the vaunted starting rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Hamels
Until Francisco launched his homer, that goal seemed in jeopardy.
Had the Cardinals taken a 2-1 lead, they would have had enormous momentum heading into Wednesday's game. The same momentum they used when they won 15 of their last 20 games to gain the NL Wild Card berth.
Manuel has been concerned since Sunday's loss about the hitting. And even with Francisco's dramatic homer, the hitting is still lacking.
But as Manuel says, this team is built on pitching -- and just enough timely hitting. The formula, of course, carried the Phillies to the best record in the Major Leagues and the most wins (102) in franchise history.
"They had baserunners every inning," sighed Manuel. "You feel like when you get in situations like that, you're dodging bullets. We were dodging most of the game.
"But things worked out for us."
If the Phillies can continue to dodge those bullets and fire a few of their own, they'll be back playing for the NL pennant.
It might depend on which buttons are pushed and who does the pushing.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.