SweetSpot: Trevor Rosenthal

St. Louis Cardinals fans have been feeling a little jittery when closer Trevor Rosenthal enters games -- and with good reason. He hasn't been the same dominant ninth-inning reliever we saw in October, when he faced 40 batters, retired 33 of them and struck out 18. After spending most of the season as a setup reliever, Rosenthal's scoreless postseason was a big key to the Cardinals reaching the World Series.

For the most part, Rosenthal simply blew hitters away; 149 of his 174 pitches in the playoffs were fastballs, averaging 97.7 mph and touching 100 mph multiple times. Batters knew the fastball was coming and still couldn't touch it. His ascendant performance had many expecting him to be one of the premier closers in 2014. Maybe not Craig Kimbrel, but one of a handful of guys lining up behind him.

Instead, as we saw on Sunday when the Braves rallied for two runs in the ninth to pull out a 6-5 win, Rosenthal hasn't been lights out and is 0-2 with a 4.98 ERA, two blown saves and 14 walks in 21 2/3 innings. His velocity is down just a bit from what we saw in the postseason, as he's averaging 96.2 mph on his fastball and has yet to touch triple digits on the radar gun. But command has been Rosenthal's biggest problem, as witnessed by the high walk total.

On Sunday, working for the fourth straight day (more on that in a second), Freddie Freeman led off with a first-pitch line-drive single to left field, beating the Cardinals' shift. Working ahead in the count, Rosenthal struck out Chris Johnson and got Andrelton Simmons to pop out, but pinch-hitter Ryan Doumit drilled a 96-mph fastball into the right-field corner for a double, Freeman holding at third.

Rosenthal put in a bind

Pinch-hitter Evan Gattis then stepped in and Rosenthal, perhaps a bit cautious after giving up two first-pitch hits or told to work carefully after a meeting at the mound, fell behind with two fastballs off the plate, at which point Cardinals manager Mike Matheny elected to intentionally walk Gattis and pitch to Jordan Schafer.

I'm not usually a big fan of loading the bases in this type of situation since, protecting a one-run lead, Rosenthal is especially forced to throw strikes or make the perfect pitch to avoid a hit. Keep in mind: He has struggled with walks all season, was working for the fourth day in a row and Matheny elected to go against the platoon advantage to face the left-handed Schafer. In defense of Matheny, Schafer was just 2-for-26 on the season, including 0-for-2 in this game, so Matheny elected to go after the weaker batter.

I probably would have gone after Gattis, a guy batting .242 with a .278 OBP -- with five walks and 30 strikeouts, so he's the kind of batter you can pitch to. Throwing four days in a row, I'm not sure you wanted to rely here on Rosenthal's ability to throw strikes.

Anyway, against Schafer, Rosenthal threw eight fastballs, all 97 and 98 mph. He threw three balls way up and out of the zone and Schafer fouled off two 3-2 pitches before finally walking on a 98-mph four-seamer at the knees. It was at the knees, right at the bottom of the zone, too close to take in that situation, but Eric Cooper called it a ball so the Braves caught a break. But the Cardinals also put themselves into that bases-loaded situation with no margin for error.

That was it for Rosenthal after 23 pitches. Carlos Martinez came on and threw a wild pitch and the Braves won.

Back to that four days in a row thing. Was it a mistake to use Rosenthal? He had thrown 26 pitches over 1 2/3 innings on Thursday, 17 pitches on Friday and nine pitches on Saturday. Matheny didn't have any issues going to his closer once again.

"It came down to one pitch right there which maybe could have been called [a strike]," Matheny told reporters after the game. "We were one pitch away. He's a tough kid and he wanted the ball today. As soon as he got to two outs, it's his game. Today it just did not work out."

Rosenthal refused to blame his recent usage.

"Physically I felt good and mentally I was ready to go," he said. "No one feels worse than me, walking in the run that eventually loses the game. But you have to bounce back. There will be another opportunity. You just have to learn from it."

Managers rarely use their closers four days in a row. Only Francisco Rodriguez has saved four games in four days in 2014, and only Joe Nathan and Edward Mujica (with the Cardinals) did so in 2013. Only Grant Balfour and John Axford did it in 2012.

Before you argue that managers have gone soft, that's not completely true. Dennis Eckersley pitched four days in a row just once in his career. Mariano Rivera did it just three times. Going back a generation, Bruce Sutter did it five times and Goose Gossage twice.

I'm not going to fault Matheny too much for this one, however. No, the blame is better placed on Matheny for using Rosenthal in a 4-1 game on Saturday or even a 5-2 game on Friday. If his closer wasn't sharp pitching a fourth day in a row, look back to wasting with him with three-run leads.

Carpenter and Craig are not the same

A couple more quick notes on the Cardinals. Rosenthal isn't the only Cardinals player lacking some of the magic of 2013 so far this season. Take Matt Carpenter, an MVP candidate last year. Carpenter laced line drivea all over the field last year, hitting .318 while leading the National League with 199 hits and 55 doubles. That helped him score 126 runs, another league-leading figure.

Carpenter had a big game on Sunday, going 2-for-2 with three walks, raising his average to .265. But he's not driving the ball with the same authority, with just seven doubles and home runs. Compare his hit charts from 2013 and 2014:

Matt Carpenter hit chartESPN Stats & Information

Look all those doubles in the gaps and down the right-field line in 2013. Carpenter had 73 extra-base hits last year and 301 total bases (third in the NL), putting himself into scoring position on a regular basis. He's on pace for just 30 extra-base hits this year, one reason the Cardinals have struggled at times to score runs. He's not killing the team, because he's getting on base via walks (.371 OBP), but he's clearly not the same hitter.

Allen Craig developed a reputation as a clutch hitter by hitting .427 with runners in scoring position the past two seasons. But as we've seen time and again, clutch hitting isn't a "proven" skill. Look, Craig's record was pretty remarkable, considering it covered 301 plate appearances. But he's not a .427 hitter. He's batting .220 with RISP in 2014, including 0-for-3 on Sunday. He's hitting .226 overall with four home runs. The lack of power from Carpenter and Craig is a major reason the Cards are 29th in the majors in home runs, with just 23.

OK, despite all that bad news, it wasn't a horrible week for the Cardinals. They hit rock bottom with a 17-5 loss to the Cubs on Monday to drop to 19-20, but then won four in a row before Sunday's defeat. Sunday also saw the return of Jaime Garcia, who pitched seven innings. He adds more depth to a rotation that is second in ERA in the NL behind the Braves.

Still, the Cardinals are 23-21, hardly cause for alarm but not playing like that best team in the NL that I expected back in March. If they do turn things around and start playing like the team many expected, I suspect Rosenthal, Carpenter and Craig and be big reasons why.
Some stuff to check out ...
  • Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk disagreed with my take on instant replay after the Giants-Pirates game on Tuesday. Fair enough. I can admit I may have missed the boat (the ocean?) on that one. Certainly, if there's any reason to apply instant replay, that would be the occasion, along with all other plays at home plate or when a run scores.
  • You may have heard that Troy Tulowitzki is hitting the baseball very hard these days. Grantland's Jonah Keri looks into Tulo's hot start. One interesting note: "Seeking a second opinion, I turned to a longtime scout for an NL team. While the scout largely agreed that not much has changed, he did notice one small thing: Tulowitzki is closing his stance a bit more than in the past, and is also now spreading his legs slightly farther apart."
  • The Hardball Times has had an excellent series of "10 things I learned" articles on sabermetrics-related themes. The pieces: ESPN Insider contributor Dan Szymborski on creating a projection system, Dave Studeman on Win Probability Added, Mitchel Lichtman on defensive statistics, Dave Cameron on baseball economics and Matt Hunter on creating a baseball simulator. Good stuff.
  • Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus with an early report on catcher framing. Through Monday, Mike Zunino leads the majors with 5.1 framing runs added, according to the BP measurement.
  • Brian Dozier of the Twins is quietly developing into a star-level second baseman. He has power (eight home runs, although just one double), draws walks (third in the AL with 24), is 11 for 12 stealing bases, leads the AL with 31 runs and seems to show up every other night with a diving play on defense. Grantland's Michael Baumann appreciates this unsung player.
  • The Orioles swing a lot and chase a lot of pitches out the strike zone, which means they don't walk much. Which means they rely on home runs. Matt Kreminitzer of Camden Depot takes a look.
  • Alex Skillin of Fire Brand of the AL says rotation depth is what could eventually separate the Red Sox from the rest of the AL East.
  • Jason Collette of The Process Report takes a closer look at David Price, who has off to an odd start with diminishing velocity but more strikeouts -- and more hits.
  • Can Derek Jeter no longer hit the fastball?
  • Will the Mets be gone from New York in 10 years?
  • Joe Aiello asks: Which Cubs prospect are you most confident in? Sounds like this may be related to Javier Baez's awful start at Triple-A.
  • Curt Hogg of Disciples of Uecker looks into Jean Segura's improved play at shortstop.
  • Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal aren't fooling batters as much this season.
  • Without Jurickson Profar, Brandon Land reports that the Rangers are having problems from offense at second base.
  • The Justin Upton trade keeps looking worse, writes Ryan Morrison of Inside the 'Zona.
  • More from Craig Calcaterra: A bunch of baseball-related podcasts were pulled from iTunes. An MLB Advanced Media spokesperson said it was for "infringing uses of trademarks of Major League Baseball and certain Clubs." I understand MLB's desire to protect its trademarks but what a way to anger your most passionate fans. Unfortunately, it's not the first time MLB has done this (see: blackout policy).
  • Wendy Thurm of FanGraphs with a piece titled "At the Ballpark: Race, Community and MLB."
  • Richard Griffin writes about Brandon Morrow, who may or may not be done for the year and who may or may not be done as a Blue Jay (the club has a $10 million club option for next season). Morrow was the guy the Mariners drafted ahead of local kid Tim Lincecum back in 2006 (also two spots ahead of a high school kid named Clayton Kershaw). It didn't work out in Seattle and despite flashes of brilliance in Toronto, Morrow was never able to stay healthy. Griffin suggests Morrow's diabetes may be a cause for his injury issues, at least a related problem (fatigue, etc.). Anyway, in the end it's hard to say whether injuries or command issues or lack of consistency ultimately undermined Morrow from reaching his potential.

From Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
The Cardinals will open spring training in 2014 with [Trevor] Rosenthal as closer, manager Mike Matheny confirmed Monday during a season review news conference at Busch Stadium. ...

Rosenthal often expressed his interest in competing for a spot in the rotation for 2014, but the club has long believed his power fastball and mentality would eventually thrive at closer.

"Right now there is no reason to go anywhere differently than how we ended," Matheny said. "Trevor Rosenthal is a guy who is going in there getting the saves for us. That's how we're heading into this spring. ...

"This is a touchy topic in the fact that we know Trevor would like to start and be a starter someday. And we don't deny the fact that that could realistically happen and he would do a terrific job at it. ... When you look at our club and what we have ... we have need for that bullpen ... all based around our closer. We have a lot of confidence in how he has been able to handle that position."


The Cardinals are a smart organization. They know a good starting pitcher is more valuable than a great closer and that closers are easier to find than starting pitchers. But Matheny is right, the Cardinals do have depth in the starting rotation, which would line up something like this for 2014:

Adam Wainwright
Michael Wacha
Shelby Miller
Lance Lynn
Joe Kelly
Jaime Garcia (expected to be healthy for spring training)
Carlos Martinez
Tyler Lyons

That's eight quality options, before even getting to Rosenthal.

What's most interesting about the decision is that if Rosenthal hadn't fallen into the closer role almost by default -- Jason Motte got hurt in April and then Edward Mujica tired in September after superbly filling in for Motte -- it would be easier to give him a chance at starting. He was so dominant as a reliever, particularly in the postseason when he pitched 11.2 scoreless innings, that it now becomes more difficult to remove him from that role. He's Matheny's 100-mph security blanket. But if he was still in the less-valued role of setup guy the Cardinals would probably be more willing to start him.

When starting in the minors, the reports on Rosenthal were that he worked in the mid-90s while showing a hard curveball and solid changeup. In 2012, between 17 starts in Double-A and three in Triple-A, he posted a 2.97 ERA with 78 hits, 42 walks and 104 strikeouts in 109 innings. While pitching in relief in the majors, Rosenthal stuck almost exclusively with his fastball, which averaged 97.3 mph and reached 101. Including the playoffs, Rosenthal threw 1,461 pitches in 2013 -- 1,161 fastballs (80 percent). He threw 15 percent changeups and basically ditched the curveball.

As a starter, he would likely need all three pitches to succeed. The scouting reports on him were certainly positive in that regard, and you would have to think Rosenthal would have more upside as a starter than Lynn or Kelly (who will find it difficult to replicate his 2.69 ERA). Of course, we don't know for sure how Rosenthal would fare, while we do know how he did as a reliever; he has limited experience above Class A as starter and Lynn, while more of a mid-rotation workhorse, has at least proven he can handle 190-200 innings a season as a starter.

The problem with keeping Rosenthal as a closer is that you have to get the lead before he has any value. Rosenthal didn't do the Cardinals any good when he pitched the final innings of 3-1 and 6-1 losses to the Red Sox in Games 5 and 6 of the World Series. If Rosenthal has top-of-the-rotation potential, do you owe him that opportunity? After all, starting pitchers make a lot more money than relievers, and the kid wants to start. Is this the same debate as the Nationals sitting Stephen Strasburg in 2012 for (arguably) the good of his long-term future?

The other issue is what the Cardinals do with Martinez, who was rated a notch above Rosenthal as a starting pitching prospect entering 2013. He only pitched 79 innings in the minors in 2013, so do you send him back down for more seasoning as a starter, and insurance against an injury from another starter, or use him as a power arm in the eighth inning like you did in the postseason?

Hey, these are good problems to have and it's possible the Cardinals end up trading one of these pitchers to find an upgrade at shortstop. As good as Rosenthal was in the postseason, closers are easily replaced -- in fact, only two teams are likely to begin 2014 with the same closer it had in 2012. For me, I'm trying to extract the most value out of a player. I would try Rosenthal as a starter, move Kelly to a swingman/relief role and put Martinez in the pen for a year.



Thoughts on a Game 2 of the World Series that was a thousand times more interesting than Game 1, that ended with the Cardinals beating the Red Sox 4-2.

Hero: Cardinals rookie sensation Michael Wacha was nearly sensational once again, taking a shutout into the sixth inning. Facing David Ortiz with a runner on and one out, he threw one changeup up too many to Big Papi -- four in a row, with Ortiz depositing the 3-2 changeup just over the Green Monster in left-center. But Wacha recovered to strike out Mike Napoli and retire Jonny Gomes to get through six innings. The Red Sox ran up his pitch count -- 114 pitches -- and he walked four batters, but he gave up just three hits, got a big double play on Napoli with two on and no outs in the fourth and improved to 4-0 in the postseason when the Cardinals took the lead in the top of the seventh.

Goat: Red Sox reliever Craig Breslow replaced starter John Lackey with two runners on in the seventh. Breslow isn't exactly a lefty killer (.238 average allowed, including the postseason) but it made sense for manager John Farrell to bring him in to face lefties Daniel Descalso (.183 versus southpaws) and Matt Carpenter. But Breslow allowed a double steal and then walked Descalso on a 3-2 slider to load the bases, setting up the play of the game.

Turning point: So bases loaded, Carpenter lifts a fly ball to shallow left, setting in motion four awful plays that are basically unacceptable in any major league game, let alone a World Series game: (1) Gomes' throw was offline even though he wasn't that far beyond the infield cutoff; (2) catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia didn't catch the ball; (3) Jon Jay, on second base, for some reason headed back to second base as the throw went home, and got a late break for third; (4) which drew a throw from Breslow (at least he was backing up the throw home), which went wildly into the third-base stands, allowing Jay to score. Final tally: two runs, and when Carlos Beltran followed with an RBI single, it was 4-2.

At-bat of the night: How about the walk by David Freese to start that rally? He fouled off two pitches with two strikes, eventually taking a 3-2 cutter outside. Lackey threw 71 of 95 pitches for strikes, his season-high percentage of strikes, so terrific job by Freese to work a walk.

The Jonny Gomes Hunch: All season, John Farrell platooned Daniel Nava and Gomes in left field. Suddenly in the postseason he's gotten the itch to play Gomes against all pitchers, even though Nava had a .411 on-base percentage against right-handers. The Red Sox like Gomes' energy, and Boston had been 7-0 with Gomes starting in the postseason, but Farrell's lucky charm hurt the team in this game. Gomes went 0-for-4, had the bad throw and is 0-for-7 in the two World Series games. Unless there's something going on with Nava we don't know about, he should be out there in Game 3. Yes, Gomes may be more likely to pop one out (especially at Fenway), but Nava gets on base against righties and is a little better in the field.

Hey, it worked, but ... Eighth inning, 22-year-old rookie Carlos Martinez protecting the 4-2 lead in his second inning of work, Ortiz up with a runner on and two outs. Matheny had three options: (1) Bring in lefty killer Randy Choate (.161 against left-handers including the playoffs with no home runs allowed); (2) bring in closer Trevor Rosenthal for a four-out save; (3) leave in Martinez. Choate seemed like the obvious choice, considering Ortiz's production falls way off against lefties. The cameras panned to a nervous-looking Matheny on the dugout steps. He chose to keep Martinez in there, perhaps preferring to battle Ortiz with the 100 mph fastball instead of Choate's junk. I think Choate was the right call, but while Ortiz reached on an infield single, Martinez did get Napoli to pop out.

Revealing statistic: Rosenthal struck out the side in the ninth. Eleven pitches, all fastballs, average speed of 97.2 mph, 99 on the final pitch to Nava (pinch-hitting for Drew). And, yes, all 27 outs recorded by rookie pitchers for the Cardinals.
This probably isn't the World Series you wanted, assuming you don't root for the Red Sox or Cardinals. After all, both franchises have been to the World Series multiple times in the past decade and both have won twice. So maybe you wanted some new blood. Instead you'll get beards. Lots of them.

