Twenty-four hours later, manager Tony La Russa was still surprised to be facing questions about his choice to intentionally walk Trea Turner in the sixth inning of Thursday’s 11-9 loss to the Dodgers.
Walking Turner, of course, brought up Max Muncy, who hit a three-run home run off of reliever Bennett Sousa. Three runs that put the Dodgers ahead, 10-5, and provided the necessary cushion to hold off Sox rallies in the eighth and ninth innings.
“That’s not even a close call,” La Russa said of his choice a day after the fact.
The result – both Muncy’s home run and the game outcome – prompted a strong reaction, and not just among fans, broadcasters, and writers in Chicago. National baseball pundits weighed in, and the decision to walk Turner was being dissected on MLB Network in the Sox clubhouse Friday. A lot of the second-guessing, La Russa said after Thursday’s game, was coming because of how things turned out. If Muncy makes an out, there’s probably not an uproar. At most, the move might be viewed as a head-scratcher. And if Turner gets a hit with a 1-2 count, “I would be walking into the lake or something because that would have been stupid,” La Russa said.
But even if Muncy hadn’t homered, La Russa’s decision was an uncommon one. No batter had been intentionally walked with two strikes since 2016, and no batter had been intentionally walked with two strikes and while behind in the count since 2013. Even before Muncy’s home run, Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman could be seen on camera expressing his surprise and confusion that Turner had been granted a free pass under those circumstances. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts told reporters after the game that he had never seen that done, and Turner said he was confused when home plate umpire Ed Hickox told him he was being intentionally walked.
La Russa has never been one to shy away from making unusual moves as a manager. During his time in St. Louis, for instance, he was initially questioned heavily for decisions like batting his pitcher in the eighth spot in the lineup. This willingness to make the atypical choice comes from advice he got early in his managing career, La Russa said.
“Trust your gut, don’t cover your butt,” he said, summing up the wisdom he had gotten from Paul Richards, who was in the organization as a personnel advisor when La Russa first got the Sox managing gig. “He says because if you make moves to cover your butt, and they usually don’t work and you get fired, you’ll never know if you’re good enough.”
In other words, don’t manage to try to avoid criticism. La Russa said he passes this advice along to young managers these days.
“Don’t worry about it. Because you can’t. It actually frees you to do what you think is right,” he said.
After Thursday’s game and a day later, La Russa stuck by his decision to walk Turner, citing his batting average with two strikes and what Muncy was batting from the left side this season. Turner has a .286 batting average in 1-2 counts, and as La Russa specifically mentioned, Muncy’s average as a lefty was .125 before Thursday.
The reasoning is there, but the decision to walk Turner, under those circumstances, was still unusual. Take away the Muncy home run, and there’s still cause to wonder if La Russa is overthinking things. He has access to plenty of data during the game and likes to talk decisions over with his coaching staff, but ultimately the final calls come down to him.
Across a full season, there will inevitably be a lot of in-game choices that go wrong, and some of those generate a loud response from outside the Sox clubhouse.
“The fact that the game is so obvious for our fans, and anybody, analysts, nobody has that kind of charm,” La Russa said. “And the rest of us that make decisions based on what we ー you know that you’re exposed, and you know that it’s your decision. But there’s some really tough calls, and you’ve gotta make a decision.”
The question that lingers over the Sox as they are still a few games below .500 and entering the middle of June is what La Russa’s batting average is on his decisions at this point in the season. The Sox are unquestionably one of the most talented teams in the American League on paper and are in a contention window where they are expected to be World Series contenders. And yet, they are in third place in the American League Central.
It’s possible that some of La Russa’s decisions have cost the Sox a few wins. Thursday’s game seems like an obvious example, but at the same time, the offense that ranked 7th in baseball in 2021 with 796 runs scored is 25th in the league this year. Some of that could be a product of lineup configuration, and that falls on La Russa, but he cannot pick up a bat and head to the plate in someone like Yoan Moncada’s place.
Regardless of the reaction to his decision on Thursday, La Russa insists that he enjoys this part of managing. Decisions have to be made as a game is happening, and the outcomes of those decisions can make La Russa look like a genius or they can sometimes make him look like he should have stayed retired. He came back to the game because he missed that, La Russa said.
“I’m always fascinated and that’s part of the reason I’m still here,” he said. “I really embrace the excitement of making those decisions. If it don’t go right, I have enough scabs. I can take it.”
Get Our Best Sox Content In Your Inbox!
Become a smarter Chicago White Sox fan with Vinnie Duber's Sox Newsletter!
Just drop your email below!