ST. LOUIS – Ask any Cardinals fan for the one area they’d like to see general manager John Mozeliak improve before the July 31 trade deadline and some would say the starting rotation. Most, would say the bullpen.
Awesome in April and awful in May, the Cardinals bullpen has been a near constant source of criticism as they’ve shuttled guys in and out from Triple-A Memphis while trying to find any stretch of consistency.
The Cardinals are 8-13 in one-run games and 12-20 in games decided by two runs or less. And much of their struggles have been because of the bullpen, who are 10th in the National League with a 4.51 ERA and tied for the fifth-most losses with 14.
But as the Cardinals pass the midway point of the season and prepare to scatter for the upcoming All-Star break, the bullpen may finally be getting back to resembling the group that posted a 2.70 ERA in April, the fourth lowest in all of baseball.
In their last give games, the Cardinals bullpen has allowed just two earned runs in 14 2/3 innings, good for a 1.23 ERA. They’ve allowed just eight hits and have 19 strikeouts to just one walk.
“I think we’ve had a lot of examples where that didn’t really work out for us, to where we had small leads and couldn’t hold onto it in the middle innings,” Matheny said of the bullpen’s struggles. “That was really a nemesis for us early on. That’s a nice piece to start getting in place and I hope that continues.”
Asked about just one walk in 14 2/3 innings out of his pen, Matheny added, “That’s a great stat. Great stat. I know we’ve been talking all season about working ahead in the count and they are doing a nice job with that.”
The Cardinals’ bullpen ERA in May was 5.44, nearly three runs higher than it was in April. And the Cardinals tried everything to stop the bleeding. They released struggling lefty J.C. Romero in early May and began a parade of roster moves to try and find the right combination of relievers.
Eduardo Sanchez was recalled from Triple-A Memphis, Kyle McClellan was placed on the disabled list, Brandon Dickson was recalled from Memphis, Chuckie Fick was added from Memphis, Fernando Salas was optioned to Triple-A, Maikel Cleto was recalled from Memphis and Fick and Dickson were sent back. And that was just in May.
The moves continued in May when the Cardinals tried rookie lefty Sam Freeman, brought back Salas, sent Sanchez and Cleto back to Memphis, brought Cleto back and gave rookie Barret Browning a try last week.
But maybe the Cardinals have begun to find traction with their current group of relievers. They’ve been nearly unhittable since their last roster shuffle on Saturday in which Browning and Cleto were added and Freeman and Sanchez were sent back to Memphis.
“I think April, that’s the kind of bullpen we were at the end of the year last year and in the playoffs,” said closer Jason Motte, who earned his 18th save of the season Wednesday in the Cardinals’ 4-1 win. “That’s what its about, going out and doing your job. Nothing else matters.
“You can’t ride last year because nobody cares what we did in October. They want to come out and say, ‘I saw what you did in October and I am going to shove this ball down your throat.'”
And all seven members of the bullpen have been part of the recent turnaround. Browning has retired all nine hitters he’s faced, Motte has saves in both appearances, Cleto has seven strikeouts in three innings and Fernando Salas hasn’t allowed a hit in two innings.
The Cardinals bullpen allowed just two hits in three innings Wednesday and had six strikeouts to help preserve what was a 2-1 lead when they took over in the seventh.
Lefty Marc Rzepczynski has provided arguably the most noticeable contribution. He got a big double play in Sunday’s game and mowed down the heart of the Rockies lineup Wednesday with two strikeouts and a ground out.
And the difference for him has been simple.
“Just going out the last two outings and trying to throw everything as hard as I can,” Rzepczynski said. “Just getting back to where I was last year and trying to throw my slider as hard as I can and trying to throw my sinker in to the lefties. It’s pretty obvious when I face lefties what they are going to get, it just depends on the day if you are going to beat me to but tonight I just tried to throw everything as hard as I can and I got good results.
“I just got a little bit away from it, especially from my slider. I was trying to manipulate it too much instead of just trying to throw it as hard as I can and get on top of it like I have done my entire career. The last couple outings, especially warming up, I’m trying to throw it as hard as I can and its been good for me.”
It’s only five games, but the Cardinals bullpen has looked as good the past week as it has all season. And should it continue, the Cardinals figure to have a chance to win a lot of games the second half of the season.