But you also get two great teams, with no shortage of reasons to watch. Here are 10:

1. Adam Wainwright. He was a rookie closer when the Cardinals won the World Series in 2006 but was injured when they won again in 2011. In a season where much of the attention for pitchers went to Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Matt Harvey and Mariano Rivera, Wainwright quietly went 19-9 with a 2.94 ERA while leading the majors in innings pitched. This is his chance to make his October mark in Cardinals history alongside the likes of Bob Gibson and his mentor Chris Carpenter, who won two games in the 2011 World Series. He has that big curveball -- maybe the best since Bert Blyleven was spinning his own -- that he'll throw on any count but is especially deadly with two strikes, when opponents hit .118 with 130 strikeouts in 238 plate appearances.

2. David Ortiz versus Carlos Beltran. They're not facing each other, but you sort of get the feeling they are. Few hitters have delivered in their playoff careers like these two, although Ortiz did go just 2-for-22 in the American League Championship Series. Beltran had six RBIs in each of the Cardinals' first two series and now gets the opportunity to play in his first World Series … and perhaps make a Hall of Fame statement.

3. John Lackey's redemption. Two years ago he was the most hated man in Boston after posting a 6.41 ERA in 28 starts and ordering lots of fried chicken between starts. Now, after beating Justin Verlander 1-0 in the ALCS, he's going to start Game 2 of the World Series. Remember, he's familiar with the pressures of a big game: As a rookie with the Angels in the 2002 World Series, he was the winning pitcher in Game 7.

4. Yadier Molina. One of the memories of the 2011 World Series that stuck with me was the ovations Molina received from his home fans -- louder than those given Albert Pujols. Perhaps Cardinals fans anticipated Pujols' departure, or maybe they just appreciated everything Molina does for the team, from his hitting to his defense to the confidence he instills in his pitchers. Few players ever perfect their jobs on a baseball field, but you get the idea Molina has perfected playing catcher. Appreciate and enjoy. And then see if the Red Sox -- who set the all-time record for stolen-base percentage (123 for 142) -- attempt to run on him.

5. Power versus RISP. Each team led its league in runs scored, just the fourth time since 1976 that's happened (1976, Reds-Yankees; 2004, Cardinals-Red Sox; 2009, Phillies-Yankees), but did so in different ways. The Red Sox, while not as powerful as some Red Sox teams of the past, hit 178 home runs (sixth in the majors), but also pounded out 363 doubles (first) and drew 581 walks (third). The Cardinals ranked 27th in the majors in home runs and don't steal many bases (just 45), but they put the ball in play, an attribute that allowed them to hit .330 with runners in scoring position, the highest figure in the majors since that stat has been recorded beginning in 1961. The Red Sox beat the Tigers largely because of three key home runs -- the grand slams from Ortiz and Shane Victorino plus Mike Napoli's solo shot in the 1-0 victory in Game 3 -- and while the Cardinals have hit just .210 in the postseason they've hit .286 with RISP.

6. Michael Wacha. In the span of 16 months he's gone from Texas A&M to ... well, almost unhittable. In his past four starts, going back to his final outing of the regular season, he's allowed an .093 batting average -- 9 for 97. In his three postseason starts, he's allowed one run for a tidy 0.43 ERA. He has a chance to become just the sixth pitcher to have four starts in one postseason where he allowed one run or less, joining Blue Moon Odom (1972), Burt Hooton (1981), John Smoltz (1996), Ryan Vogelsong (2012) and Curt Schilling (2001, the only one with five). I can't wait to see what the rookie does.

7. Xander Bogaerts. He just turned 21 and had just 18 games of big-league experience before the playoffs began. Now he may be starting at third base, like he did the final two games of the ALCS. He's going to be a big star down the road so this is kind of like a sneak preview. He's had 11 plate appearances in the playoffs and drawn five walks while going 3-for-6. How can a kid have such a mature approach at the plate?

8. Cardinals relievers. Speaking of kids, the Cardinals' top four relievers right now -- Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness -- are all rookies. Teams have won before with rookie closers -- Bobby Jenks of the White Sox in 2005, Wainwright in 2006 -- and the Cardinals had some inexperienced relievers in 2011. But four rookie relievers in key roles? (Five if you include starter Shelby Miller working out of the bullpen.) How can you not be pumped watching Rosenthal and Martinez throwing 100 mph in the eighth and ninth innings?

9. Koji Uehara's splitter. It's the most dominant 81 mph pitch in baseball history, a force of nature that breaks the natural laws of baseball, a pitcher who turns skilled batsmen into helpless amateurs. Including the postseason, batters are hitting .134 off Uehara. Against the splitter, they're hitting .096. Since the All-Star break, they're hitting .074 against the splitter, just 6-for-81 with 37 strikeouts and no walks. He's 38 years old and basically the opposite of the gas-throwing Rosenthal and Martinez. The contrast in styles should make for some exciting late-game drama. One more thing: In what other sport could a 38-year-old guy, who while a good pitcher was never to be confused with Mariano Rivera, suddenly have a year better than any season Rivera ever had?

10. The best against the best. For the time since 1999, the teams with the best records in the majors will face off in the World Series. For the time since 2004, the teams with the best run differentials will face off. The rejuvenated, bearded Red Sox against the youthful, talented Cardinals. Players trying to create postseason legacies, others trying to add to existing ones. Big stars and future stars on the rise. To me, it's a World Series that has the elements for a classic duel. I think we're going to get one.
Michael Wacha last pitched 13 days ago. You may remember that he was pretty good in that game: He lost a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning on Ryan Zimmerman's infield single.

Amazingly, in just his 10th career start, Wacha followed up that start with not just the game of his lifetime, but almost the game of anyone's lifetime, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning before Pedro Alvarez crushed a meteor to right-center field with one out. Still, while Wacha was five outs short of the third no-hitter in postseason history, following Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series and Roy Halladay's no-hitter for the Phillies in the 2010 NLDS, his dominant start gave the Cardinals a 2-1 win over the Pirates in Game 4 to even the series.

Many believed the Cardinals should have started Adam Wainwright on three days' rest in this game, but Mike Matheny had ultimate confidence in his young rookie -- just like he has confidence in the five other rookies on his playoff pitching staff. Like Wainwright, Wacha is tall and thin, but while Wainwright relies on that nasty curveball, Wacha's best off-speed pitch is a lethal changeup that makes him extremely tough against left-handed hitters, who hit just .197 off him this season.

On this day, Wacha dumped his curveball and stuck with the fastball and changeup. After an eight-pitch seventh inning, the no-hitter was no longer a fantasy but appeared to be an impending reality. Wacha blew away Marlon Byrd with a 96-mph fastball for the first out. Up stepped Alvarez, who had the big hit in Game 3 and had homered in the first two games. Wacha fell behind 3-1 and, not wanting to walk him to bring up the tying run, threw a 93-mph four-seamer into Alvarez's wheelhouse and Pedro didn't miss, sending it 438 feet into the Pittsburgh afternoon.

After Wacha walked Russell Martin (who has had great at-bats all postseason), his day was done after 96 pitches. The one questionable decision in this game: Matheny turned to Carlos Martinez, one of those rookies, leaving closer Trevor Rosenthal (yet another rookie) in the bullpen. Rosenthal has just recently become the team's closer and had pitched two innings on six occasions, so is certainly capable of going five outs, but Matheny went with the Martinez (who, like Rosenthal, can hit 100 mph with his fastball).

Josh Harrison pinch-ran for Martin and Jose Tabata pinch-hit. On a 2-1 pitch, Clint Hurdle sent Harrison but Tabata missed the pitch on what might have been a hit-and-run. Yadier Molina's one-hop throw was in time to get Harrison, who started his slide too early and looked like he was diving into quicksand. Tabata fanned on a 3-2 curve, quieting the Pittsburgh faithful. I don't have a huge problem sending Harrison there; ahead in the count, Tabata had to be sitting fastball and he's pretty good contact guy. He did get fastball; he just missed.

Pirates fans had one last moment of hope in the ninth when Rosenthal inexplicably walked Neil Walker on four pitches with two outs to bring up Andrew McCutchen. After falling behind 3-0 to McCutchen, he finally got him to pop up to second on a 3-1, 96-mph fastball.

Now Matheny's decision to bypass Wainwright puts the Cardinals in the driver's seat. He has his ace going in Game 5 at home, where Wainwright had a 2.53 ERA. Hurdle will have to decide whether to stick with A.J. Burnett, who got hammered in Game 1, or go with rookie Gerrit Cole, who dominated in his Game 2 start. With the off day on Tuesday, Cole would be pitching on regular rest.

I know what I'd do: As Wacha showed today, have faith in the youngsters. Especially when they have talent on the level of Wacha or Cole.

* * * *

Wacha's final Game Score ended up as 79 ... a great start, although not historical, at least by the Game Score method. Here are the best starts in postseason history by Game Score:

Roger Clemens, 2000 ALCS, Yankees vs. Mariners: 98 (9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 15 SO)
Dave McNally, 1969 ALCS, Orioles vs. Twins: 97 (11 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 5 BB, 11 SO)
Babe Ruth, 1916 WS, Red Sox vs. Robins: 97 (14 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 4 SO)
Tim Lincecum, 2010 NLDS, Giants vs. Braves: 96 (9 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 14 SO)
Roy Halladay, 2010 NLDS, Phillies vs. Reds: 94 (9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 8 SO)
Don Larsen, 1956 WS, Yankees vs. Dodgers: 94 (9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 7 SO)
Ed Walsh, 1906 WS, White Sox vs. Cubs: 94 (9 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 12 SO)


You know how the St. Louis Cardinals acquired Michael Wacha? Yes, with the 19th pick of the first round of the 2012 draft.

