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Sunday baseball notes

Tony La Russa hadn’t managed since 2011, and now his White Sox are on the verge of winning the AL Central

Tony La Russa was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2014.
Tony La Russa was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2014.David Berding/Getty

Jack McKeon was 72 when the Marlins won the World Series in 2003. He remains the oldest manager to win a Series.

Trader Jack had plenty of fun along the way. Major League Baseball set up a hospitality tent in the parking lot of what was known as Pro Player Stadium at the time and McKeon often stopped by, cigars in hand, to join the postgame party.

McKeon even hopped on stage during the National League Championship Series and played the bongos.

Now Tony La Russa is ready to dance.

La Russa, who turns 77 on Oct. 4, has the White Sox set to clinch the American League Central for the first time since 2008.

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“This is the only thing I know how to do and I had the great fortune to walk into this situation,” La Russa said recently while leaning on a fungo bat as the White Sox took batting practice. “I enjoy it. I have no regrets. The only regret will be if we don’t get to the finish line.”

La Russa was with the Red Sox from 2018-19 as a special assistant to Dave Dombrowski. It wasn’t a patronage job. La Russa regularly traveled with the team, mentored Alex Cora, and was a welcome presence within the baseball operations department.

He took a similar role with the Angels in 2020. Then, in a surprise to the baseball world, he agreed to manage the White Sox last October.

La Russa hadn’t managed since going out a World Series winner with the Cardinals in 2011. He was elected to the Hall of Fame three years later.

But White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who is 85, wanted La Russa back. La Russa had managed the team from 1979-86 before being fired and Reinsdorf always regretted the move.

“I didn’t come out of retirement. I was still working in the game,” La Russa said. “The game is the same. The biggest difference — and it wasn’t as dramatic as you might expect — is the wealth of information.

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“You take that information, and you respect it and combine it with what you see.”

The White Sox helped that cause by giving La Russa a data-driven pitching coach in 38-year-old Ethan Katz, who left the cutting-edge Giants for the opportunity.

In Ethan Katz (center), Tony La Russa has a data-driven pitching coach balancing out La Russa's old-school style.
In Ethan Katz (center), Tony La Russa has a data-driven pitching coach balancing out La Russa's old-school style.Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty

Shelley Duncan was named analytics coordinator. He came into the job with an understanding of how to use data and communicate with La Russa. Duncan’s father, Dave, was La Russa’s pitching coach for 29 seasons.

“It’s been a healthy situation,” La Russa said. “All the years I managed, we always pursued information. Now you can get it right away. There were a lot of negatives when I took the job and they were legitimate. The only one that didn’t make sense was that I was away from the game.”

Cora saw that when the White Sox took two of three from the Red Sox last week.

“He’s all-out, he’s all-in,” Cora said. “One thing about Tony, he doesn’t take anything for granted. He doesn’t take days off. He’s doing an outstanding job.”

During their time together with the Red Sox, Cora never got the sense La Russa wanted to manage again. But he knew the White Sox and their ready-to-win roster was a good fit.

La Russa joined the White Sox after two years in an executive role under Dave Dombrowski (right) in Boston.
La Russa joined the White Sox after two years in an executive role under Dave Dombrowski (right) in Boston.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

“They got the right guy,” Cora said. “He has a history [in Chicago] and some unfinished business. I know Jerry loves Tony. Everybody in the organization respects Tony La Russa for everything he brings to the equation. I think they got it right.”

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The White Sox have a potent lineup led by Jose Abreu and Tim Anderson. A playoff rotation led by Lucas Giolito, Lance Lynn, and Carlos Rodon will be formidable with Liam Hendriks, Michael Kopech, and impressive rookie lefthander Garrett Crochet (who is 55 years younger than his manager) in the bullpen.

Craig Kimbrel, who was acquired at the trade deadline from the crosstown Cubs, has struggled. But there’s time to get him fixed.

“We have the talent,” said La Russa, who won a championship with the 1989 Athletics then two more with the Cardinals. “We’ve overcome obstacles and shown how competitive we are. They have the toughness.

“But we can get better, and we’ll work at that. We need to understand that we can use the games remaining to get better.”

La Russa watched the Red Sox make the playoff run in 2018 from the periphery.

“It was such a lucky break to be there and see that club,” he said. “I’m so glad to be in this position again. I was a [lousy] player and now I’m a manager. Playing in October is the most fun you can have at this job.”

CHANGES NEEDED

For Red Sox, the defense rests

Defense has been the Sox' glaring weakness in the second half.
Defense has been the Sox' glaring weakness in the second half.Abbie Parr/Getty

The Red Sox knew from the start defense wasn’t going to be a strength. But it has been a glaring weakness in the second half and something they’ll have to overcome to make the playoffs.

