So far this year, we've seen the Cardinals win games in a lot of different ways. We've seen great starting performances carry the day, despite little offense. We've seen mediocre starting performances get bailed out by solid offensive contributions. We've even seen games in which the bullpen, coming into the game much earlier than you would hope, has held the opponent's offense down, while the Cards' bats creep slowly back into it.
Often when the Cardinals lose, it goes occurs like this:
We get a solid starting pitching performance, coupled with an offense that puts a ton of runners on base, but struggles to bring them in. We see the opposing team hanging around, staying close, and we all begin to get a little nervous, begin to squirm in our seats a bit, as we realize it's looking like one of those nights. The other team just hangs around and hangs around, staying close; the Cards can never quite score that big blow to just put the game away. The left-on-base numbers begin to pile up; six, eight, ten runners left on. Then, finally, the opponents' offense finally breaks through in the late innings, handing the Cardinals the loss, and leaving us all to bemoan all of the wasted opportunities.
What did we see last night? Ten men left on base. A seven inning shutout performance by the ace of the staff, Adam Wainwright. And a loss.
There was plenty of blame to go around last night, with a pretty fair portion of it falling on the broad shoulders of Albert Pujols. Not only did Pujols strand six runners on his own, he failed to catch a foul popup in the eighth inning that would have stopped the bleeding and preserved the lead. You know what, though? As tough a night as it was for Albert, he's carried the team through enough stretches that it's awfully tough to lay too much at his feet. He's certainly entitled to a down game every now and again.
No, for me, the bullpen is what we need to be looking at here. Very, very closely.
Jason Isringhausen blew his fourth save of the year in fifteen tries. For a team with no more margin for error than this particular team has, a 70 percent save rate just isn't going to get it done. Izzy had pitched very well his last couple of outings, going strictly with his fast ball and curve, ditching his signature cutter altogether. Last night, though, we saw the return of the cutter, and a return of the problems we've seen all too often this season from Izzy. Even aside from that pitch, though, Isringhausen didn't look to have much in the tank last night. His velocity was just fine, but the ball was dead straight. In fact, Izzy didn't generate a single swing-and-miss the entire time he was in there. You want proof his stuff was flat? There it is. Not one swing-and-miss.
The problem began even earlier than Izzy's entrance into the game, though. Kyle McClellan, who's been largely brilliant this year, entered the game and recorded only one out while giving up a single and a triple. Randy Flores induced a pop out off the bat of Todd Helton, but then couldn't put away Garrett Atkins after Pujols missed his popup, and ended up walking him. Izzy then entered the game, and the rest, as they say, is history.
But why was K-Mac given such a quick hook? The single he allowed was a bloop shot; not good contact at all. The triple, off the bat of Matt Holliday, was hit well, yes, but if Skip Schumaker had been positioned in a normal spot, it's probably an out. Instead, Schumaker was all the way over, nearly in center, and the result was a runner on third, one run in, one out situation that snowballed in a hurry. I can't blame LaRussa for positioning Schumaker where he had him, because I don't know if there was a reason for playing him there, and if there was, how good a reason it may have been.
I can, however, fault LaRussa for giving McClellan the quick hook, when he wasn't getting absolutely knocked around. Your main setup man, Ryan Franklin, is unavailable, (and regressing like crazy) your other primary setup guy, Russ Springer, seems to be mysteriously unable to pitch properly since coming back from an injury he claims ''wasn't a big deal,'' and your closer is looking more and more as if he needs extra time off between appearances. Why not let the kid try to get out of the jam? McClellan has, arguably, the best stuff of any pitcher in the bullpen right now. He's probably the most capable reliever you have of striking out a key batter and minimizing the damage. Instead, in comes Flores, (who did an adequate job) and then, when he can't quite finish off the job, we get to see Isringhausen.
I don't know if Izzy is hurt again, or if age is catching up with him, or if his mechanics are just making it impossible to throw a proper cutter at the moment. For the moment, though, it doesn't appear as if he's going to be able to take the ball every other day and be effective. Some sort of backup plan is needed.
One of the biggest problems in this relief corps right now is Russ Springer. He's been awful since coming back from the nerve injury. If he's still hurt, then he needs to go back on the disabled list until he's truly physically right. If he's healthy, well, that's a much more worrisome prospect, because if there's no real reason for him to have lost his stuff so dramatically, then I'm not sure what to do with him. Either way, I think the best plan of action right now would be to DL Springer immediately, and let him see if he can't get himself right. Tony obviously doesn't trust him at the moment, and I can't say I blame him. Springer is supposed to be the second setup man on this team. He's not, and he's hurting the team by being in the pen even while not able to perform.
Second, consider DL-ing Isringhausen as well. Maybe you can't do both he and Springer at the same time, but consider it. Izzy is struggling mightily right now, and this team can't afford to take many more losses like the one last night. It's simply not a good enough team to give away games. If Izzy's hurt, try to get him healthy. If he just can't find his cutter, give him a chance to find it. If he still can't find it, just tell him to stop throwing the fucking thing. If he just can't take the ball as often as you need him to anymore, then it's time to begin the transition process to a new closer.
Meanwhile, in Memphis... Down in Memphis, the Cardinals have three short relievers, by the names of Jason Motte, Chris Perez, and Mark Worrell. All three have been dynamite so far this season; all three are late game, short relief pitchers. However, they toil in the hinterlands, while we see the major league ‘pen support pitchers who aren't trusted to get the job done right now, pitchers who don't look like the same guy from day to day, and a lifetime starter, in Parisi, who isn't at all conditioned to try and throw on the every other day schedule of the relief pitcher. All three of those Triple A pitchers would serve to immediately shore up the back end of the bullpen, while the Cards try to sort out what's going to happen going forward. All three have their warts, yes, from Perez's iffy control, to Motte's raw secondary stuff, to Worrell's vulnerability to lefties. But all three would serve to significantly shore up what is fast becoming a major weakness of the 2008 Cardinals.
What I think needs to happen is this: Springer to the DL, one of the three AAA pitchers brought up to replace him. Worrell is probably the closest to Springer's actual statistical profile, but I think one of the other two would be a better choice.
Izzy stays in the bullpen, but receives extra time in between starts, as he attempts to rediscover his lost stuff. At the very least, we get an idea of whether or not extra rest will help him. The new guy, Perez or Motte, shares the closing duties, with Franklin staying in his customary eighth inning role. You get a nice apprenticeship going for one of the kids, you can get Isringhausen the extra time he needs to hopefully figure out what's going on, and Springer can try to do the same.
It's never going to happen, I know that as well as you do, but the back end of this bullpen needs some sort of relief, and soon. The Cardinals simply can't afford these kinds of defeats. Unfortunately, until something is figured out to bolster the back end of the ‘pen, I think that pattern that we're already getting tired of seeing may become a pretty constant companion to this team this summer.