But you know how they acquired that pick? The got it from the Los Angeles Angels.

[+] EnlargeMichael Wacha
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsMichael Wacha's delivering an easy answer for whether or not he should start in the postseason.
For losing Albert Pujols as a free agent.

So not only did the organization save $240 million in salary on a player in decline, they acquired a pitcher who is looking like a future star. After his near no-hitter on Tuesday against the Washington Nationals in his ninth career major league start -- Ryan Zimmerman's infield hit with two outs in the ninth made everyone sad -- it seems pretty clear that Wacha has to be in the Cardinals' postseason rotation.

Wacha is 4-1 with a 2.78 ERA in 64 2/3 innings (he has made six relief appearances as well) and has allowed no runs in three of his five September starts. He did allow 12 hits and four runs in 4 2/3 innings in his last outing, but that came in Colorado, so it comes with an asterisk. When Wacha is commanding his mid-90s fastball like he did against the Nationals, it makes his changeup all that much more unhittable, a pitch opposing batters are hitting just .190 against without a home run.

The question for manager Mike Matheny: Assuming the Cardinals hold on and win the division, do you go with two rookie starters in your four-man playoff rotation? Here's how the other four starters have fared of late:

Adam Wainwright: He gave up 15 runs in back-to-back starts against the Reds in late August/early September, but has looked good with a 2.12 ERA and strong peripherals over his past four outings.

Lance Lynn: After a rough five-start stretch from Aug. 15 to Sept. 5 (43 hits, 25 runs in 27 1/3 innings), he has allowed just four runs in his past three starts (two of those came against the Brewers, the other against the Rockies in Colorado).

Joe Kelly: In his second year, the righty has a 2.32 ERA since moving into the rotation in early July. His strikeout rate isn't impressive but he gets ground balls with that hard, sinking fastball and keeps the ball in the park (just three home runs allowed his past 75 innings).

SportsNation

Where would you slot Michael Wacha in the postseason for the Cardinals?

  •  
    15%
  •  
    42%
  •  
    34%
  •  
    9%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,574)

Shelby Miller: The other rookie, he's 14-9 with a 3.12 ERA, although he has a 4.23 ERA and a poor 15/13 SO/BB ratio in 27.2 innings over his past five starts.

Certainly, Wainwright draws the Game 1 start. But do you slot the veteran Lynn in the No. 2 hole? While he has been better of late, do two good starts against the Brewers have you convinced that he's back on track? Plus, Lynn has experience in the bullpen from 2011 and didn't pitch well in last year's postseason. Maybe he's best utilized like the Giants used Tim Lincecum last year, as a multi-inning long reliever. But Miller hasn't been as strong down the stretch and the Cards presumably want to watch his innings anyway (he's at 167).

I'd probably go Wainwright, Wacha, Kelly and Lynn, keeping Lynn on a short leash and hoping Miller can amp it up a bit in a relief role. The fact that Wacha has only nine starts could actually be to his advantage as opponents just haven't seen him.

The rotation isn't the only issue for Matheny to resolve. Trevor Rosenthal got the final out on Tuesday and now has saves in back-to-back games. Is he now the closer over Edward Mujica? If so, does that make Mujica the eighth-inning guy? But is one role really any more valuable than the other? Do you demote Mujica and put him in a role in which he may pitch with more runners on base?

While uncertainly can create some nervousness, it can also create flexibility, which can be a good thing since you're not stuck with pre-designated roles. A smart manager knows you don't -- and shouldn't -- manage October that same way you manage April through September.

And if that means two rookies in your rotation and a rookie closer, I'm OK with that. I see no reason why the Cards can't win it all doing that.


Here's the thing: There are a lot of good relief duos out there. Eric Karabell and myself discuss five of the best ones in the video, but there are others we left out:

--The Pirates. Closer Jason Grilli is out right now, but he and Mark Melancon have been terrific all season. Melancon (0.91 ERA) has stepped into the closer's role with Justin Wilson (2.05 ERA) handling most of the eighth-inning duties. That's still a great pair, with Melancon arguably the most valuable reliever in the majors this season.

SportsNation

Which team has the best bullpen duo right now?

  •  
    57%
  •  
    15%
  •  
    8%
  •  
    9%
  •  
    11%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,874)

--The Rangers. They have the fourth-best bullpen ERA in the majors and are 65-3 when leading after seven innings. Great depth behind Joe Nathan with Neal Cotts, Tanner Scheppers, Robbie Ross and Jason Frasor, all with ERAs under 2.70 in 40-plus innings.

--The Royals. The second-best bullpen ERA behind the Braves, and closer Greg Holland has a 1.41 ERA and 29 consecutive saves converted, but the setup guys have been inconsistent and they have five losses when leading entering the eighth.

--The A's. Grant Balfour has just two saves all season, but the second one was a big one on Thursday afternoon, allowing four runs as the Tigers beat the A's 7-6 in dramatic fashion.

One team not listed: The Reds. Aroldis Chapman been shaky at times -- he's 3-5 with a 2.87 ERA and five blown saves -- and the Reds have lost eight games they led entering the eighth and three entering the ninth, making their bullpen one of the league's least effective in terms of holding leads late in games.

By the way, another reminder of the volatility of relief pitchers and bullpens in general: Three of the five closers included in the poll did not begin the season as their team's closer.

Young pitchers play big roles for Cardinals

August, 27, 2013
8/27/13
10:30
AM ET
Joe KellyDilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesJoe Kelly has allowed just three home runs in nine starts since moving to the rotation.
ST. LOUIS -- Something catches your eye during batting practice. As a ball flies high toward center field, one of the Cardinals' rookie relievers tosses his glove into the air in an attempt to see whether it will catch the ball. Ah, youth. Do you remember doing that as a kid at practice when the coach wasn't looking? Of course, the glove in the air never caught the ball, but it was always an experiment worth trying.

For the Cardinals, reliance on young pitching is more than tossing chance in the air and hoping to catch something good. The plan has been in the making since the 2008 draft, and in 2013 the results are showing.

St. Louis has used 12 pitchers age 25 or under this season, the most in the majors. The Astros are second with 10, and only one other team has used more than seven. The young Cardinals pitchers have combined for 31 wins, 489 2/3 innings pitched, a 3.31 ERA and 468 strikeouts.

"These guys have great stuff," injured closer Jason Motte said. "What it comes down to is just going out there and believing in what you have, believing in your stuff out there and being yourself. You know, you have a guy like [Seth] Maness, he doesn't try to go out there and be like [fellow Cardinals pitcher] Trevor Rosenthal and throw it 100 miles per hour. These guys know what they have, and they don't try to do too much."

Veteran reliever Randy Choate joined the club this season and has been impressed with the talent and character of his younger teammates.

"I don't know if it's necessarily the Cardinal way or what, but they've obviously drafted guys that are well-rounded," he said. "They have a personality where they don't have that big of an ego."

[+] EnlargeSeth Maness
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesSeth Maness has surrendered just one earned run in his past 16 appearances, a span of 15 2/3 innings.
Joe Kelly, who starts Tuesday night against the Reds, was a third-round pick in 2009 out of UC Riverside. The 25-year-old right-hander relies primarily on a 95 mph sinker and four-seam fastball but added a curveball and changeup after getting drafted.

After beginning the season in the bullpen, he moved to the rotation, where he's gone 5-1 with a 2.25 ERA in nine starts.

"It's been different because I was in the bullpen at the beginning of the year, then got a start, then go back to the bullpen," Kelly said. "[I had] 15 days before outings one time. I just have to show up to the field every day and be mentally tough and don't think about how many off days I've had, just be prepared to pitch every single day. It's different, but I guess being versatile like this is key."

Kelly offers another important skill to the club.

"Everyone thinks I'm the best dancer on the team," he said. "In the clubhouse one day I started dancing, and I just keep doing it more and more."

Rosenthal disagreed with Kelly.

"Um, I mean I'm a pretty good dancer, too, so I don't know if Joe can say that," Rosenthal said. Seth Maness also had his doubts. "That's a big statement for Joe, especially with his locker being right next to mine. I'm good at singing. I train dogs, too. I'm really good with animals. In the offseason I train animals."

These guys love to joke around with one another. When asked what pitch he would feel most comfortable throwing if the bases were loaded and the game was on the line, Maness said, "I'm going to take Trevor Rosenthal's fastball," eliciting a laugh from Rosenthal, whose heater has made him one of the best eighth-inning guys in the league, with a 2.49 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 61 1/3 innings.

But they're also serious about their craft -- and learning how to improve.

"The curve was hard [to learn]," Kelly said. "The changeup came a little bit quicker than the curveball. The curveball took a little longer. But yeah, coming from the bullpen to starting you had to learn those pitches. There's a comfortable grip that I have. I started playing with that every day. Worked on it a lot. ... It's not even that great right now, either, but I'm still working on it."