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“They must hold their breath on every ground ball to the left side,” said a scout who watched the Sox for three games in a row this month. “They have to be frustrated.”

That’s for certain. It’s a topic Alex Cora is tired of because there’s not much the Sox can do at this point. This is the team they have and it’s just not a good one defensively.

Once the offseason hits, the Sox will have a series of tough decisions to make starting with whether Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts are best suited to play third base and shortstop.

It’s easy to suggest Devers move to first base, but Bobby Dalbec has played well there in the second half and Triston Casas will be ready at some point next season.

Meanwhile, Devers and his agents know he has more long-term value as a third baseman. Bogaerts is under contract through 2025 but can opt out before 2023. He might prefer showing he can play a different spot given it’s unlikely he’ll play shortstop well into his 30s.

Kiké Hernández should be the everyday center fielder given the issues Alex Verdugo has when he moves over from left. Statistics show Verdugo has been an above-average left fielder in his career and a well below-average center fielder. But he has started 38 games in center this season.

The Sox also have tried nine second basemen.

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Preparation is another issue. Tampa Bay runs through a quick-paced series of team-wide defensive drills on the field before every game. The Sox prefer early-afternoon work geared toward individual skills. That doesn’t seem to have helped.

Coaching must be examined, too. Outfielders are still throwing to the wrong base. Devers and Bogaerts continue to get in each other’s way on balls in the hole. There’s a lack of communication on the field.

A coach with the gravitas of Ron Washington, Perry Hill, or Brian Butterfield may be needed as a “defensive coordinator” of sorts.

It’s too late for this season. But how the Sox approach defense will be a topic all winter.

A few other observations about the Red Sox:

Tanner Houck could be a major playoff contributor as a multi-inning reliever, if not as a starter.
Tanner Houck could be a major playoff contributor as a multi-inning reliever, if not as a starter.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

▪ They have to get there first. But if the Sox manage to advance beyond the wild-card round, their pitching staff would be set up well to control a series with Tanner Houck, Nick Pivetta, Garrett Richards, and Garrett Whitlock available as multi-inning relievers with high-end stuff.

Cora handled the bullpen masterfully in the 2018 postseason.

▪ Devers has joined Ted Williams as the only players in franchise history with two seasons of at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs before turning 25.

Williams had four such seasons, averaging 32 homers and 129 RBIs from 1939-42.

Devers, who turns 25 on Oct. 24 (the day of a potential Game 7 of the ALCS), is younger than rookie teammates Dalbec, Houck, Whitlock, and Jarren Duran.

Jose Iglesias said this past week that the Sox still feel like “home” for him. The Sox struck out with Marwin Gonzalez as a utility player this season. Might Iglesias be a good fit for such a role next season?

▪ A MedMen marijuana dispensary is scheduled to open only steps from Fenway Park on Oct. 1. The storefront will be on Brookline Avenue close to Gate A with the back door a brief walk from Gate D.

Maybe Bill Lee can throw out the first bud?

ETC.

Cape League stars to watch

Florida's Kris Armstrong was one of the stars on the Cape this summer, flashing power from both sides of the plate.
Florida's Kris Armstrong was one of the stars on the Cape this summer, flashing power from both sides of the plate.Gary McCullough/Associated Press

Tommy Mumau is a junior at Ithaca College who interned with the Falmouth Commodores of the Cape Cod Baseball League, covering their season for the team’s website.

He’s an aspiring baseball writer, so I asked Mumau to write up a scouting report on five players who impressed him. Take it away, Tommy:

1B Kris Armstrong, University of Florida (Falmouth): Armstrong is a reliable hitter who has power from both sides of the plate. The switch-hitter displayed consistency by hitting for average as well, logging a .308 batting average in 25 games. His signature moment on the Cape came July 25 against Chatham when he launched a walkoff homer over the right-field wall to extend Falmouth’s winning streak to four games.

INF Eric Brown, Coastal Carolina University (Cotuit): Brown is a dynamic player who makes his presence known on both sides of the ball. He plays with a passion evident to everyone in the ballpark. I was impressed by the arm strength he displayed at second base, manning the position with an ease that resembled Robinson Cano. Brown is also a force at the plate, posting an impressive .282 batting average with 21 RBIs and five homers.

OF Anthony Hall, University of Oregon (Falmouth): Hall is the type of player any manager can confidently pencil into the lineup. He is primarily a contact hitter who always looks to make something happen on the bases. He had 12 extra-base hits and three stolen bases. I was impressed by Hall’s progression throughout the summer, raising his batting average from .200 to .283 in the final 12 games of the season.

