Cards bullpen passes Game 1 test

BY Ken Rosenthal • October 19, 2011

As good as the Cardinals’ bullpen was in the NLCS, Brewers officials wondered if the St. Louis relievers would have produced the same results if the games were closer.

The Cardinals’ bullpen had to protect a one-run lead only once. In the Cardinals’ three other wins, their offense scored early and kept piling on runs, reducing the pressure on their relievers.

Game 1 of the World Series, then, amounted to a sterner test — the Cardinals’ ‘pen had to protect a one-run lead in the final three innings against a Rangers’ offense that is even more powerful than the Brewers’.

Sterner test, same results.

Five relievers. Three scoreless innings. Eight straight Rangers hitters retired to end the game for a 3-2 Cardinals victory.

Before the Series began, a rival scout remarked how unusual it was for a team to have so many relievers on a roll at once. I asked right-hander Octavio Dotel, 37, if he could remember the last time he was part of such a ‘pen.

“In 2004, when I was in Houston, we had Brad Lidge, Billy Wagner and myself — back then, our bullpen was pretty good,” Dotel said. “Right now, we have guys — we’re not ‘names.’ But the (relievers) are really doing their job, really making their pitches.”

Rangers right fielder Nelson Cruz echoed that sentiment, saying that the Cardinals’ relievers, while generally less overpowering than the Tigers were in the ALCS, are adept at keeping hitters off-balance.

Closer Jason Motte might be the only member of the Cardinals’ group with dominant stuff. But manager Tony La Russa excels at matchups and catcher Yadier Molina routinely makes pitchers better. Put it all together, and it’s an impressive combination.

“They get the most out of what they have,” Rangers left fielder David Murphy said.

Granted, Rangers manager Ron Washington might have helped the Cardinals with one of his pinch-hitting choices Wednesday night, batting Esteban German for the first time since Sept. 25 with two on and two outs in the seventh against Cardinals left-hander Marc Rzepczynski.

Catcher Yorvit Torrealba seemed a more logical pinch-hitter, particularly after the Rangers added a third catcher to their World Series roster to afford Washington more flexibility. Washington, though, said he viewed German as a contact hitter who matched up well with Rzepczynski’s off-speed stuff. Not quite — German struck out on three pitches, and the Rangers did not threaten again.

Dotel, facing the top of the Rangers’ order, started the eighth by retiring Ian Kinsler on a groundout and Elvis Andrus on a strikeout. Lefty Arthur Rhodes, who turns 42 on Monday and like Dotel is appearing in his first Series, ended the inning by retiring Josh Hamilton on a flyball to center — a flyball on a 3-2 slider that Rhodes said he tried to bounce, but left up in the zone.

Motte, a former catcher, pitched a perfect ninth, and just like that the Cardinals led, one game to none. Yes, it was only one game. Yes, the Cardinals’ bullpen still appears less talented than the Rangers’. But you wonder if the Rangers, like the Brewers, eventually will wonder what hit them.

To think, the Cardinals’ bullpen was the team’s biggest weakness for most of the season. But the trade of outfielder Colby Rasmus netted Dotel and Rzepczynski plus right-hander Edwin Jackson, whose arrival enabled righty Kyle McClellan to return to the ‘pen. The signing of Rhodes in August — after his release by the Rangers — freed La Russa to use Rzepczynski, his other lefty, more frequently.

Rzepczynski, who is under club control for four more seasons, should prove the biggest long-term addition, evolving into either a high-end, Scott Downs-type or a starter. But Dotel, a potential free agent playing for his 12th team, also is contributing off the field, bringing levity and energy.

La Russa, meeting with the FOX broadcasters before the game, noted that several of the team’s newer players — Dotel, Rafael Furcal, Lance Berkman, Gerald Laird, Nick Punto — often make him laugh with “silly, summer-camp stuff.”

“The guy who has helped me the most actually is Dotel,” Rzepczynksi said. “He said, ‘Go out there and have some fun. Have some fun and let him hit it.’ Since he said that to me a few weeks ago in September, I’ve just gone out there and tried to throw strikes. It has boosted my confidence level.”

Dotel was at his gregarious best before the game, joking with his former White Sox teammate, catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who is working the Series as a pregame analyst for Fox. At one point the two found themselves near Molina’s locker. Dotel looked at Pierzynski, pointed to Molina and said, “This is a catcher.”

Afterward, Dotel said that he is just trying to keep his teammates relaxed, ease the tension. A few lockers away, Motte spoke of how Molina helps him to stay calm, saying, “he won’t let me go out there and be too crazy . . . he knows when I get too fired up, there’s no telling where that ball is going.”

Mind over matter? Perhaps. But the Cardinals’ bullpen, after going 3-0 with a 1.88 ERA over 28 2/3 innings in the NLCS, began the Series by allowing just one hit and one walk, both by righty Fernando Salas, in three innings.

I will not be surprised if the Rangers rally at least once against this group before the Series is over. But the pressure on the Cardinals’ bullpen was greater Wednesday night than it had been during most of the NLCS, and nothing changed.

Maybe nothing will.

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