Rookie starter Shelby Miller has received the most attention of the young pitchers, owing to his 12-8 record, 2.90 ERA and six scoreless starts. Like his teammates, he's quick to credit instruction he received in the minor leagues. "I think my biggest learning experience last year was Blaise [Ilsley] at Triple-A when I was really struggling early on. He's a big factor in my mechanics, the change in my second half and why I started to succeed a little bit more. But at the same time, Gerdy [Memphis pitching coach Bryan Eversgerd] and Dennis Martinez, who won 250 games in the big leagues, I learned how to throw a really good curveball from him."

Michael Wacha, a first-round pick last year who made his major league debut in May, also praised Eversgerd for helping him with his mechanics in Memphis. He also listens to the veterans on the St. Louis staff.

"I guess after my first start guys started getting a little bit of a scouting report, so you know I've just been talking to Waino [Adam Wainwright] and the other starters," he said. "They just really help me on not tipping your pitches, with the off-speed pitches, how to command those a little bit better."

Successfully developing young arms is not just about pitch velocity or movement, health or good mechanics. Now that the Cardinals' youth movement is here, if you look closely, there's an organizational foundation in place to make good pitchers great and gifted pitchers productive for the long term. One things Cardinals starters will do is watch one another's bullpen sessions.

Wainwright said he hopes he imparts some knowledge to the younger guys.

"I certainly learned from some of the best, Carp (Chris Carpenter), Dave Duncan, even Lilli (Derek Lilliquest) now," said Wainwright. "The reason we started watching bullpens back in the day even before I was even here was that sense of oneness that comes along with it, that thought that your starting staff is not just five individual guys but one family and so with that thought in mind that's kind of how we do everything."


Rosenthal also said veteran guys on the team have consistently told him that not every team in the majors has what the Cardinals have -- teammates working together.

"It's really special," Rosenthal said. "Especially for the young guys to be able to have that relationship and be able to talk to them and learn from them and be comfortable on the basis where we have the opportunity to learn more often."

There is still one unanswered question: Which pitcher really is the best dancer? No one knows them better than Eversgerd. If he had to project (because baseball is all about projections, right?), who would win a dance-off?

"Here's what I'm going to say. I think you have to break it into categories," Eversgerd said. "So, I'd say as far as classic dancing moves, formal dancing, I'd say Maness. But as far as doing a lot of quick feet, quick movement -- break dancing or something like that -- I'd have to go with Kelly."
Mariano RiveraAP Photo/Kathy WillensAdam Jones hit a two-run homer against Mariano Rivera, and the Orioles beat the Yankees 2-1 on Sunday.

As Mariano Rivera showed on Sunday, even the best closers suffer a blown save from time to time. While the two-run home run Adam Jones hit off Rivera resulted in Rivera's second blown save, the Yankees' closer is also allowing more than a hit per inning for the first season since his rookie year in 1995. While Mariano isn't quite the Mariano of years past, he's still pretty good and the New York Yankees are still comfortable with their late-inning bullpen duo of David Robertson and Rivera.

Elsewhere, however, many bullpen issues exist. While most teams would love to add a starting pitcher or a better bat at the trade deadline, the easiest area to acquire help is in the pen. Don't be disappointed or surprised if that's the only move your favorite team makes. Buyer beware though: Relief pitchers are notoriously volatile and trades for relief help can have immediate impact ... or dire consequences for the future.

The 2011 St. Louis Cardinals were a positive trade deadline bullpen story. They traded Colby Rasmus to the Toronto Blue Jays and acquired starter Edwin Jackson plus relievers Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski. A bullpen that had been a problem area suddenly had depth. When Jason Motte took over as closer in September, the pen got hot and helped carry the Cards to a World Series title.

The 2003 Marlins were another success story -- of sorts. They had a shaky closer in Braden Looper, so they traded for Ugueth Urbina, who posted a 1.41 ERA with six saves in 38.1 innings. They also signed Chad Fox in early August and he sported a 2.14 ERA in 25.1 innings down the stretch. The Marlins did go on to win the World Series, but Urbina cost them young first base prospect Adrian Gonzalez. Flags forever, though, right? Even in Miami.

But bullpen trades can also backfire. The Texas Rangers acquired Koji Uehara from the Baltimore Orioles to help their 2011 playoff run. After allowing five home runs in 18 innings, and then three more in the first two rounds of the playoffs, Uehara didn't even make the Rangers' World Series roster. Oh, and the price to get him: Chris Davis. (OK, maybe not Larry Andersen for Jeff Bagwell, but imagine the Rangers with Davis in their lineup right now.) Perhaps the most notorious relief deadline trade -- the Andersen/Bagwell deal actually happened in August -- occurred in 1997, when the Seattle Mariners acquired closer Heathcliff Slocumb (0-5 with a 5.79 ERA at the time of the trade) from the Boston Red Sox for Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe. The Mariners did win the division but lost in the first round of the playoffs. Do-over, please?

(And sometimes minor deals can take on larger ramifications the following season, such as the St. Louis Cardinals acquiring Edward Mujica last year or the Blue Jays getting Steve Delabar for Eric Thames.)

OK, all that said, here are 10 bullpen issues worth looking at between now and the July 31 trade deadline.

1. Do the Orioles stick with Jim Johnson as closer?

Two days after blowing his sixth save, Johnson followed Rivera's ninth inning with a 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth to record his MLB-leading 30th save. Of course, that "MLB-leading" part is misleading, as Johnson has those six blown saves and seven losses to go with a 3.92 ERA. Buck Showalter is obviously sticking with Johnson for now, but after losing just one game heading into the ninth inning last year, the Orioles already have lost seven. Some have called for Tommy Hunter to get a chance, but he has allowed seven home runs and a .511 slugging percentage to left-handed batters. Looks like the O's will live and die with Johnson.

2. Do the Tigers trade for Jonathan Papelbon?

Papelbon is the one top-tier closer who may be out there, but is he worth the prospect price tag and contract? I don't think so. He hasn't exactly been lights-out this year with four blown saves in 22 chances, despite good numbers otherwise. I understand the desire to believe Papelbon could be a difference-maker, but this could be the classic case of overstating the value of a closer. You know what Papelbon's save percentage is this year when entering with a one-run lead? Five for nine. Does that sound like a guy who is really any better of a bet than Joaquin Benoit or Drew Smyly?

3. Who makes the mistake of trading for Kevin Gregg?

Gregg blew his second save on Sunday but is 15-for-17 with a 1.78 ERA. The Cubs will trade him somewhere but Gregg looks like the classic example of the volatile reliever who probably won't help all that much. Is the veteran really a different pitcher from the guy who had a 4.12 ERA the past three seasons while averaging over five walks per nine innings? Maybe, but do you want to be the team to take the chance?

4. Should the Pirates trade for a reliever?

The Pittsburgh bullpen has been outstanding with a 2.91 ERA, second in the majors only to Atlanta's 2.72 mark. The Pirates, however, have also pitched the second-most relief innings. As good as Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Justin Wilson and company have been, the Pirates should look to add some depth here. They wouldn't have to give up a top prospect to acquire somebody like Seattle's Oliver Perez (1.39 ERA, 46 K's in 32.1 innings).

5. Who ends up as Arizona's closer?

The depth in their pen was supposed to be a strength for the Arizona Diamondbacks, but instead J.J. Putz and Heath Bell have both blown up closing games and David Hernandez, so dominant a year ago, has struggled as the eighth-inning guy (4.70 ERA, seven home runs). Josh Collmenter has been extremely valuable as a long man (4-1, 2.42 ERA). Fine, use him as a -- get this! -- multi-inning closer. Remember them?

6. Which contending team should be most worried about its bullpen?

Well, the Los Angeles Dodgers did just actually trade for Carlos Marmol (although they sent him to the minors). I'd be a little worried about the Indians. The pen is 16-8 so far but with a 4.22 ERA that ranks 26th in the majors and has especially struggled against left-handed hitters (.781 OPS allowed). Perez would be a good fit here or maybe Matt Thornton of the Chicago White Sox.

7. Who is the best reliever who may be available?

Glen Perkins just made his first All-Star team and deservedly so with a 1.93 ERA and .159 average allowed. Perkins is signed to a very team-friendly deal through 2016 ($3.75 million in 2014 and 2015 with a $4.5 million team option in 2016), so he won't come cheap. I doubt the Twins trade him, but if they do, he's the guy I'd want if you're looking for a closer.

8. Which contending teams feel best about their bullpens?

I'd say the Cardinals and Rangers. The Rangers just got Joakim Soria back to an already deep pen and the Cardinals have the great 1-2 duo of Trevor Rosenthal and Mujica, who have combined for 94 strikeouts and 11 walks in 79.1 innings, and the third-best overall bullpen ERA in the majors.

9. What about the Red Sox?

If the Tigers have bullpen issues, then don't the Red Sox? They have a higher ERA, higher batting average and higher slugging percentage allowed than the Tigers. Buster Olney mentioned the possibility of Papelbon going back to Boston during the Sunday night game, although the price is extremely high right now. What do you think, Red Sox Nation?

10. Does Rivera pitch one more time in the postseason?

I'm going with no. But it won't be his fault the Yankees miss the playoffs for just the second time in his 19-year career.

Set-up guys who would be worthy All-Stars

June, 24, 2013
6/24/13
10:05
PM ET
Each year Major League Baseball attempts to market the All-Star Game as one that counts; so much so that home-field advantage in the World Series rests on the outcome of the mid-summer exhibition. However, we know that every season there will be a handful of players on the roster who do not deserve the honor and another handful left off for various reasons.

