St. Louis saved by its bullpen
Cardinals are proud of their relief corps, but would like more innings from starters
MILWAUKEE -- A few minutes after the final out was recorded and the St. Louis Cardinals were headed to their 18th World Series, reliever Octavio Dotel came into the clubhouse, his arms raised and a smile on his face, and in his right hand he was holding a stuffed squirrel.
It's been no secret just how dominant the Cardinals' bullpen has been this postseason but particularly during the National League Championship Series, in which it threw more innings than the team's starting pitchers. What still is a secret, Dotel said, is the magic of the stuffed animal.
"I feel like this has been good luck and I'm going to keep it all the way through," Dotel said, still gripping the squirrel -- a little wet from champagne and beer -- an hour after his team's 12-6 win over the Brewers in NLCS Game 6 on Sunday night.
The squirrel has become a phenomenon in St. Louis, after a living one (perhaps more?) infiltrated Game 3 and Game 4 against the Phillies in the first round, going so far as to scamper across the batter's box and nearly bowl over the Cardinals' Skip Schumaker in Game 4. When Dotel and the relievers went back to Philadelphia for Game 5, a few fans threw the stuffed squirrel into the Cardinals' bullpen, taunting the players.
"Somebody threw it to us, like making fun of us," Dotel said. "They didn't know that it's our good luck; they gave us good luck to our bullpen and that's why the bullpen has been so great lately."
Dotel keeps the squirrel in his locker during the game, but a few outs before clinching a trip to the World Series, where they will face the Texas Rangers, he put it in the pocket of his sweatshirt and watched from the dugout.
"As soon as we won, I brought him out and started waving him," Dotel said.
Whether it's the power of the squirrel or not, there is no disputing the force of St. Louis's bullpen. Not only did Cardinals manager Tony La Russa make a record 28 pitching changes in the series, but his relievers threw 28 2/3 innings -- the starters threw just 24 1/3. Chris Carpenter's five innings in Game 3 were the most for any of the starters and they collectively had a 7.03 ERA during the series against Milwaukee.
"I don't know the answer to that other than we knew we were deep and once we got [rookie reliever Lance] Lynn back in there we knew we had guys that could eat innings," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "I think what I'd hope to see in the World Series is that our starters could go a little deeper."
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What the relievers did in this series suggests that they will not be capable to sustaining this type of success. By the end of Game 6 (in which the relievers collectively threw seven innings) they had collectively posted a 1.88 ERA and held the Brewers to .155 average against them. In each of the games in this series, the relievers worked four or more innings. There was a reason La Russa put eight relievers on his NLCS roster, he needed every single one of them.
"It's hard to believe no starting pitcher went more than five innings -- wow," said Dotel, who came over in a trade midseason along with lefty reliever Marc Rzepczynski. "It's unbelievable. We got more outs than the starting pitching. I can't explain it."
One of the reasons for success, Arthur Rhodes, 41, said, was that there were no egos.
"We had no complaints -- nobody complained about anything," he said. "And we just kept it moving. We love each other out there."
Perhaps one player who best exemplifies that egoless ethos is Jason Motte, the closer whom La Russa still refuses to label his closer. Motte, who has yet to give up a run this postseason over eight innings while saving four games, took over in September for a bullpen that had the second-most blown saves during the regular season. He saved nine games and blew just one, finishing the regular season with a 2.25 ERA and throwing a career-high 78 innings. His high 90s fastball and sharp slider are what make him effective.
"He's thrown hard, he's thrown strikes and he gets guys out," said Rhodes, who joined the team in August after being released by the Texas Rangers. "Once you do that, you come in the ninth inning, don't be afraid of anybody. He kept it calm and cool and he did it the right way. He's done that, and look at where we're at right now."
Throughout the season, La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan had been mixing and matching, using Fernando Salas, Ryan Franklin, Mitchell Boggs and Eduardo Sanchez while Motte saw action as early as the third inning to as late as the 10th. It was not until the final month of the season when he settled in as the ninth-inning pitcher. His first save came on Aug. 28, just three days after the Cardinals' began their comeback from 10.5 games behind the Braves for the wild card.
"Tony did a good job managing guys and putting them in when he did," Motte said. "He knows the right buttons to push and he pushed all the right buttons. It's one of those things where, shoot, I don't even know how we did it, or how many innings we pitched but I know for us when we got out there in the bullpen and that phone rings it doesn't matter, everyone's ego is shoved out the door."
Motte actually is a converted catcher. He made the switch in 2006, when a few coaches noticed he had a strong arm. He hadn't pitched since he was 12 years old, but the Cardinals gave him the shot and by 2008, when he was 26, he made it to the big leagues.
"I've had great coaches along the way and I've had great coaches here and I've had teammates that have just been unbelievable and helped me," Motte said in the clubhouse after Game 6. "Once I got here it was how to stay here, how to carry myself like a professional, how to think on the mound, stuff like that."
Now, along with every other reliever in the bullpen, it has been a challenge to refine his role. It's no small task, and the collective group clearly has fed of everyone else's success. But both the GM and the manager know how hard it is to sustain.
"The longer the starting pitcher pitches effectively," La Russa said, "the better chance we have to win."
No one, not the starters, the relievers nor the position players would argue that. But if you ask around, you'll find that the relievers feel the odds are still in their favor. They feel that they have fed off each other and they have the trust in their manager that each time they are summoned, it's the right call. If you don't believe them, just ask Dotel; he'll point you to the secret squirrel.
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at Amy.K.Nelson@espn.com.
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