fb-pixel Skip to main content

Tony La Russa has seen the improbable happen before

Tony La Russa (left) guided current Angels slugger Albert Pujols (right) and the Cardinals to 2006 and 2011 World Series titles.2006 File/Mike Blake/Reuters

ANAHEIM, Calif. — As he travels with a Red Sox team that is clinging to hope, team special assistant Tony La Russa is wearing his 2011 World Series ring. The choice of bling is not accidental.

The 2011 Cardinals team that was helmed by La Russa in his managerial swan song stands as a monument to remote possibility. That talented team struggled through most of the first five months of the season while navigating a dizzying array of injuries to key players.

On Aug. 24, the team had a 67-63 record. They were 10 games behind the Brewers in the NL Central and 10½ behind the Braves in the wild card. According to coolstandings.com, St. Louis had a 1.3 percent chance of making the playoffs at the conclusion of that day — and just a 0.5 percent shot at claiming the wild card.


For most of the summer, through the injuries to players such as Albert Pujols and Adam Wainwright along with a sluggish start by Chris Carpenter, the Cardinals had shown sustained toughness on the field, and maintained belief in what remained possible despite the ominous state of the standings. But the August downturn — punctuated by a three-game sweep at the hands of the Dodgers — shook the belief of that team.

“They got discouraged,” said La Russa. “They thought that after all this work, it wasn’t going to happen.”

Red Sox lose to Angels, 10-4, widen AL wild-card deficit

As he felt the air escaping the balloon, La Russa addressed his team, hoping to patch the leak.

“The motivation for me was, look, all year long, people would come in — scouts, our peers, players, coaches — and say, ‘You guys are tough,’ ” said La Russa. “I said, ‘We’re getting ready to ruin every bit of respect that we’ve earned . . .We’ve got to finish over .500, finish as good as we can.’ That was the initial motivation.”


Yet in order to pursue that simple goal of playing to the best of their abilities, La Russa decided to play a card of last resort — the equivalent of an “in case of emergency, break glass” proclamation. With roughly five weeks left in the season and 32 games to play, he asked that everyone around the club — the manager, the coaches, the players — “play it like the seventh game of the World Series, the last game of your life.”

The response?

“Right away, the urgency picked up,” said La Russa, who noted that his message was amplified in a players-only meeting in which the members of the Cardinals roster challenged each other to elevate their level of play.

The wins for St. Louis started to come — two in a row, then four more, then 12 in 16 games, and 15 in 20. And while Milwaukee continued to cruise towards October, the Braves traveled the opposite trajectory. A cakewalk to a wild-card spot for Atlanta suddenly became imperiled, as the St. Louis hot streak coincided with a 6-7 stretch by the Braves entering a three-game series in St. Louis in mid-September.

In the first contest of that series, the Braves carried a 3-1 lead into the ninth inning. But Craig Kimbrel — amidst what had been one of the greatest seasons in history by a reliever — gave up a single and walked a pair of batters before a Pujols cue shot down the first base line scored two runs to tie the game in an eventual extra-innings, 4-3 win for the Cardinals.


That game marked the start of a three-game sweep, and suddenly, the goalposts shifted. Atlanta’s 10½-game lead had dwindled to 4½ with 16 to go. The Cardinals were no longer playing for pride — they were playing for the postseason, and treating every game with the urgency of a championship pursuit.

And on the last day of the year — on the same day that the Red Sox concluded their epic September collapse with a loss to the Orioles that allowed the Rays to claim the AL wild card — the Cardinals crushed the Astros while the Braves lost to the Phillies, with Kimbrel blowing the save, allowing St. Louis to claim the NL wild card.

Yet reaching the postseason in improbable fashion did not represent an end-point for that Cardinals club. The same edge with which St. Louis had been playing for five weeks, La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan recognized, could allow the team to cut a path through October.

“We’d gotten that thing and we just rolled,” La Russa said, smiling at the memory of a team that took down the Phillies in five games in the NLDS, advanced past the Brewers in six games in the NLCS, and finally beat the Rangers in an epic, seven-game World Series.


And now, La Russa sees the relevance of that experience with a 2019 Red Sox team that he is around on a daily basis. He sees the talent, sees the sharpened focus that has accompanied the team’s play in recent weeks — and the way that Red Sox manager Alex Cora has started managing games as if back in the postseason, recognizing the increased magnitude of each win and loss.

With decades of experience in the game, La Russa understands that the Red Sox’ odds of reaching the postseason are remote, that surpassing two of three teams ahead of them in contention for the wild card — Cleveland (6 games in front of the Sox), Oakland (5½ games), and Tampa Bay (5½ games) — is unlikely. Yet as he’s told members of the Red Sox coaching staff, there is also reason not to let go of whatever hope the team has, knowing that sometimes, the improbable can happen.

“It’s not impossible but very tough,” said La Russa. “You can’t fake it, but if the club will play with an urgency, you never know. It’s a very talented team. You never know. All of a sudden, Oakland, Tampa Bay, they see what’s coming . . . What you do is you play to the end, never give in, never give up, and you never know. The final carrot is that if we get in, nobody is going to want to play us because of the history of this club.

“Are we going to make it happen? I don’t know. But you can know that you took your best shot,” said La Russa. “Let’s see what happens.”


Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com.