Lynn, La Russa once shared weird moment

December 8th, 2020

On Monday night, the Chicago White Sox agreed to trade right-handed pitching prospect Dane Dunning and lefty Avery Weems (a less-heralded prospect) to the Texas Rangers for righty . The White Sox will be the fifth MLB team for Lynn, who has always been underrated but has been particularly so the last two years, when he's been terrific for a Rangers team that otherwise no one was paying attention to. Lynn has finished in the top six in the American League Cy Young Award voting the last two years, and in 2019, according to Fangraphs, he was one of the best 10 players in baseball. He's a fantastic pitcher.

Lynn is also a perfect fit for a White Sox team that needs another stabilizing veteran starter who can give them a lot of quality innings: Lynn led the Majors in starts, innings pitched and batters faced last year. The White Sox, with all their young talent, have a chance to make a big move in the AL in 2021. Lynn's arrival might instantly install them as the favorites in the AL Central.

And that's all fine and good: There's plenty of time to get into all that. But I can't be the first person, upon hearing the news of Lynn's trade to Chicago, who thought: Oh, wow, he and Tony La Russa better figure out their bullpen phone procedure.

That's right: It's Lynn, La Russa and the wonders of modern bullpen phone technology, together again.

For those of you that might have forgotten, the date was Oct. 24, 2011, and it was the pivotal Game 5 of the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Texas Rangers. This was the last World Series game until this last October to be played in Arlington, but unlike '20, the stands in Texas were full of many, many Rangers fans, all of whom were extremely loud. The series was tied 2-2, and the Cards had ace Chris Carpenter on the mound, who had been brilliant in the postseason up to that point. St. Louis felt incredibly confident, and even more so after it took a 2-0 lead in the second inning on a Yadier Molina single and a Skip Schumaker RBI groundout. Mitch Moreland homered off Carpenter in the third, and then Adrián Beltré hit a blast in the bottom of the sixth to tie it.

The Cardinals had a chance to take the lead in the top of the seventh, when, after Ron Washington opted to intentionally walk Lance Berkman, the bases were loaded for St. Louis native David Freese, the National League Championship Series hero and soon-to-be World Series legend a few nights later. But he flied out to center to end the threat. (This was after an ill-advised hit-and-run opportunity in that inning led to Allen Craig being thrown out stealing.) It remained tied in the bottom of the eighth when Rangers designated hitter Michael Young led off the inning with a double off Cardinals reliever Octavio Dotel. That's when everything started getting hazy.

La Russa, after Young's double, called to the Cardinals' bullpen. According to a detailed recap from the late great Cardinals beat reporter Joe Strauss, La Russa asked bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist to warm up left-hander Marc Rzepczynski and stretch out closer Jason Motte (a righty). But apparently Lilliquist didn't hear the Motte instruction -- "Maybe I slurred it," La Russa said -- so he sat idle as Dotel struck out Beltré and intentionally walked Nelson Cruz. La Russa, who thought Motte had been warming up and would thus be ready for the right-handed-hitting Mike Napoli if he came up in a big spot, brought in Rzepczynski to face left-handed-hitting David Murphy. The lefty then gave up an infield single to Murphy, loading the bases for Napoli, in that big spot.

But Motte wasn't ready. So La Russa was forced to throw Rzepczynski against the lefty-mashing Napoli. La Russa, frustrated, called for Motte to finally get going, but, for reasons that still aren't entirely clear, the bullpen interpreted him as calling for reliever Lance Lynn, who had thrown 2 1/3 innings the previous night and was thought to be unavailable. Lynn shrugged and got throwing, and he watched as Napoli hit a 1-1 fastball over the head of Craig in right field to give the Rangers a 4-2 lead. La Russa would later call the Rzepczynski-Napoli matchup a "bad dream."

But what happened next was a surreal nightmare. After Rzepczynski stayed in and struck out the left-handed-hitting Moreland, La Russa called to the bullpen to bring in Motte, who, as far as he thought, had been warming up for three hitters now. But he hadn't gotten up once, so the Cards' bullpen coaches sent in Lynn. Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan was so confused by Lynn jogging in from the bullpen that he yelled for La Russa to send him back.

The greatest moment, though, was what La Russa said to Lynn when they met at the mound. "What are you doing here?"

Lynn was able to save his arm: Motte warmed up, finally, as Lynn threw his warmup pitches, and all Lynn had to do was intentionally walk Ian Kinsler (this was before the automatic intentional walk rule when you actually had to throw the four balls for an intentional walk). Motte got the Cardinals out of the inning, but Neftalí Feliz shut down the Cards in the ninth, and the Rangers had a 3-2 series lead. And afterwards, there was mass confusion about what had happened, and considerable concern that La Russa, in Year 16 with St. Louis at that point, at the age of 67, may have lost a step. Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci wrote that night that listening to La Russa's decision-making explanations felt like "being stuck in a gigantic corn maze. Blindfolded. At midnight. After getting spun around 38 times. Every explanation led to another turn that led to another dead end or false exit." I wrote for New York Magazine that La Russa looked lost, "the way an old man gets lost when he wakes up in the middle of the night when all the lights are off."

This incident is not as commonly remembered today because of what happened in Game 6, the David Freese Game, and the Cardinals' World Series victory in Game 7. But imagine if that would have been a decisive game. Imagine what that would have done to how we've been talking about La Russa all these years.

Because that's the thing about La Russa, who, of course, is now back managing for the first time since 2011, back with his original team, the Chicago White Sox. It has been a long time since '11, but in the context of La Russa's career, it's not long at all: He has only managed two games since that one. That game is his last loss. Back then, Lynn was a (sort of pudgy) rookie reliever; now he's a (much thinner, much more bearded) reliable veteran starter. A lot can happen in nine-plus years.

Lynn will return to La Russa as a different person, as La Russa himself will be as well. They will always be connected through that Game 5, and now they are connected again. Here's betting that the next time Lynn walks to the mound for a Tony La Russa-managed team, La Russa will know that he is coming.