The bullpen as a picture, albeit a slightly crazy, wild-eyed picture.
tom s. wrote yesterday about the struggles of the opposing pitchers. The Cardinals offense has shown up and done their part. Albert Pujols has managed to get hot at an appropriate time and carry the team through games. Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina were the offense leaders in game 5 of the NLCS. David Freese made a name for himself nationally when the Cardinals topped the Phillies.
While the offense has been important, that misses the larger narrative that is going to result from the NLCS. The only reason that the bullpen narrative hasn't already taken hold is because of the massive overhaul that the Cardinals were forced to conduct midseason. Dumping Ryan Franklin, Miguel Batista, Trevor Miller and Brian Tallet for Octavio Dotel, Lance Lynn, Arthur Rhodes and Marc Rzepczynski is an easier story to digest if you've followed the team all year than if you've just tuned in. In some ways though, it mirrors the 2006 Cardinals where the bullpen anchored by an unheralded Adam Wainwright played an outsized role in the playoffs.
The local media has begun with a string of articles all relating to the success of the pen. Joe Strauss writes about Edwin Jackson, today's starter, with the following quote from Jackson (emphasis mine):
"As a starter, everyone wants to go out and go as deep as you can. Fortunately, we've had luck with our bullpen coming in and getting the job done when the starters haven't been able to go deeper into games," he said. "That's always a good problem to have."
Derrick Goold has a lengthy article chronicling Rzepczynski's process of learning to deal with the pressure of the playoffs:
The Cardinals are one win away from the NL pennant because of a nimble and stingy bullpen that has thrown 21 2/3 innings in five games and short-circuited the middle of the Brewers' lineup. The bullpen may not be eligible for the series MVP award given to an individual, but it has influenced who could. No. 3 hitter Ryan Braun is one for eight against Cardinals relievers, and cleanup hitter Fielder is one for five against the bullpen. Two of those outs have come missing Rzepczynski's slider.
Even Bernie touches on the bullpen's prowess in his article, which is full of too much team chemistry and intangibles for me to quote with a straight face this time.
Particularly after the Game 1 mess with Jaime Garcia, Tony La Russa has not hesitated to pull his starter at the first sign of trouble. It's impossible to prove whether pulling Jaime Garcia as Ryan Braun approached the plate would have ended better than reality but it's hard to imagine how it could have gone worse than the 6 run inning that followed. That inning, and the Cardinals capacity to win that game, evaporated quickly as Jaime Garcia allowed a home run to Prince Fielder immediately after Braun's ground rule double.
Since then, the Cardinals bullpen has taken on an oversized role in the series.
In three games so far, the bullpen has pitched as much or more than the starting pitcher. Cumulatively, the bullpen's line remains impressive.
Despite a relatively moderate strikeout rate, the bullpen is showing off a ~2.70 FIP (depending on your league adjustment constant) for the length of the NLCS. The bullpen is anchored by Fernando Salas and Jason Motte. Salas has allowed 1 hit, Motte 0. They've pitched 7.2 combined innings and struck out 7 while walking no one. The Cardinals success is hugely dependent on the ability of these two arms to continue to pitch on an almost every game basis.
There's a few lesser notes to make as the Cardinals prepare to take on Milwaukee tonight.
- John Mozeliak deserves a good bit of credit. I'll probably never like the midseason trade that sent Colby Rasmus to Toronto but Mozeliak deserves credit for recognizing that the bullpen as constructed was dysfunctional and doing something about it. Sure, some of that was a problem of his own creating but it would have been all to easy to do nothing. Equally important, the construction of the post-season roster has been near perfect with Kyle McClellan as the only questionable inclusion. No Jake Westbrook. No Corey Patterson. Difficult decisions that I'm not sure I expected to be made.
- The best offense is a good defense. While the bullpen has been stellar, they've still created outs on 50 balls that were in play. That credit goes to the defense. Ryan Theriot's recent error's notwithstanding, the defense has been excellent. Rafael Furcal has reminded everyone what a true shortstop looks like at that position and brilliant plays like Albert's first to third to punch out Chase Utley will be part of this post-season's lore.
It's something of an improbable run. The Cardinals were a flawed team to start the year and while they've coalesced into something of a Platonic ideal of what they've were always supposed to be, an improbable run with a formerly flawed team has to have an unusual aspect to it. Writers everywhere would be devastated if this team stuck to it's regular season script. They haven't. They've rewritten the script and in doing so, they find themselves one win removed from the World Series.