It started innocently enough: The Cardinals led the Phillies 2-1 entering the top of the eighth, Trever Miller in to face the top of the Phillies' order.
Jimmy Rollins lined out, Shane Victorino singled and Chase Utley walked on a 3-2 pitch that may have caught the inside corner. That brought up Ryan Howard ... and a trip to the mound from Tony La Russa, who oddly replaced the southpaw Miller with hard-throwing righty Jason Motte. The Phillies TV announcers couldn't believe the move, as everybody knows about Howard's large platoon split -- .923 OPS versus right-handers this season, .693 versus left-handers. Howard was 5-for-13 with a home run off Miller in his career (0-for-1 off Motte), but that doesn't seem like enough to make a move.
Anyway, Motte hit Howard with his first pitch, then hit Placido Polanco to force in a run. Brian Tallet came on and struck out Raul Ibanez and induced Ben Francisco to hit a three-hopper one step to the left of third baseman Daniel Descalso, who froze like a statue, made a lame dive and saw the ball bounce past him for a two-run single. Just a terrible defensive play. From there the inning deteriorated with three more walks, three singles, a total of five relievers used and the Phillies plating nine runs.
Rick Hummel wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that "La Russa said ... he was factoring in the numbers that said Howard was hitting higher against lefthanders than righthanders (.267 to .250) and that even if Miller had struck out Utley, he was going to make the change. 'I thought Motte was the better matchup,' La Russa said."
Hmm, still seems weird. I mean, did La Russa really cite a batting average difference of 17 points? All 15 of Howard's home runs have come against right-handers.
La Russa is currently using an eight-man bullpen with only four bench players. Considering one of the bench players is the backup catcher, this leaves him with little flexibility on offense. I don't see the advantage of carrying so many relievers -- there's no way you can keep all of them that busy -- and you lose the ability to match up against the other team's bullpen as you have to save your bench players to hit for pitchers or use in double-switches. If La Russa, say, wanted to pinch-hit for Jon Jay against a tough lefty, it would be difficult to do so unless it's the eighth or ninth inning and he hasn't used any subs yet.
And carrying eight relievers isn't working for the Cards. The St. Louis bullpen has a 7.13 ERA in June. Overall, it ranks 25th in the majors in runners allowed per nine innings. As Bernie Miklasz points out, ex-closer Ryan Franklin is basically a wasted roster spot, pitching just 10 times since May 1.
The Cards definitely have some late-game issues to work out. And now they own The Ugliest Inning Of The Season.
Follow David on Twitter @dschoenfield.