PHILADELPHIA -- It was the second inning and Chris Carpenter already had his pitch count around 50 and had given up four runs. And now Ryan Howard was coming to the plate. Carpenter was pitching on three days' rest for the first time in his career and with the St. Louis Cardinals looking at a possible 0-2 hole in this series, a life raft was needed. That's when Tony La Russa paid his ace a visit, and the whole game changed.
"Whatever he said, it worked," said one Cardinals player.
Indeed it did. The Cardinals needed a momentum changer in Game 2 of this series and their manager provided one. He was out there to talk to Carpenter, but really, La Russa was eliciting a visit from plate umpire Jerry Meals and he got it. Turns out La Russa was angry about the consistency of Meals' strike zone. But the veteran manager took it a step further on Sunday night when he later aired his complaints on national television between innings.
"They're pitching to two different strike zones," La Russa said on the broadcast, "and against a good club, or any club, that's not an advantage you want to give."
Carpenter quickly retired Howard; the first of 15 straight batters the Cardinals' pitchers set down after La Russa's visit en route to a 5-4 Cardinals' comeback win over the Philadelphia Phillies and Cliff Lee, evening the the National League Division Series at a game apiece.
"I think when Tony went out there and talked to Carpenter I think it kind of slowed things down a bit," third baseman David Freese said.
Players in the Cardinals' clubhouse afterward were surprised that La Russa took the extra step to talk about the strike zone on TV. But they were loathe -- as players usually are -- to discuss the umpiring. La Russa, however, wasn't. He knows he'll probably be hit with a fine and knows he was probably wrong for using a public forum, but after the game he wasn't backing down.
"I was upset," he said. "We care, I care, our team cares and it's not a great comment to make but I was upset. I'ver never had a problem with Jerry before, ever. The only thing I had a problem with -- one of the things you go out there whatever the strike zone is, it makes no difference to us, we'll adjust to it. That was my only point, we had to figure out what the strike zone was."
The only thing I had a problem with -- one of the things you go out there whatever the strike zone is, it makes no difference to us, we'll adjust to it. That was my only point, we had to figure out what the strike zone was.
”-- Cardinals manager Tony La Russa
The Philies seemed to be having just as difficult a time, too. In the fifth inning, shortly after La Russa aired his complaints on national TV -- Chase Utley was called out on a pitch that looked to be far outside of the strike zone. And even as late as the ninth, in two different at-bats, two pitches weren't called strikes when they seemed to be -- including a Ryan Madson pitch against Freese that looked to be right down the middle.
"Seemed like both sides were not really happy with the strike zone, but whatever," Lee said. "That's an excuse, to me. I'm not going to blame anything on that."
Crew chief Jerry Layne was asked by a pool reporter about La Russa's in-game comments. Layne declined comment. But when asked about the high emotions of the game and his reaction to Madson making a comment toward Meals late in the game, Layne said: "I don't know what goes through people's minds. It's basically a game, and it's at high levels, and there's a lot of professionals on the field. Everybody tries to do their best."
Carpenter emphasized that the umpires are human, and that he is never one to complain about the zone. He was aware of the tension, though.
"There was a lot of commotion going on out there with the umpire, and Jerry did a nice job," he said. "I'm never a guy that complains about a strike zone, and that's the honest truth. Jerry did not do a bad job at all."
It was Meals who had arguably the most controversial call this season when, in late July in an extra-inning game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Atlanta Braves in Atlanta, he called Julio Lugo safe at home for the winning run when he was clearly out. The Pirates were in first place at the time and subsequently went into a tailspin. Major League Baseball issued a statement the next day conceding Meals' error. Because of the mistake, Meals and his family received threats long after the botched call.
On Sunday night, it was La Russa shining another spotlight on umpiring. Whether it was his genius of picking a fight at the right time, or a succession of other events that just happened to fall into place, the end result was this: the Cardinals got the win, the series is tied and the teams are headed to St. Louis.
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at Amy.K.Nelson@espn.com.