Perhaps the group that most often goes overlooked is middle relievers. When it comes time to pick an All-Star bullpen, closers with gaudy save totals are usually selected -- worthy or not. It would not be a surprise if Jim Leyland selected Jim Johnson and his 26 saves despite better options that lack the artificial statistic. Jose Veras (15 saves) of the Astros could be selected to satisfy roster requirements. If the game really counts, the bullpen should be comprised of the best relief pitchers regardless of role or team. With that in mind, here are some middlemen who deserve consideration, although their actual inclusion may be unlikely.

[+] EnlargeChicago's Jesse Crain
John Rieger/USA TODAY SportsJesse Crain of the White Sox has a 0.52 ERA with 46 strikeouts in 34.2 innings pitched.
Jesse Crain, White Sox
The 31-year old right-hander might be the best relief pitcher in baseball who has not registered a save. He has the lowest ERA (0.52) among AL relievers (minimum 25 innings pitched) and has allowed just six extra-base hits, none of them home runs. He has been particularly stingy against right-handed batters who have hit just .162/.219/.206 against him. An influx of breaking balls have made him more of a fly ball pitcher in recent seasons, which would only play up in spacious Citi Field.

Drew Smyly (Tigers)/Brett Cecil (Blue Jays)/Robbie Ross (Rangers)
Admittedly a cop-out, but I could not chose one of these left-handed relievers over the others. Cecil and Smyly are flourishing in their new relief roles while Ross converted to the bullpen upon promotion last season. Cecil has been excellent against batters on both sides of the plate. Smyly (traditional) and Ross (reverse) have shown hints of platoon splits. Cecil has the highest strikeout percentage of the trio while Smyly has the lowest walk rate. Ross has yet to allow a home run and has surrendered just three in 100 2/3 career innings. Each southpaw is worth considering with no wrong answer among the group.

Mark Melancon, Pirates
After a failed season in Boston, Melancon returned to the National League where he now serves as set-up man for the league's leader in saves. A former closer himself, he -- along with Jason Grilli -- has stabilized the contending Pirates' bullpen. He has allowed just four runs to cross the plate in 37 1/3 innings with 40 strikeouts and four walks. Opposing batters have failed to square up his cutter with consistency while his curveball has been a two-strike weapon. His groundball rate is among the highest in the league and could home in handy when a double play is needed.

Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals
Rosenthal captured the attention of baseball fans late last season with a high-octane fastball that nears triple digits. The Cardinals decided to keep the former starter in the bullpen and he has been dominant. The 23-year old's strikeout percentage is fifth best among NL relievers and the highest of those without a save. Opposing hitters have swung and missed on nearly 30 percent of his fastballs. Edward Mujica has had the glory of racking up saves, but Rosenthal has arguably been St. Louis' top fireman.

The All-Star Game is should be more about pomp and less about high-leverage situations. But if we are going to treat it like a real game, managers should treat the mid-to-late innings accordingly.

Tommy Rancel covers the Tampa Bay Rays for The Process Report. You can follow him on twitter @TRancel.
Craig Kimbrel Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesCraig Kimbrel led the NL in saves last season and is considered the most dominant closer in baseball.

The Tigers need one. The Brewers thought they had one. The Cubs already have a new one. Some teams probably wish they had a different one. Closers are already melting down in rapid fashion.

On Monday afternoon, with closer Jason Motte sidelined with a sore elbow (he'll get a new MRI on Tuesday), the Cardinals' bullpen imploded in a 13-4 loss to the Reds, led by Mitchell Boggs giving up seven runs in the ninth inning. Now they might have closer issues as well. Rookie Trevor Rosenthal blew a 4-3 lead in the eighth, his second blown "save" of the young season, so he's not necessarily the answer if manager Mike Matheny has lost faith in Boggs.

The Tigers will apparently give Joaquin Benoit their next save opportunity, but many think they need to make a trade for a Proven Closer (tm). The problem ... well, there aren’t really that many Proven Closers out there. And the truth is, most closers weren’t preordained to be closers anyway, many arriving at the role only after failing as starters or finally getting the opportunity in their late 20s. Let’s rank all 30 closers and you’ll see what I mean.

Proven Closers
These are guys who have done the job for more than one season, thus earning the coveted title of Proven Closer.

1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves
The best ninth-inning guy in the business, coming off maybe the most dominant relief season ever -- he fanned over half the batters he faced -- in the modern era, or what Goose Gossage likes to refer to as "After I retired."

Before becoming a closer: Groomed as a closer, he's never started a game in pro ball and became Atlanta's closer as a rookie in 2011.

2. Aroldis Chapman, Reds
I'm actually breaking my own rule here since Chapman has only been a closer for less than one season. But unless his control suddenly abandons him, he's obviously the real deal after striking out 122 in 71.2 innings last season.

Before becoming a closer: Lacked the secondary pitches and stamina to make it as a starter.

3. Mariano Rivera, Yankees
He's old, he basically has one pitch and he's coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Anyone want to bet against him?

Before becoming a closer: Failed starting pitcher prospect.

4. Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
Starting his eighth year as a closer, which is entering elevated territory. (Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter, for example, only had seven dominant seasons as a closer.) Papelbon had some not-so-clutch moments last season, however, finishing with four blown saves and six losses.

Before becoming a closer: Forty-eight of his 58 appearances in the minors and his first three major league appearances came as a starter, but Red Sox converted him to relief.

5. Joe Nathan, Rangers
Not quite the Rivera-like force he was during his Twins days, but still pretty good. Picked up his 300th career save Monday, becoming the 23rd reliever to hit that mark.

Before becoming a closer: Had a 4.70 ERA in two seasons as a part-time starter for the Giants in 1999-2000, had a 7.29 ERA in the minors in 2001 (5.60 in 2002), made it back, traded to the Twins, then became a closer at age 29.

6. Rafael Soriano, Nationals
Has three seasons as a closer with three different teams, so this will be his fourth year as a closer with his fourth different teams, making him the best example of Proven Closer, Will Travel.

Before becoming a closer: Spent parts of seven seasons in the majors (starting as a rookie with Seattle), many parts of which were spent on the disabled list.

7. Huston Street, Padres
Now entering his ninth season as a closer, Street has recorded 30-plus saves just twice, as he's often hurt and hasn't pitched 60 innings since 2009.

Before becoming a closer: Groomed as a closer since Oakland made him the 40th pick in the 2004 draft out of Texas.

8. Chris Perez, Indians
Now entering his fourth season as Cleveland's closer, he's been an All-Star the past two seasons despite a less-than-awe-inspiring 3.45 ERA and 4-11 record.

Before becoming a closer: Mediocre middle reliever with St. Louis and Cleveland for two years. Fell into the closer role in 2010 because Kerry Wood was injured at the start of the season.

9. J.J. Putz, Diamondbacks
He's had four seasons of 30-plus saves, although he spent three years in between closer jobs. He's another guy who isn't the most durable pitcher around and hasn't pitched 60 innings since 2007.

Before becoming a closer: Started for three years in the minors for Seattle, moved to the bullpen, spent two years as a mediocre middle guy, but learned the splitter and became a closer at age 29 after Proven Closer Eddie Guardado imploded early in 2006.

10. Joel Hanrahan, Red Sox
All-Star closer with the Pirates the past two seasons, but he walked 36 and allowed eight home runs in 59.2 innings last year. Could easily lose the job to former Proven Closer Andrew Bailey.

Before becoming a closer: Didn't make it as a starter with the Dodgers, traded to the Nationals and then to the Pirates. Spent three years as a middle reliever.

One-year wonders

These guys became closers last year, and several of them had dominant seasons. But beware the John Axford lesson: One season does not make you a Proven Closer. Do it again and we'll start believing.

11. Fernando Rodney, Rays
After years as basically a bad reliever (22-38 career record., 4.29 ERA), he signed with Tampa Bay and lucked into getting a save in the season's second game as the fourth reliever of the ninth inning in a game against the Yankees. Went on to have one of the greatest relief seasons ever, with a 0.60 ERA and five earned runs allowed. He's already allowed three earned runs in 2013. Was last year a fluke?

Before becoming a closer: See above. Did save 37 games (with a 4.40 ERA) for the Tigers in 2009.

[+] EnlargeSergio Romo
Ron Vesely/MLB Photos/Getty Images)After many seasons as a middle reliever, Sergio Romo finally got the chance to close and got the last out in the 2012 World Series.
12. Sergio Romo, Giants
The slider specialist replaced Santiago Casilla, who had replaced the injured Brian Wilson. Saved 14 games and then allowed one run in 10.2 postseason innings.

Before becoming a closer: Not much of a prospect as a 28th-round pick who didn't throw hard, but Romo was an excellent middle guy for four seasons.

13. Ernesto Frieri, Angels
The hard-throwing righty came over after an early-season trade with the Padres, got the closer job after Jordan Walden struggled and had a terrific season. Might lose his job anyway if former Journeyman Made Good Ryan Madson gets healthy.

Before becoming a closer: Moved to the bullpen after posting a 3.59 ERA in Double-A in 2009.

14. Jason Motte, Cardinals
Took over the closer role late in 2011 and helped the Cards win the World Series. Saved 42 games with 2.75 ERA last year. Currently injured.

