In August, Springfield Cardinals manager Dann Bilardello made it clear that his club was playing six-inning games, a luxury due to his trio of standout back-end relievers. Three S-Cards relievers earned 10 saves or more during the regular season, as Josh Lucas led the way with 16 saves and Ronnie Shaban and Kevin Herget converted 10 apiece.
Thus, it was a shorter game.
“At any time, in any situation, all of us could have gone in there and got the job done," Herget, recently said. "We played a lot of close games throughout the year, and as long as we had the lead past the sixth, no matter who went in, we had confidence that they were going to get the job done.
"The bullpen in Springfield was a very solid group of guys," the reliever said.
Bilardello, whose staff ranked sixth in the Texas League with a 3.74 ERA, echoed Herget's sentiment.
"I trust all four of them in late-game situations, so whoever is ready that day gets it," he said in August.
The fourth, Chris Perry, also played a factor in high-leverage situations for the Springbirds, picking up a team-best seven holds before his results wavered down the stretch. Perry, a high-three-quarter throwing righty, posted 2.79 ERA in the first half versus 4.07 in the second half ERA. He addressed the late-season struggles as fastball command based as a result of "wasting at-bats when I got ahead with my breaking ball, but couldn't put them away with the fastball."
Because of roster turnover, Springfield's bullpen was worked hard and often taxed. At times when the starting pitching faltered, the bullpen was left to compensate. In some cases, the staff worked in harmony, forcing swingman type roles and leading to bullpen-led wins that carried the club.
It looked to be a difficult process to decide this year's The Cardinal Nation Springfield Reliever of the Year as the four candidates mentioned above played a significant role in the team’s overall success that culminated in the franchise's first playoff appearance since 2012.
Although, one reliever separated himself from the rest.
Josh Lucas is our choice as TCN's Springfield Reliever of the Year for 2016. The low-arm slot righty led all S-Cards relievers in saves (16), strikeouts (61), WHIP (1.12), and games finished (24) thanks to a fastball that ranged in the 92-94 range with sink and run along with a tight slider.
"(The season) definitely had its ups and downs," Lucas said. "Overall, I thought the season went well enough to help the team get some wins and get into the playoffs."
Lucas said the best thing about his 2016 season was being a Texas League mid-season All-Star, especially with the midsummer classic being held at Hammons Field.
"I'll always remember that experience," he concluded.
The Lakeland, FL native said he struggled with his mechanics early in the season, but felt he was able to gain comfort and repeat which led to consistent command. Lucas is focused on avoiding that issue this offseason.
The runner-up to Lucas was TCN's 2015 Springfield Reliever of the Year, Ronnie Shaban. The righty out of Virginia Tech was just as deserving, but Lucas was the team's closer, and his strikeout to walk ratio was better along with his ability to minimize hits per inning.
However, Shaban was again the Cardinals workhorse, leading the staff with 42 appearances and logging the most innings of any reliever. The results were there, as well, as he compiled an 8-3 record with 3.11 ERA and 10 saves in 12 opportunities.
"Overall, this season was successful," Shaban stated. "As a team, we came up a bit short but had a great year. The second half of the year I was able to make some adjustments, and some things clicked for me to allow me to finish strong."
The 26-year old said he was able to sustain consistent fastball command and started employing his slider more than he had in the past.
"This offseason I will continue to work to sharpen my pitches," he said," and get ready for a strong 2017."
Although he spent a very successful month and a half as High-A Palm Beach's closer to open the season, Kevin Herget struggled to catch up with the Texas League initially, allowing six earned runs in his first 7 1/3 innings in May before surrendering only eight earned runs over his final 30 2/3 innings.
Needless to stay, the righty caught up to the level, and his adjustments were mental.
"My objective was to pitch to the best of my ability and whatever happens; happens," Herget said. "When I first got to Springfield, I was trying to do too much, but ended up settling down once I stopped trying to do too much and just pitch."
Herget implements a traditional mix of a fastball, change, and curve. He said the fastball and change have always been there, but it was the curve that he gained confidence to throw for strikes and in the dirt; late in counts. The 25-year old will have about a month off before he will be off to Puerto Rico to play winter ball for Indios de Mayaguez.
"There, I am trying to get more innings," he said, "and work on being a little more consistent with all of my pitches as well as fine tune before 2017."
As mentioned, Chris Perry also played a role in the Cardinals late-inning situations in 2016. Through 37 games, the 26-year old had a 3.38 ERA over 53 1/3 innings pitched, striking out 60 batters against 40 walks against Texas League foes.
"I think overall my 2016 season was a success," Perry said. "I fell off a bit at the end, but that is part of the ups and downs. I was very pleased with (the results) of my breaking ball."
Regarding his adjustments this offseason:
"They will be fine-tuning my mechanics," he said. "Trying to find the disconnect between days I am sharp and days I'm erratic. Basically, overall consistency. "
Congratulations to The Cardinal Nation Springfield Cardinals Reliever of the Year for 2016, Josh Lucas.
Link to master article with all 2016 award winners, team recaps and article schedules for the remainder of this series. Of course, that will include our selections as the Springfield Cardinals Starting Pitcher and Player of the Year.
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
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