Baseball: La Russa must deliver to avenge Cardinals defeat

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The Independent Online

La Russa, by common consent, is the smartest manager in baseball - and certainly the only one with a law degree. With the Chicago White Sox, Oakland and now St Louis, he has won more regular season games than all but two managers in the history of the game. His scowling yet cerebral presence in the Cardinals' dug-out, as he pores over arcane statistical charts, is as much a part of the team's image as the red birds on its uniforms.

But in terms of World Championships, La Russa has not delivered. His gifted Oakland side of the late 1980s reached three consecutive World Series but won only one. In 2004, St Louis was the best team in baseball. But in the game's showpiece occasion, the Cardinals were thrashed by the Red Sox, an ignominy that haunts La Russa.

And history could repeat itself this year. Once again, the Cardinals had the best regular reason record in baseball, the only team to win 100 games. Once again, they have made a decent start to the post-season, with an 8-5 victory over the San Diego Padres in the first of their best-of-five National League division series.

Next up, assuming they make it through to the best-of-seven League Championship Series, will be either the Houston Astros or the underachieving Atlanta Braves - eternal winners of the NL East who always seem to come up a little short when it really matters.

And if the Cardinals do make it to the Series? The goal is a first championship since 1982 - an unconscionably long wait for a franchise that is second only to the Yankees in World Series wins. The line-up is bolstered by the acquisition of pitcher Mark Mulder and led by Albert Pujols, who, though only 25, threatens to rewrite every offensive record in the game. But the question mark over the Cardinals and La Russa remains: can they pull it out on baseball's biggest stage.

Conceivably, the ultimate test could again be against the defending champions, the Red Sox, their nemesis in 2004. But the Red Sox look less of a force than 12 months ago. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez are as potent a pair of sluggers as any, but Boston's starting pitching is thin. A 14-2 thumping by the White Sox in the opening game of their American League division series does not bode well.

In retrospect, last year's march to the summit, thanks to that epic 4-3 triumph in the AL pennant series against the Yankees, was destiny. But Babe Ruth's curse is now banished - and destiny tends not to repeat itself two years in a row.

Indeed, if expired curses are the yardstick, this year ought to be the moment for the White Sox, whose last championship came in 1917 - the White Sox of "Shoeless" Joe Jackson who two years later would throw the World Series in baseball's greatest-ever scandal. An 88-year drought is surely penance enough even for that sin.

But, inevitably, the Yankees are waiting, with their $200m (£113m) payroll and an array of battle-tested veterans with the scent of post-season glory in their nostrils. They got off to a good start with a 4-2 win at the dangerous Los Angeles Angels. New York is without a World Championship since 2000, an eternity by its standards. What price a Yankees-Cardinals match-up when the World Series opens on October 22?