Tony La Russa returns to playoffs with Chicago White Sox

CHICAGO - MAY 16: Manager Tony La Russa #22 of the Chicago White Sox makes a pitching change against the Kansas City Royals in the fifth inning on May 16, 2021 at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images)

The last time Tony La Russa managed in the playoffs, he guided St. Louis to the 2011 World Series title.

La Russa retired after winning it all for the second time with the Cardinals, but he never lost his love for October.

"The urgency of the moment is fun," he said.

That urgency returns on Thursday, when La Russa and the Chicago White Sox visit the Houston Astros for Game 1 of their AL Division Series. It’s the first postseason matchup between the teams since Chicago swept the 2005 World Series — the last time it won a round in the playoffs.

Yup, October hasn’t been much fun for the White Sox over the years. Enter La Russa, who even has an October birthday, turning 77 on Monday.

October is a big reason why La Russa was hired to replace Rick Renteria after Chicago was eliminated by Oakland in the first round of the 2020 playoffs. So this month also will be a major part of the evaluation when it comes to looking back on the unorthodox move of luring La Russa out of retirement in the first place.

Sure, Chicago very much enjoyed its first AL Central title since 2008. But what comes next matters most to the young and talented White Sox, and they have faith in the steady hand of La Russa.

"You’re not worrying about your coaching staff letting the game speed up on them," catcher Yasmani Grandal said. "He’s been there. He knows what to do. He’s seen lots of different situations that can come up. ... He now has the experience to be able to make a call when he needs to."

One call that remains undecided is choosing between Lance Lynn and Lucas Giolito for starting Game 1 at Houston. La Russa said he likely will announce the decision Wednesday.

He also is monitoring Carlos Rodón for a possible ALDS start after the All-Star left-hander was hampered by arm trouble in September.

"Had a nice throw yesterday. Looked OK today," La Russa said. "So far, still under consideration. It’s a good sign."

La Russa also directed Chicago to the playoffs in 1983, losing to Mike Boddicker and Baltimore in the AL Championship Series. That was his only postseason appearance in his first stint as a big league manager.

He won three AL pennants and the 1989 World Series with Oakland before his successful 16-year run with St. Louis included three NL pennants and two more championships. He is 70-58 in the playoffs for his career.

"The thing that’s different about October is that you have a lot of information based on the season about your pitchers and players," La Russa said, "and you’re not backing off a decision because you want to give a guy a chance to get hot or maybe give him a little extra room. ... There’s no long run in (the playoffs). It’s all short run."

When La Russa looks into the home dugout in Houston, he will see a familiar figure in Astros manager Dusty Baker. The 72-year-old Baker was at the end of his playing career in Oakland when La Russa took over as A’s manager, and the two also saw a lot of each other when Baker managed the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati while La Russa was in St. Louis.

Their relationship has been frosty at times, but they seem to be OK now.

"I think time heals all wounds," Baker said. "Most of the downs were the fact that I was in the same division as Tony for 10 years. We’re playing over 15, 18 times, however many times you play them in a year. So that’s a lot of games for bad emotions to kick up."

La Russa’s return to Chicago wasn’t exactly smooth sailing, either. He had a very public disagreement with a couple of his players after he scolded Yermín Mercedes for homering on a 3-0 pitch during the ninth inning of a 16-4 victory over Minnesota in May.

The argument was quickly smoothed over, and the White Sox enjoyed a comfortable lead in the AL Central for much of the year. Along the way, La Russa was lauded by his players for helping the team overcome a handful of injuries to key players.

"He’s a tireless worker, always trying to find an edge to give us in order to win a game," Grandal said., "and that’s on a daily basis. So the fact that he sets that example, it’s pretty special."