Before becoming a closer: Spent first three pro seasons as a catcher.

15. Jim Johnson, Orioles
In his first full year as closer he saved 51 games. Rare among closers, he's a ground ball specialist who doesn't register many whiffs (41 in 68.2 innings in 2012).

Before becoming a closer: A not-very-good minor league starter.

16. Tom Wilhelmsen, Mariners
In his first full year in the majors, he replaced a struggling Brandon League. Did just fine with his mid-90s fastball and hammer curve.

Before becoming a closer: Was bartending. No, seriously.

17. Addison Reed, White Sox
Saved 29 games as a rookie, although his 4.75 ERA wasn't exactly Rivera-ish.

Before becoming a closer: Drafted in the third round out of San Diego State in 2010, he had a dominant relief season in the minors in 2011 (1.26 ERA) that pushed him quickly to the majors.

18. Greg Holland, Royals
Had 16 saves last season, but his job could be in jeopardy after four walks in his first two innings of 2013. Aaron Crow saved Monday's win for the Royals.

Before becoming a closer: Came out of nowhere to post a 1.80 ERA with the Royals in 2011.

19. Steve Cishek, Marlins
Saved 15 games after expensive Proven Closer Heath Bell gakked up several memorable save opportunities.

Before becoming a closer: The sidearmer was never on prospect radar lists because sidearmers are never on prospect radar lists.

20. Brandon League, Dodgers
Saved 37 games for Seattle in 2011, but lost his job early last season due to general lack of impressiveness. Throws a hard sinker so he gets ground balls but not many K's. Pitched better in 27 innings for the Dodgers last season so they gave him a bunch of money. Control was fine in 2011, not so fine last year.

Before becoming a closer: Didn't make it as a starter in the minors despite high-90s fastball.

Journeymen Made Good
These guys became closers essentially because their teams didn't have anyone else. Perseverance pays off!

21. Grant Balfour, A's
Hard-throwing Aussie became a closer last year for the first time at age 34.

Before becoming a closer: Played Australian rules football. OK, not really. Went from Twins to Reds to Brewers before finally having some good years with Tampa Bay.

22. Glen Perkins, Twins
The rare lefty closer had 16 saves a year ago.

Before becoming a closer: Career 5.06 ERA as a starter in 44 games before moving to the bullpen.

23. Rafael Betancourt, Rockies
At 37 years old, he became a closer for the first time and saved 31 games for Rockies in 2012.

Before becoming a closer: Has a career 3.13 ERA, so he'd been a good reliever for a lot of years.

24. Jason Grilli, Pirates
The veteran reliever had a career year last year at age 35 with 90 K's in 58.2 innings and took over the closer role when Hanrahan was traded.

Before becoming a closer: Played for five major league teams before Pittsburgh.

25. Casey Janssen, Blue Jays
Another late bloomer, he got the ninth-inning job after Sergio Santos was injured last year.

Before becoming a closer: The former starter didn't really have a wipeout pitch so he got pushed to the pen.

26. Bobby Parnell, Mets
He's long been heralded as a closer candidate due to his high-octane fastball. Now he'll finally get the opportunity.

Before becoming a closer: One-time minor league starter has spent past four seasons in the Mets' bullpen.

The Import
27. Kyuji Fujikawa, Cubs
The new Cubs' closer could be good, bad or something in-between. I think he'll be pretty good.

Looking for help
28. Tigers. The problem with Phil Coke as a closer is that Phil Coke just isn't a very good reliever. Al Alburquerque and Brayan Villarreal have better stuff but not much experience.

29. Brewers. Axford was signed out of independent ball and had a monster 46-save season for the Brewers in 2011. He's allowed four home runs in 2.2 innings this season and the Brewers may sign Rollie Fingers.

Might not get a save opportunity until May

30. Jose Veras, Astros.
Now 32, he's pitched for the Yankees, Indians, Marlins, Pirates and Brewers and has five career saves.

Before becoming a closer: The Brewers had the worst bullpen in the majors last year and even they didn't want him back.
 

Consider this: From 2002 to 2011, the St. Louis Cardinals appeared in more World Series than the New York Yankees. They won more championships than the Yankees. Over those 10 seasons, the Cardinals appeared in more league championship series than the Yankees.

So, maybe the Cardinals should be considered baseball's Evil Empire?

OK, OK ... the Yankees spent about $1.87 billion on payroll over that decade -- more than twice the Cardinals’ $900 million.

But it is interesting to note that the team taking advantage of the addition of a second wild-card team is one of the National League’s powerhouse franchises.

Two days after their stirring, never-seen-before comeback from a six-run deficit to shock the Nationals in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, Cardinals hitters picked up right where they left off, pummeling Giants starter Madison Bumgarner for eight hits and six runs in 3.2 innings, taking a 6-0 lead and holding on for a 6-4 victory. The Cardinals are difficult enough to beat when Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina are hitting; but when Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma start contributing key hits, they’re pretty much unbeatable.

The two middle infielders, the seventh and eighth hitters in the St. Louis lineup, had the big hits against the Nationals. Leading 2-0 in the fourth against the Giants after David Freese's two-run bomb in the second, those two got things going with one-out doubles. Jon Jay later added an RBI single and Beltran then hit his 14th home run in 29 career postseason games to knock out Bumgarner.

Descalso said they expected Bumgarner to come right after them. "We knew he was going to attack, he has the fastball and that cutter," he said. Indeed, Descalso's double came on an 0-1 fastball; Kozma hit a first-pitch slider. Bumgarner, usually in the 90-92-mph range with his two-seamer, didn't have his good fastball on this night. Descalso hit an 89-mph fastball, Jay singled on an 0-2 89-mph fastball and Beltran saw four sliders in a row, the fourth one deposited in the left-field stands.

Against the Cardinals, if you don't bring your good stuff, forget about it.

* * * *

The good news for the Giants is their bullpen was outstanding, delivering 5.1 hitless innings. Tim Lincecum pitched two of those, and has allowed one run in 8.1 innings of relief in the postseason. You have to think he’s now in line to start Game 4 over Barry Zito. The Giants have won the past 12 Zito starts but you can’t run a left-hander out there against this St. Louis lineup. Plus, Zito struggled in his start against Cincinnati and allowed a .468 slugging percentage against right-handers during the regular season. We probably won't see Zito in this series unless in a mop-up role or if he’s needed in extra innings.

* * * *

Mike Matheny nearly let the game get away from him with a slow hook on starter Lance Lynn in the fourth inning. Lynn pitched in relief in the Nationals series, appearing three times, including a 50-pitch effort in Game 3 while replacing the injured Jaime Garcia. The 18-game winner returned to the rotation in place of Garcia, three days after he served up the game-losing home run to Jayson Werth in Game 4.

Lynn didn’t allow a hit through the first three innings, but tired in the fourth, in particular unable to get the ball inside to the left-handed batters. With two outs and a runner on, Hunter Pence singled, Brandon Belt dumped a soft single into center, Gregor Blanco lined a triple into the right-center gap and Brandon Crawford lined a hard double down the right-field line. After pinch-hitter Aubrey Huff walked, Matheny finally went to the pen and Joe Kelly got Angel Pagan to ground out to second baseman Descalso, who made a diving stop and flip for the force at second.

The Cardinals have eight relievers, and they’re all good. This series may hinge on how Matheny employs them. Last year, Tony La Russa went with the game plan to yank his starters early and trust his deep arsenal of relievers. If you’re going to carry eight relievers, don’t be shy about using them. Six of them appeared in this game and combined for two hits allowed in 5.1 innings.

* * * *

One of those relievers is rookie Trevor Rosenthal, who impressed once again with his upper-90s gas. He’s below Edward Mujica, Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte in the pecking order, but what a weapon for Matheny to turn to. Baseball America’s No. 11 Cardinals prospect heading into the season, the former 21st-round draft pick from Cowley County Community College in Kansas started in the minor leagues but has pitched out of the pen in his brief stint in the big leagues, which plays up his fastball as he airs it out in these short stints.

Rosenthal is an example of why the Cardinals compete year after year: great draft picks, many unheralded, especially since they never select high in the draft. Descalso was a third-round pick out of UC Davis. Kozma was the 18th overall pick out of an Oklahoma high school in 2007. Lynn was the 39th pick in 2008 out of the University of Mississippi. Boggs, a fifth-rounder out of the University of Georgia. Jay, a second-rounder out of the University of Miami. Kelly, another rookie, was a third-rounder out of UC Riverside. If you notice a trend, you're right: The Cardinals historically love college players, which means less projection required and often quicker paths to the majors.

Mix in a few free agents signings to plug in holes -- Holliday, Beltran, Kyle Lohse -- and you have a winning approach.


We just witnessed one of the most amazing games in postseason history. Whether this game will eventually earn itself a place alongside other legendary games remains to be seen -- after all, Cardinals-Nationals doesn’t quite have the same buzz to it as Red Sox-Yankees or Dodgers-Giants -- but I can assure you this: None of us has ever seen this before.

No team had ever rallied from more than four runs down to win a sudden-death postseason game, and only two teams had done that -- the Pittsburgh Pirates in Game 7 of the 1925 World Series against the, yes, Washington Senators, and the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

The St. Louis Cardinals made history in remarkable fashion.

