La Russa kept the phone to the bullpen busy last night. It paid off.
Well, it wasn't quite the brilliant matchup of ace starters I think most of us were anticipating, but it'll do.
Yovani Gallardo, ace of the Milwaukee Brewers, allowed thirteen baserunners, making it somewhat shocking the Cardinals were only able to plate four runs against him. Chris Carpenter, ace of the St. Louis Cardinals, coming off a series-clinching two-hit shutout of the Phillies, was almost as shaky, giving up six hits and walking three in just five innings, not to mention throwing more wild curveballs than I think I've ever seen in one outing.
Instead of the taut, fast-paced thriller most of us expected, we instead got a sloppily pitched game from two aces struggling to find any kind of consistency. Well, that's we got for the first five innings of the game, anyway. Then the bullpen showed up and we saw the great pitching Carpenter was supposed to deliver.
I can't say enough about the job the bullpen did last night, from Fernando Salas' clean inning all the way down to Jason Motte retiring the last four hitters of the night, three by way of the strikeout. The combo of Salas, Lance Lynn
, Marc Rzepczynski
, and Motte retired the final twelve batter Milwaukee sent to the plate, making the slim lead Carpenter left the game with stand up.
It was a far cry from the sort of performance we saw so often from the 'pen early in the 2011 season, when reliever after reliever would be used in an attempt to stanch the bleeding, usually with nothing but further damage being done. The jettisoning of Ryan Franklin and Miguel Batista made the biggest difference, removing the two relievers responsible for the most egregious sins. Casting off the two left-handers the Cards began the season with was another huge step in the right direction, as neither Trever Miller nor Brian Tallet were at all effective.
And, of course, the remaking of the bullpen would not have happened without the midseason trade pulled off by John Mozeliak which added Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel. Both came over as part of the Colby Rasmus deal, along with Edwin Jackson.
I said at the time the deal was a disaster, with the Cards giving up far too much value for a grab-bag of mediocre players. In hindsight, I was too harsh in my evaluation of the return the Cards received. Jackson is a very solid pitcher, and both Dotel and Rzepczynski have contributed in a big way to the Cards' success in getting to where they currently stand, just two wins away from the World Series.
I still disagree with giving up on Colby Rasmus so soon, and I still think the trade was made for plenty of bad reasons. The Cardinals could have gotten the same upgrades they received in return for Colby by trading much less long-term value away separately, rather than using their one big bullet. But, credit where credit is due: John Mozeliak recognised the club's biggest problem, and addressed it, using a resource which he may not have been in a position to get full value for anyway thanks to his field manager's actions. I still think the way the club chose to address it was a mistake, but that doesn't change the fact they did an excellent job remaking a bullpen which was taking on water in a hurry early in the season.
Of course, simply giving the two veterans less rope at the beginning of the year, when it was obvious to everyone but the Cards themselves that neither one had anything left, would likely have made almost as big a difference. But I digress.
As it is currently constructed, the Cards' bullpen is strong enough to take on any of the clubs still playing. The only real fat left in the relief corps comes in the form of Arthur Rhodes, who hasn't been apocalyptically bad but still isn't anyone you want to count on that often, and Kyle McClellan, whose Houdini act is finally starting to show some serious wear around the edges.
The April or May version of the Cardinal bullpen doesn't hold the Brewers off to get the win last night. The October version does, and can do it again. And that may be the single biggest reason this finally looks like a team capable of living up to the potential it looked to have back when it was first put together.