Something Good from Something Bad

Jason Isringhausen's injury gives others a chance to step up. Tony La Russa thinks it will make his bullpen stronger in the long-term.

The wind was knocked out of the Cardinal Nation last week as closer Jason Isringhausen clutched his side in pain while pitching during the ninth inning on Wednesday. His abdominal strain came at a time when the Cardinals' pitching was in a serious groove and the offense's pulse was registering.

Coming into Saturday, the Cardinals had four different men collect saves in their last four victories. Yet, Saturday, the pen struggled, blowing their first save of the season. At least partially, Tony La Russa felt the home plate umpire contributed more to the loss than the relievers.

Still, La Russa believes he can squeeze lemonade from the proverbial lemons.

When asked directly, La Russa did not cite a single name in his seven-man bullpen in whom he would not trust with the ball for the last out. That says as much or more about his confidence-building with the players than does it probably reflect his true feelings.

Yet, two relievers have his greatest confidence.

"Tavarez and King both have experience and where possible, I will try to get them to finish it up. But, they may pitch in the seventh and eighth, if that is where you think you're going to need them."

Coming into 2005, right-hander Julian Tavarez had 17 career saves, including 11 in 2003 during his final season in Pittsburgh and four with the Cardinals last season. While surprisingly, lefty Ray King has but one major league save, earned in his rookie 2001 season with Milwaukee. Though, King has closed before. He had 16 in the minors and his career major league ERA of 3.08 illustrates his long-term success.

As he went on, La Russa provided a bit more insight into his current bullpen pecking order, mentioning three that he'd prefer not to use late.

"Depending on who is available that day, I don't think structuring it to where it would be Cali or Journell and even Jarvis, given what he's been doing. But, if it works out that those are the guys that are available, then you give them the ball, they make a pitch and you get an out. The big thing for a manager is to put them in good positions."

La Russa is always aware that nothing stays the same. He'd like nothing more than one or more of the young arms to step up. "A month or now, two months from now, it might be different," said Tony.

The skipper didn't suggest reading much into the fact that four different relievers had saves in the last week. "What is says to me more than anything is that those four have one in the book. We'll see who gets the next one."

Before Saturday night's blowup, La Russa comments on a hypothetical scenario of using Jim Journell in the ninth with five run lead. "It would be a nice thing to happen, but if it is a day he needs rest and we have a five run lead in the ninth, my gut says it would be better to give him an extra day. All things equal, I think anytime he can get in there, it would be good for him."

The manager checks with every member of his pen each day to assess their availability for that day's contest. After managing for over 20 years, La Russa thinks he can read his charges. He has no doubt that what he is told is the truth. "I think they've been scared enough..."

Still, there is not going to be a set pattern in bullpen usage. On using Tavarez in the eighth inning before Reyes and King Friday night, La Russa made it clear that he wouldn't have used Tavarez in the seventh, since the heart of the opposing order would appear again.

The veteran manager repeated an old axiom. "If you don't get them out in the eighth, you may not play the ninth. They had Giles and the middle of the lineup. Our best guy is Tavarez. If he gets them out, you go into the ninth and see how much he buys you. Then, you have the other two guys left."

There is little doubt that like any manager, La Russa prefers order in his pen and the predictability that ensues. "That's why when we were good, you had Tavarez in the eighth and Izzy in the ninth. Every time when we're going to win a game like that, it is like stealing."

It hasn't always been that way, where La Russa had his go-to guy to send out every day in the ninth. He looked back at some of the differences in having a firm closer versus not having one, as well as having the backup experience in guys like King and Tavarez. It clearly affects his managerial strategy and reduces the second-guessing.

"What you want is the closer (emphasis on the word, closer). I bet you half my career, I've had one and half the time, I haven't. If you don't have one, you're playing that "what if?" game for every inning. You're not just playing for the ninth inning. The reason this one is better is because before, we were having guys out there who didn't have ninth inning experience."

La Russa recalled a memorable time in his past that his team was picked up when their closer went down.

"In '89, as a matter of fact, Eck (Dennis Eckersley) went down for 40 games in the first half with a shoulder problem and we survived because we had (Rick) Honeycutt. I'd have to check the book, but he ended up with eight, ten, twelve saves."

La Russa feels that same way in May, 2005. "We'll have a chance because we have a King and Tavarez." It's was said in a way that the two are almost thought of as one.

An easy way for a less-experienced arm to earn La Russa's trust is to make quality pitches in tight spots. Lefty Randy Flores is building his portfolio with the counselor. In fact, La Russa is almost heaping the praise on the 29-year-old.

"He has plus stuff. And, he has a good arm. If he can pitch in the ninth or even the seventh or eighth, and make quality pitches, then we've come a long ways toward replacing (Steve) Kline." High expectations, indeed.

But, Flores is not alone in receiving encouragement from the manager.

"I'm pleased with what I see from Flores and Cali, and if Pulsipher is better than they are… That's why you don't know. If Journell pitches well, then we're not looking (for additional relief help). Jarvis pitched his rear off in Triple-A. If he pitches like that here, then we'll be ok. I'm not real concerned about it. I hope we get our offense going…"

One way not to impress the manager is for a reliever to pitch in a manner that they might think is aggressive. "There is a big difference in pitching aggressively. A lot of guys think that aggressive means to throw it down the middle. That isn't aggressive. Aggressive is airing out your stuff - putting it in nasty spots, where they can't get it. Getting an out."

Jim Journell could have heeded that advice on Saturday.

Humility is not something that everyone associates with La Russa, but he realizes the players have to play, while his role is to help them put them in the position to excel. That and having that guy you can count on to close out the opponent in the late innings.

"Whitey (Herzog) said a lot of smart things. One of the smartest things he said was "A manager is smart when he has a closer." La Russa went on to explain moves that he'd made the previous days that could have been second-guessed only because Izzy wasn't available. "You're going to take some shots and if they don't work…" his voice drifted off as his thoughts must have gone somewhere he didn't want to go.

La Russa isn't going to accept any excuses nor look for sympathy because his closer is out. In fact, he sees at it as an opportunity to better his team.

"The club is supposed to work around the closer's role. As long as he's out, if we have a chance to pull one out in a close game, it is worth a lot to us. When Izzy comes back, they'll all come out of there saying "Look, I got some big outs late in the game." And, they're going to be better for their spot."

As a result, the late-April and early-May lemonade should taste sweet all season long.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.


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