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Down the Stretch with Fernando Salas

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If you blinked, you missed the Pittsburgh Pirates pretty epic slide over the last few weeks. Since July 21st, their last off day, the Pirates have lost 13 of 16 games including a 9 game losing streak.  They've put themselves 9 games back of first place joining the Reds on the second tier of NL Central teams and probably beyond reach of the division.

More lamentable for their fanbase is that their winning percentage now stands at .482 and they're 4 games below .500. Anyone who was popping corks around the All Star break may want put the champagne back on ice.

The Cardinals meanwhile are missing some opportunities to make up their three game deficit to the Brewers. Dropping 2 of 3 to the lowly Mets, 2 of 4 to the cellar dwelling Astros and losing 2 of 3 to the Brewers all after the All Star break does not a championship team make.  The club is on a nice three game win streak courtesy of the Marlins before an offday tomorrow. (Aside: Does it seem like we've had an inordinate number of offdays this year? It does to me.)

On Tuesday, the Brewers will come to Busch Stadium for a three game set followed by the Rockies. It would be an opportune time for the Birds to sweep the Brewers but you can probably get by with a 4-2 showing over those six games. With just 47 games left after today, the Cardinals can't afford to fall further back than their current three games in the quest for the NL Central Championship. They need to stand up as tall as their dwarfy legs can hold them and be the tallest midget in this crowd.

Fernando Salas picked up his 21st save in 24 opportunities closing out a 2-1 game started by Chris Carpenter. The Cardinals bullpen was an unmitigated disaster to start the year as Ryan Franklin finally lost his pinpoint control, which, admittedly, happened about 4 years later than I expected it too.  Miguel Batista's inexplicable usage in high leverage situations -- he had a 1.41 leverage index when entering games (1.00 is generally considered a neutral-ish leverage) -- turned a depth reliever into a veteran debacle for no good reason.  The Cardinals tried variations of Jason Motte and Mitchell Boggs before the latter was banished to Memphis to become a starter. How did that turn out by the way?

From the ashes of failed closers, rose Salas who has shown exceptional command and poise on the mound in the closer's role. Sabermetrics and common sense has taught us that the "closer" is something of a fallacy. When the heart of the opposing lineup appears in the 8th inning that is likely to be the most critical portion of relief innings for the pen. Designating, and strictly adhering to, a traditional closer's role can be misguided.

Fortunately for the Cardinals, the trio of Mitchell Boggs, Jason Motte and Lance Lynn have all proven to be more than capable of handling high-leverage situations.  A pair of former starters and a former catcher makes for an unlikely backbone to the bullpen but it seems fitting given that the closer was never expected to be a closer.  Salas was often overshadowed by his harder throwing counterparts in the minor leauges.  Control has slowed Francisco Samuel's path to the big leagues and Eduardo Sanchez's shoulder remains a tenuous thing.

The arrival of Salas a major league relief pitcher isn't surprising. The quality of his stuff and the control has been extremely impressive though. You won't find him on any former top 10 lists and I'll admit that I didn't see him as more than a middle reliever either.  Salas throws three pitches according to ball classification data: fastball, slider & changeup. I've garnered a healthy respect for change-ups in recent weeks and Salas is a good example of why.

His ability to throw all three of those pitches for strikes is important but his changeup has allowed him to neutralize left handed hitters so that there's little discernible platoon split.  In some ways, Salas remains an unusual closer for the Cardinals with the rather tepid fastball velocity (91-92) and below-average groundball percentage. On a rating of his pure stuff even now, it would probably be confirmation bias to say he has closer's stuff. Fernando Salas simply pitches with accuracy and a good mix of his pitches to keep hitters off balance.

If the Cardinals are going to make a run down the stretch, they'll need Salas to maintain his stranglehold on the closer's role. Tony LaRussa is unlikely to end the parade of 1000 relievers even if he has a closer but the Cardinals need a solid back of the pen. They aren't in a position where they can allow games to slip away like they did in the first few months. Fernando Salas, unexpected closer though he may be, is critical to their chance at a Central championship.