LHP Trey Dombroski, Monmouth University (Harwich): Dombroski was among the most dominant pitchers I saw this summer. He demonstrated great poise on the mound, staying locked in from his first pitch to the last. Dombroski utilized this demeanor to his advantage, as he led the league with a 0.85 ERA and tying for the league lead in strikeouts with 45.

OF Jace Bohrofen, University of Arkansas (Falmouth): Bohrofen is a lefthanded-hitting outfielder who finds a way to make an impact. The Oklahoma transfer hit for average and power, hitting .279 with five home runs and 19 RBIs. Bohrofen also showed off his speed by stealing eight bases and displaying great range in right field.

Extra bases

The Dodgers are yet to lose a game with Max Scherzer on the mound after picking up the ace at the deadline.
The Dodgers are yet to lose a game with Max Scherzer on the mound after picking up the ace at the deadline.John McCoy/Associated Press

Max Scherzer has proven to be one of best trade deadline pickups in history. The Dodgers were undefeated in Scherzer’s first eight starts with the righthander having an 0.88 ERA and striking out 72 with five walks. Scherzer has been a perfect fit in the clubhouse, too. What he can’t do is hit. Scherzer was 0 for 52 through 25 games with the Nationals and Dodgers, striking out 23 times. He did have three sacrifices and one sacrifice fly at least. The record for pitcher futility at the plate is the 0-for-44 season Wei-Yin Chen of the Marlins in 2016 … Jorge Posada hit 30 home runs as a catcher in 2003. No catcher reached 30 again until Minnesota’s Mitch Garver had 30 in 2019. Kansas City’s Salvador Perez (30) and Tampa Bay’s Mike Zunino (31) have done it this season. Zunino hit .203 in his first 100 games but had an .845 OPS thanks to all those home runs and 32 walks. He has homered, struck out or walked in 54 percent of his plate appearances … Mets owner Steve Cohen has decided to keep Sandy Alderson as team president and is looking to hire a president of baseball operations, who would then likely name a general manager as Zack Scott almost surely will not be retained following his arrest for DUI. The new baseball chief will probably name a new manager, too. The Rays headed off Cohen by signing Erik Neander to a new contract that came with a promotion. Theo Epstein is an obvious choice. But he’s in position to demand full control of baseball ops along with an ownership stake. Epstein also could wait for a better opportunity to burnish his Hall of Fame résumé, such as building an expansion team from the ground up or putting together a group to purchase a team. The Mets have been Team Chaos for decades and Epstein may not want the headaches …The Astros went into the weekend leading the American League in batting average (.270), ERA (3.69), and fielding percentage (.989). Only four teams have led their league in all three categories, the last being the 2001 Mariners … The Rays started Manuel Margot in all nine spots of the order at least once this season. They’ve also used righthander Andrew Kittredge in innings 1-11 … Mitch Haniger is only the first Mariners player to score 100 runs in a season since Cano in 2016 and remarkably the first outfielder since Ichiro Suzuki in 2008 … As the Cardinals contend for a playoff spot, Jon Lester is 3-1 with a 4.14 ERA in nine starts. The last five — 2-0 with a 2.12 ERA — have been particularly sharp as Lester has talked with pitching coach Mike Maddux and teammate Adam Wainwright about how best to use his fastball, in particular his sinker. At 37, Lester is positioning himself to be a viable free agent. It has helped that the Cardinals are such an outstanding defensive team that Lester can pitch to contact trusting the play will be made behind him. Their infield has converted 78 percent of ground balls into outs, the best rate in the majors, according to Sports Info Solutions … No Reds player has led the league in hitting since Pete Rose in 1973. Nick Castellanos has work to do to pass Trea Turner, Juan Soto, and Bryce Harper but it’s possible … Orioles center fielder Cedric Mullins had 29 home runs and 30 stolen bases through Saturday. He has a good chance to be the first 30-30 player in Orioles history. Ken Williams had 39 homers and 37 stolen bases for the 1922 St. Louis Browns, who moved to Baltimore in 1954 … Can Vladimir Guerrero Jr. do enough to steal the MVP away from Shohei Ohtani? As good as he has been, Guerrero leading the Jays to a wild card probably wouldn’t overcome Ohtani’s 7.7 WAR as a hitter and pitcher … The Nationals fired two minor league coaches who refused the team’s vaccine mandate. Brad Holman and Larry Pardo then filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, saying their request for a religious exemption was denied … Happy 37th birthday to Danny Valencia, who played for seven teams over a nine-year career in the majors including the Red Sox for 10 games in 2012. He retired after the 2018 season but played for Israel in the Olympics this summer. Former Sox lefthander and current NESN broadcaster Lenny DiNardo is 42. He once played in a game against Barry Bonds and had more hits. You can look it up.


Peter Abraham can be reached at peter.abraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.