Right around a year ago, the Cardinals found themselves in a, shall we say, remarkably similar situation as this. Similar enough, in fact, that knowing how the whole thing worked out, I kind of don't really want to think on it too deeply. I feel like it would be tempting the vengeful eye of the baseball gods to dwell on how much this situation -- 3-1 lead, NL West team, top-heavy rotation, yadda yadda yadda, although no Barry Zito is kind of nice -- looks like that previous one.
You know what I don't mind dwelling on, though? The current state of the Cards' relief corps. I don't mind dwelling on it, of course, because it just might be the single nicest thing to talk about in relation to this team at the moment. The offense has been scarily feeble so far, I'll admit to having night terrors at the thought of Joe Kelly facing down Zack Greinke again, and I still don't get what the plan is with Shelby Miller. But the bullpen...oh, the bullpen.
It seems so very long ago now, that first month of the season, when the rotation was dominant (remember the Sports Illustrated cover? Yeah, neither do I.), the offense was cruising along, and every night, right around the seventh inning, the collective ass of Cardinal Nation would clench up so tight you could convert coal into diamonds with all the pressure being generated. Mitchell Boggs -- Mitchell Boggs, of all people! -- was the closer. Isn't that cute? He thinks he's people! (Poor Boggsy. So good last season, and just...nothing this year. I guess that's the way it works for relievers sometimes, but it just seems so inexplicable. He had the best turtleneck/sport coat combination, I think, so there's that, at least.) Marc Rzepczynski was still on the roster, pretending to be part of the club's long-term plans. Edward Mujica was still just That Guy We Got From The Marlins. Hmm, actually, I guess that part isn't that different. The Chief is, after all, sort of back to being That Guy We Got From The Marlins. But with saves!
Side note: just looking at the Baseball Reference page for the Cardinals, checking the schedule, did you know their Pythagorean record this year was 101-61? That's kind of amazing. The Dodgers', in case you were wondering, was 89-73. Just saying. Also, I use a lot of commas, don't I? Side note over.
Looking at those early-season results, I see Fernando Salas taking a couple losses, including that 16-inning nightmare in Arizona, and I see what may have been the low point of the whole season, at least bullpen-wise. I'm talking, of course, about the 8th of April, the Cincinnati Reds in town. It seems odd to have the lowest point of something come within the first week of the season, but that's kind of how it worked out this year.
I'm sure there have been other games in baseball history where a team's closer has taken the L in a nine-run loss, but it's tough to think of another, honestly, Even the infamous T.E.S.S. game in Pittsburgh a couple years ago didn't go quite that horribly awry.
Jaime Garcia started that day, and wasn't bad. Six and two-thirds innings, three runs, six hits, three walks, struck out ten. It wasn't a legendary effort, but a solid-enough day against a very good offensive club. Randy Choate got the last out of the seventh inning, and Trevor Rosenthal blew his first save of 2013 in the eighth, allowing the tying run on a ground ball single by Xavier Paul that plated Jay Bruce. Rosenthal got out of it, we all fretted over him looking hittable (mea culpa: I was absolutely one of those people who worried about him, instead of looking at the peripherals and concluding he was just fine), but breathing a collective sigh of relief at maintaining the tie.
And then came the ninth.
I won't recount all the gory details; it's too gruesome. But the boxscore lines say all that needs to be said. Boggs allowed seven runs, six of them earned, on four walks and two hits. Scrabble relieved him and fared no better, allowing three inherited runners to come home and throwing in two runs of his own. The narrative for the first, say, two months of the season was essentially set that afternoon. Eventually Mitchell Boggs and Rzepczynski would both be moved, The Marlins Dude would mysteriously morph into Bruce Sutter (only don't call his splitter a splitter), and take over the closing duties until his own inexplicable slide into disrepair would occur.
Now, as we stand here on the verge of a possible World Series berth, it's really kind of tough to remember what those days felt like. The bullpen now bears virtually no resemblance to the one in those old box scores; gone are Boggs and Scrabble, Fernando Salas was left off the roster. John Axford is a Cardinal now, and something like the fifth-best reliever the Cards have. Randy Choate is still in the same spot he was, and while he's probably exhausted from all the pitches he's thrown to Carl Crawford lately, he's done a really nice job. Of the three pitchers making up the Redbirds' own current version of the Nasty Boys, two, Carlos Martinez and Kevin Siegrist, began the year in Double A. Rosenthal, of course, has been a relative constant this season, moving from setup to closer to purveyor of FUFs (that's Fuck You Fastballs, if anybody is wondering), as time has gone on. The days of Mitchell Boggs as closer seem so long ago; the days of thinking Jason Motte was going to be pitching the ninth inning for this team are literally almost impossible to connect.
What was the biggest question mark for this team in April and May is now the single biggest strength. It's kind of a big deal when you can shorten the game, make it around, say, six innings long. Right now, that's where the Cardinal bullpen is. It's kind of a nice feeling.
We have a chance to maybe, possibly, possibly, maybe, clinch a spot in the World Series this afternoon, folks. That's also kind of a nice feeling, even if it's still accompanied by the abject terror I always feel throughout the playoffs.
As Ric Flair would say: well, you know.