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Cards' pen on the spot

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  • Cards' pen on the spot

    Bullpen is on the spot
    By Joe Strauss

    Their three-game division series sweep of the San Diego Padres produced one inconsistency for the Cardinals: They won in spite of a mediocre week by a bullpen that typically acts as a metronome.

    Within an otherwise overwhelming performance against an outclassed foe, what otherwise might have been considered a blemish could be regarded as a beauty mark. More is expected now as the Houston Astros arrive for a rematch of last October's compelling National League Championship Series.

    "We have to pitch better. I have to pitch better," said righthander Julian Tavarez, likely to become a leading character in the best-of-seven drama that begins Wednesday night at Busch Stadium. "I don't care what the score is when we come into the game. Our job is to get outs. We didn't always do that against the Padres."

    The Cardinals outscored the Padres 11-0 in the first three innings of the three games and the rotation asserted itself with a 1.44 earned-run average, while the bullpen lagged after inheriting leads of 8-0, 4-1 and 7-2. In 8 1/3 innings, the Padres strafed it for eight earned runs on 16 hits, including three home runs.

    Lopsided scores and out-of-character performance were intertwined, believes manager Tony La Russa.

    "I don't necessarily think you can separate the two," La Russa said. "When you come into a game with a big lead, absolutely the worst thing you can do is to walk guys. That's the only time I'd yell from the dugout - whey they walked somebody. So when you get behind a hitter in that situation, it's more likely a ball catches too much plate."

    A bullpen that general manager Walt Jocketty thought might become a work in progress during the season's first half instead became a pillar of a staff that led the National League in ERA.

    The Astros' starters posted the lowest ERA among league rotations, but the Cardinals' work out of the bullpen more than compensated for the rotations' difference.

    The Cardinals compiled a 3.17 bullpen ERA, struck out more than twice as many (318) as they walked (158) and allowed less than one home run for every nine innings pitched. Of the team's 17 blown saves, closer Jason Isringhausen suffered only four. The numbers weren't as brilliant as in 2004, when the relievers amassed a 3.01 ERA, allowed one home run about every 12 2/3 innings and struck out 354 and walked 144. But neither were they a dramatic reversal that some expected following the trade of Kiko Calero, the free-agent loss of lefthander Steve Kline and the absence of Mike Lincoln, who never appeared before undergoing a second ligament replacement on his right elbow.

    The emergence of lefthander Randy Flores and rookie Brad Thompson eliminated the need for further tinkering. Veteran Cal Eldred's return June 13 from myopericarditis further bolstered the group.

    "I really didn't see much difference between the two (bullpens)," Jocketty said. "Flores has been very good, and I don't think anyone envisioned Thompson helping this quickly, but he has."

    Flores and Thompson are newcomers to the postseason, another factor La Russa has cited.

    Flores allowed a Game 1 home run to Padres pinch-hitter Eric Young but also got a critical Game 2 stop by striking out pinch-hitter Mark Sweeney to end an eighth-inning rally. As a 30-year-old who had more major-league appearances this season (50) than in the rest of his career combined (37), pressure is relative.

    "When you're in my situation, you look at every situation like it's the postseason," Flores said. "I don't have any guarantees. It's about what I can do today. I understand that. I don't forget it. So in some ways, this is just an extension of that."

    Thompson, 23, ended last season on the Memphis disabled list and set a spring goal of receiving a call-up in September. Instead, he has become a fixture since being promoted on May 8. Thompson (4-0) was scored upon in only three of his first 19 major-league appearances. His first win came July 15 against the Astros. He allowed a run in each of two division series appearances but doesn't discount the influence of 8-0 and 7-2 leads.

    "You're supposed to throw strikes in that situation instead of wasting pitches," Thompson said. "You don't want to stand out there walking guys, creating situations."

    King and Flores may have limited impact in the NLCS because the Astros are predominantly a righthanded-hitting team. First baseman Mike Lamb and outfielder Orlando Palmeiro are the significant lefthanded bats.

    King left the club Monday to attend his father's funeral in Tennessee. He is expected to miss today's workout before returning Wednesday. He did not appear in the Division Series and, according to La Russa, probably won't work in the NLCS opener.

    The elbow injury suffered Oct. 2 by Al Reyes has complicated the mix. Scheduled for ligament replacement surgery later this month, Reyes became an effective middle reliever and righthanded force against lefthanded hitters. The Astros were one of few teams to push back against the Cardinals' bullpen this season.

    Not including the exiled fifth starter, the Astros hung a 4.78 ERA on the six relievers the Cardinals carry into the NLCS. Isringhausen suffered two blown saves in seven chances against them. They were also his only fumbled chances after June 26.

    Of the four home runs Isringhausen allowed this season, two came in consecutive innings by Morgan Ensberg and Brad Ausmus during a loss Sept. 2 at Minute Maid Park.

    Tavarez, who carries a colorful connection to the Astros, suffered two of this season's three losses against Houston,, on April 6 and Sept. 2.

    It was during last year's NLCS Game 4 that Tavarez broke two fingers on his left hand when he struck a dugout phone following a poor outing in Houston and was fined $25,000 for allegedly throwing at Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell. Tavarez recovered, however, to earn the decision in Game 6 and pitched a hitless eighth inning in his team's Game 7 clincher.

    What's past is past, Tavarez believes. More important is regaining the form that allowed him to tie the club record for holds this season.

    "It's a long season," he said. "My sinker got a little flat. But that's normal. Now is the time to get it going."

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