Twenty-five years and two World Series rings later, La Russa is still driving to pass everyone, although he defers to "[Jim] Leyland is the best ... ever." Now, La Russa has always been driven. He's never been known to laugh and wisecrack around the park. His answer to, "How are you?" is often, "I'll know in seven hours when the game's over."
Yet in this National League Championship Series, he has clearly been more relaxed, more gregarious than in any recent postseason.
"I really like this team," La Russa said. "It's been fun. It's been a fun ride. I'm really enjoying myself."
In one sense, it's been a fun ride because there has been nothing to lose. The Cardinals were behind the Pirates in July. They were 8 1/2 games behind the Braves for the Wild Card spot in September. They got into the NL Division Series when Chris Carpenter shut out Houston on the final night of the season, then lost the NLDS opener to Phillies ace Roy Halladay and were down, 4-0, in Game 2 to Cliff Lee.
In that game, Carpenter went three innings and allowed four runs. La Russa yanked his ace, then used six relievers for six innings, won, 5-4, and began this magical run.
"I just try to manage to situations," La Russa said. "We go game-to-game, situation-to-situation."
And with eight relievers on his roster, he has made this the postseason of the bullpen.
Naturally, we all remember Carpenter's 1-0 duel with Halladay in the fifth and deciding game of the NLDS. But in the other five postseason victories against the Phillies and Brewers, the teams that conventional wisdom considered the best in the Senior Circuit, La Russa has not left a starting pitcher in to record an out in the sixth inning. In those five wins, his starters have pitched 23 innings, his relievers 22. To get those 22 innings, he has used 22 relievers.
"I guess there's a reason he has eight relievers on his roster," said Brewers catcher George Kotteras.
Granted, Jason Motte has been used conventionally, saving four games with one hit, no walks and six strikeouts in seven innings. But in three of those saves, all with one- or two-run leads, Motte has recorded four outs to close out the game. "He's been special," La Russa said, and Motte gets used specially.
Otherwise, La Russa has used Mark Rzepcynski in seven games to record 10 outs. He brought Octavio Dotel into Game 5 on Friday in the fifth inning with two outs and a 4-1 lead, because of the matchup of Dotel vs. Ryan Braun, as opposed to the matchup of Jaime Garcia vs. Braun, which in the opener of this series produced a mammoth homer and a double. Dotel struck him out on a hanging cutter. In the three wins against the Brewers, the only starter to pitch five innings was Carpenter, who will remain fresh if he is needed Monday in a Game 7.
This bullpen has been a work in progress, one that was second in the league in blown saves. At the trading deadline, general manager John Mozeliak made the controversial deal that sent Colby Rasmus to Toronto, but he got Edwin Jackson for the rotation, Dotel and Rzepcynski for the bullpen and signed the venerable Arthur Rhodes. Gradually, La Russa figured out what he had and how to use it, they roared down the stretch, and now, in this postseason, he has managed that 'pen game-by-game, inning-by-inning, matchup-by-matchup.
"Every game is different," La Russa said. Indeed, and his other top pitcher, Adam Wainwright, isn't coming back until Spring Training. "We make do with what we have."
What the Cardinals have has them one win away from the World Series in an NLCS in which their starting pitchers have a 6.04 ERA. "It's been a fun ride," said La Russa. It's a ride Disney World or Six Flags has never seen.