|ESPN.com: MLB Playoffs 2011||[Print without images]|
ST. LOUIS -- In a normal baseball world, where statistics make sense and everything falls in line according to plan, Chris Carpenter would have been worried.
If St. Louis manager Tony La Russa had pulled his workhorse after pitching the fifth inning of a one-run game and asked his bullpen to record the game's final 12 outs, there would have been concern, fear. Carpenter would have known he'd done everything he could to give his team a chance to win, but he also would have known it probably wasn't enough.
Yet when the sixth inning rolled around here Wednesday night and Carpenter found himself on the bench, he felt an emotion completely different.
"I was OK," he said. "I had confidence."
When they write the book on the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals, there will be pages and pages dedicated to the dominance of Albert Pujols, the resurgence of Lance Berkman and the emergence of David Freese. There's certain to be a chapter about Carpenter outdueling Philadelphia's Roy Halladay in Game 5 of the National League Division Series. But ask La Russa or anyone else in the Cardinals' clubhouse and they will tell you that the team isn't here, leading the Milwaukee Brewers 2-1 in the National League Championship Series, without its bullpen.
|Jason Motte's heat is only the headliner in the Cards' wealth of relief help.|
Yes, the same bullpen that blew more saves this year (26) than everyone in the NL except the Washington Nationals. The same bullpen that gave up 49 home runs, the third-most in the NL. And the same bullpen that started the season with human gas can Ryan Franklin as its closer.
Back in April and May, when La Russa would trudge to the mound, touch an arm and watch the bullpen door swing open, Cardinals fans would squirm in their seats. More times than not, they would soon find themselves on their feet. Booing unmercifully.
But then on July 27, everything changed. In a three-team trade with the Toronto Blue Jays and the Chicago White Sox, the Cardinals traded 24-year-old center fielder Colby Rasmus for relievers Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski and starter Edwin Jackson, among others. The team later signed ancient lefty specialist Arthur Rhodes. And from July 28 until the end of the season, the Cardinals had the third-best bullpen ERA (2.86) in all of baseball.
"I think Doti and Arthur have brought a lot of confidence to some of these younger guys to not care, to go out, not be concerned about what's going to happen," Carpenter said. "Let's go out and give it our best and see what happens. If it works, it works. If it doesn't, it doesn't, and we'll go get them the next day."
Rhodes describes it a little bit differently: having fun.
"We've livened the bullpen up," he said. "We just have fun every day. Loud music; we mess with people. We just have fun."
Whatever the explanation, on Wednesday night it worked. Again. After Carpenter labored through 89 pitches, allowing a Brewers runner to reach scoring position in four of his five innings, the bullpen was nearly untouchable. Fernando Salas, Lance Lynn, Rzepczynski and Jason Motte combined to stop the Brewers from not only scoring, but reaching base.
Twelve up, twelve down, thank you and good night.
"You can't ask for anything more," Rzepczynski said. "We're feeding off each other. One guy goes in, gets the out and the next guy follows suit. We've just go to keep throwing strikes and keep it going."
It sounds simple, really, this concept of throwing strikes. It's on the first page of the cliche manual for any major league pitcher. But it's true. While Carpenter threw just 48 of 89 pitches (54 percent) over the plate Wednesday, the guys behind him tossed 31 of 45 (69 percent) for strikes.
For the Brewers, time is running out to figure out the St. Louis bullpen puzzle. You know it isn't good when your postgame comments evoke memories of a former NFL coach melting down in a postgame interview. Yet there was Brewers manager Ron Roenicke on Wednesday, channeling his inner Dennis Green to explain why his team is struggling against the Cardinals' bullpen.
"Their arms are exactly how we thought they were," Roenicke said.
But it's far from the group the Cardinals thought they were in spring training. How unlikely is it for these guys to be leading the way for St. Louis pitchers in the postseason? Beyond the three new additions, two other relievers (Salas and Eduardo Sanchez) didn't even make the team out of spring training. Mitchell Boggs was optioned to Triple-A during the season. And another, Lynn, missed the final 46 games of the season with a strained oblique and was just added to the roster for the NLCS.
After appearing in three straight games, Lynn said Wednesday that it feels like spring training all over again.
"Body-wise, I feel great," he said. "But as the outings continue, the better I'm going to feel."
La Russa has used four or more relievers in six of the team's eight postseason games. He's made a whopping 32 pitching changes in those contests. In two of those games -- both wins -- the Cardinals' bullpen has pitched more innings than its starters.
"When that phone rings, we get ourselves ready, we get our arms ready and we get our minds ready to go out there and pitch," said Motte, who earned his second save of three-plus outs Wednesday. "And we are going to go out there and give it everything we have until Tony comes and takes the ball away from us."
It makes you wonder whether the Cardinals' marketing department should charge extra to Hardees, Ford, U.S. Cellular and Fox Sports Midwest -- the companies with their logos splashed in and around St. Louis' Busch Stadium bullpen. Or if the Busch grounds crew should drop some extra seed along the grass La Russa flattens with each trip to the mound.
For now, each guy is just doing whatever La Russa asks of him. Maybe it's Salas, who led the team with 24 saves this season, entering the game in the sixth inning Wednesday. Maybe it's Lynn, relieving Jackson in the fifth inning of Game 2 and needing just one pitch to get a ground-ball double play and earn the victory. Or maybe it's four guys combining Wednesday to outpitch Carpenter, the former Cy Young Award winner.
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.