Of course, that means, with the 9-7 loss, the Washington Nationals made history in the most heartbreaking fashion possible.

I had an entire post written, telling Nationals fans that winning in the postseason isn’t easy, that even holding a six-run lead is never easy, that playoff baseball makes your stomach churn and all that.

I wrote that assuming they would hold on to the lead. Even after Gio Gonzalez once again lost the ability to throw a ball over home plate and the Cardinals scored three runs. Even after Edwin Jackson was for some reason summoned from the bullpen to pitch an inning and allowed a run. Even after Daniel Descalso homered in the eighth off Tyler Clippard to make the score 6-5. But when the Nationals added an insurance run in eighth, it felt like Nationals fans could finally breathe.

[+] EnlargeDaniel Descalso
AP Photo/Nick WassDaniel Descalso, right, drove home the tying runs, then scored the final one of the Cards' comeback.
On the other hand, as Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma -- a man apparently of few words -- said after delivering the go-ahead two-run single: "Never give up."

Damn.

* * * *

Friend of mine after the game, not a Cardinals fan or Nationals fan: “If the Mariners ever lost a game like this, I'd be in a hospital.”

Postseason baseball is the most exhilarating ride in sports.

Postseason baseball is the cruelest of sports.

* * * *

Carlos Beltran is awesome. He singled in the first, walked and scored in the fourth, walked in the fifth when the Cardinals scored twice off Gonzalez, doubled in the seventh to move Jon Jay to third (Jay would score), doubled to deep right-center off Drew Storen leading off the ninth. What a game. Five plate appearances, five times on base. One of the great sudden-death game performances a hitter has had.

* * * *

Calvin Schiraldi, Bill Buckner, Donnie Moore, Grady Little and company, Jose Mesa, the guy pitching in the Francisco Cabrera game (actually it was two, Doug Drabek and Stan Belinda), David Cone and Black Jack McDowell … and, yes, even Mariano Rivera. And now Drew Storen.

* * * *

Yadier Molina had a terrific at-bat in the ninth inning with two outs and Beltran on second. He was 2-for-18 in the series when he stepped in and had left the bases loaded in the fifth, flying out to right field on a 2-0 fastball from Gonzalez. The pitch sequence:

Slider low.
Fastball fouled back. (Fans standing, cheering, mustering strength to wave their red towels, two strikes away!)
Fastball outside.
A 96-mph fastball fouled away. (One strike away!)
A slider that dipped low. I don’t know how Molina held up. Tremendous pitch awareness and bat control.
Fastball high.

From the moment that Allen Craig struck out, Storen threw 12 pitches, any of which could have ended the game. Six pitches to Molina. Six more to David Freese, who also walked. The 13th pitch was a 94 mph fastball that Descalso ripped hard up the middle, off the glove of Ian Desmond, the ball bounding far enough into center field to easily score pinch runner Adron Chambers with the tying run.

* * * *

Kozma, a guy who hit .232 in Triple-A, playing only because of the September injury to starting shortstop Rafael Furcal, then lined a 2-2 fastball into right field to score two more runs. (Descalso had smartly stolen second base).

Washington manager Davey Johnson could have walked Kozma once Descalso stole second base. Cardinals closer Jason Motte, who had pitched the eighth inning, was due up next, although Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had sent backup catcher Tony Cruz, the last player left on the bench, to the on-deck circle as a decoy. He’d be entering the game anyway for Molina, who had been run for. Kozma has been pretty hot, hitting .333 for the Cardinals during his September call-up and homering earlier in this season.

Johnson could have put Kozma on and pitched to Cruz, which would have served two purposes: Force Matheny to bat Cruz, a guy who hit .254/.267/.365 in 126 at-bats, but also a guy without an at-bat in nine days. More importantly, it would have likely forced Matheny to pull Motte. Matheny already used Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal, Edward Mujica and Mitchell Boggs, so that would have meant the Cardinals would be using, at best, their fifth-best reliever in the ninth.

Huge mistake by Johnson and I can only guess he was in such a state of shock he didn’t have time to think the situation through properly.

* * * *

Yes, the Nationals could have used Stephen Strasburg. That’s obvious. Whether that lost the series for them is debatable. But I’m pretty sure he would have helped somewhere along the line.

The first postseason game in our nation’s capital since 1933 proved an ugly disaster for the home fans. The Cardinals scored one run in the first off Edwin Jackson, and then unlikely postseason hero Pete Kozma -- doing his best impersonation of Bucky Dent or Brian Doyle or Cody Ross -- slugged a three-run homer in the second to give the Cardinals a 4-0 lead.

From there, Chris Carpenter and the Cardinals' bullpen cruised to an 8-0 victory to take a 2-1 series lead.

Jayson Stark summed up the 37-year-old in his opening sentence in his story leading into the game: "On Wednesday afternoon in Nationals Park, a man will take the mound who has no business being there."

Carpenter, who missed most of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, didn’t exactly carve up the Nationals, allowing seven hits and striking out only two batters, but in typical Carpenter fashion, he gutted it through 5 2/3 innings and got the big outs with runners on base, most notably striking out Mike Morse with two runners on in the first and retiring Morse again on a fly to right with the bases loaded to end the fifth.

[+] EnlargeSt. Louis' Chris Carpenter
Joy R. Absalon/US PRESSWIREChris Carpenter, who didn't record a win during the regular season, held the Nationals scoreless in 5 2/3 innings Wednesday.
The score was still 4-0 at that point, and Carpenter had been careful with the previous batter, Adam LaRoche, walking him on seven pitches despite getting ahead in the count 0-2. But the righty-righty matchup against the free-swinging Morse is a better matchup for Carpenter. Morse swung and missed at a curve, took another curve in the dirt for a ball, and then Carpenter jammed Morse just enough on a 92 mph cutter. It was a perfect example of the savvy approach of a veteran who knows what he’s doing: First, see whether Morse will chase something; then, knowing you can’t let Morse extend his arms, go inside. Beautiful.

In his postgame on-field interview, Carpenter said LaRoche had put some good at-bats on him in the past. "In no way was I going to let him hurt me. If he walks he walks," he said of that situation.

Carpenter’s postseason legacy is starting to build. In 16 career playoff starts, he’s 10-2 with a 2.88 ERA. He’s been the ace on two World Series champions. His best postseason outings include eight shutout innings against the Tigers in Game 3 of the 2006 World Series, a memorable 1-0 complete-game win over Roy Halladay in Game 5 of last year’s NL Division Series, his gutsy effort on three days’ rest in Game 7 of the last year’s World Series and now this game, performing at a high level when he wasn’t even expected to be here a couple of months ago.

"It was just a constant grind," Carpenter said. "I made pitches when I had to. When you get to this situation in the postseason, you just give it all you got and go as long as you can and turn it over to the bullpen."

A fun stat that sums up Carpenter’s outing: He became just the second pitcher to start and win a postseason game after not winning a game during the regular season, joining Virgil Trucks of the 1945 Tigers, who returned from military service, started once in the regular season and then twice in the World Series.

Other thoughts:

  • Davey Johnson has to be a little worried about his bullpen, which got battered for a second straight game. Lefty Ross Detwiler will start Game 4 on Thursday, and the expectation has to be that Detwiler won’t go deep into the game. First, the Cardinals roll out all those right-handed hitters in the middle of their order, and Detwiler had a sizable platoon split during the regular season (.734 OPS versus right-handed batters, .513 versus lefties). Also, Detwiler isn’t a guy Johnson uses deep into games; he had more five-inning outings than seven-inning outings this season. So there’s a good chance Johnson will once again have to call on Craig Stammen and/or Ryan Mattheus, and neither has been effective so far in this series.
  • Bryce Harper continues to struggle at 1-for-15 with six strikeouts (no strikeouts in this game). He’s been battling strep throat and has been taking antibiotics, not that he’s about to use that as an excuse. I wouldn’t chalk it up to the postseason jitters of a 19-year-old; he just hasn’t hit. Case in point: In the fifth with a runner on, he took a curveball for a called strike and then popped out to shorstop on a pretty meaty 92 mph fastball. I’m sure he’ll be back in the No. 2 spot on Thursday.
  • It looks as though the Cardinals have yet another bullpen weapon in Trevor Rosenthal, who was pumping upper-90s gas for the second straight game. A 21st-round draft pick in 2009 out of a Kansas community college, Rosenthal has been a starter in the minors. (He posted a 2.97 ERA in 20 minor league starts before his promotion to the big leagues, where he had a 2.78 ERA with 25 K’s in 22 2/3 innings as a reliever.) With Rosenthal joining the Edward Mujica-Mitchell Boggs-Jason Motte mix, the Cards' bullpen looks deep even if they have to move Lance Lynn to the rotation if they advance to the NLCS.
  • The legend of Pete Kozma. Discuss. Between his play on the infield fly in the wild-card game, his crucial error in Game 1 and now this big home run, Kozma is becoming one of the central figures of this postseason. You just never know, do you?
  • There will now be a lot of talk about Stephen Strasburg, and there should be. Yes, he did struggle a bit down the stretch. And maybe the drop-off from him to Detwiler isn't that large, but in this specific matchup against the righty-heavy Cardinals, I think you'd still have wanted Strasburg out there.

SPONSORED HEADLINES