- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION

Sitting behind the desk in the visiting manager’s office at Nationals Park, Tony La Russa studied the Nationals’ batting order for Wednesday’s game against his St. Louis Cardinals. For the fourth consecutive time, Washington manager Jim Riggleman defied conventional wisdom by batting his pitcher eighth and a position player ninth - in this case, shortstop Ian Desmond.

“This to me is a really good lineup because Desmond hit second yesterday,” La Russa said. “I know he’s struggling average-wise but he’s a dangerous player who can run like hell. Now [Riggleman] has got him ninth. So whenever they turn around the lineup, that’s another table-setter who can get on base for the top of the order.”

The Nationals were 3-0 since Riggleman moved Jayson Werth to the leadoff position - where he batted again Wednesday - and placed starting pitchers in the No. 8 hole. Great move, huh?

Actually, there isn’t much correlation between the uncommon strategy and the win streak, as the Nats scored just a pair of runs in each of the first two victories before busting out with eight runs Tuesday.

When their season-long scoring struggles resulted in eight runs over four games during the recent road trip - a trip that also included back-to-back shutout losses - Riggleman shook up the batting order, hoping to create an offensive spark. How long it’ll last is anybody’s guess.

“We were trying to do something a little different because we were in a rut, not scoring runs,” he said. “We’ll see where we go with it. I’m not locked into continuing; I might stay with it. It’s a fluid situation.”

Riggleman said he talked to La Russa during spring training about the idea of batting pitchers eighth. You might recall that La Russa first made a habit of the practice during the second half of the 1998 season, as Mark McGwire was en route to 70 homers. The Cards’ offense was struggling despite McGwire’s red-hot bat, and La Russa was reluctant to move the slugger from the No. 3 position because it wouldn’t give him an at-bat in the first inning.

Having spent 16 years in the American League, La Russa knew that a lot of teams used speedy, contact-hitters to bat ninth, essentially creating a second leadoff man once the lineup turns over. A conversation with his close friend, former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight, helped La Russa move closer. But it wasn’t until La Russa bounced the idea off legendary baseball lifers Red Schoendienst and George Kissell - receiving a vote of confidence from both - that he decided to proceed.

“I really gave it a lot of thought,” La Russa said. “When you do something really different it can distract your ballclub. The thing you live with in major college or professional sports is decisions that are scrutinized and pretty much come down to this: If it works it’s good and if it doesn’t work it’s bad.

La Russa said the Cards were 10 games over .500 using the strategy in the second half of ‘98. He employed it extensively in 2007, too, with the team going 28-28 after starting the season 50-56. A few other teams, such as Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, have experimented with the idea recently and La Russa has used it a couple of times this season.

Riggleman, who has talked to a lot of people and read a lot of statistical analyses, said the unconventional lineup creates a slight, although almost insignificant, advantage.

“If there’s any edge, it goes to the pitcher hitting eighth, he said. “The only reason not to do it is if the guy hitting ninth gets brain-fried and it upsets him to the point where he’s not effective. We don’t have that situation. But the edge is so minimal, we were just trying to get a little spark.”

La Russa contends that with the right composition of hitters, batting the pitcher eighth is sound strategy as a matter of course, regardless. So why doesn’t he use it all the time?

“That’s a great question,” he said. “Maybe I’m gutless, but our offense hasn’t struggled. So I don’t feel like we have to. And every time I looked at the way hitters lined up in front of the pitcher, it wasn’t easy to do. But I do have it in mind when our offense struggles.”

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