The Five Hole With Chris Gift

The Cardinals need to make a decision about who is going to be the closer when the playoffs begin, it should be a simple decision.

Question 1, multiple choice: Which of the following is the most obvious?

1. The water in the Mississippi River is brown.

2. A leopard runs faster than a cow.

3. Jason Isringhausen isn't healthy.

While not wanting to set up a race between a leopard and a cow, or walk down to the riverfront, knowing that Izzy hasn't been 100% this season shouldn't be viewed as a shock.

Izzy's numbers this year have taken an extreme plunge. Granted, as Izzy does age - he turned 34 last week, and from the Cardinals' Opening Day roster this year, only Ricardo Rincon (anybody remember him?), Jim Edmonds, and So Taguchi are older - his numbers should slowly decline, but not with the extreme acceleration that they have this season.

Cardinal fans aren't happy with Isringhausen's performance this year, and frankly, shouldn't be. Izzy's blown saves are up this year, and while it is not an official stat, he only has eight "no-brainer" saves, the amount of saves he has had this year where he didn't allow a base runner.

An argument for Izzy is that he is only six saves off of his 2005 total (39 in 2005, 33 so far in 2006). But he has already pitched as many innings this year as he did last year (59.0 last year, 58.0 this year). His ERA has jumped from 2.14 in '05 to 3.54 this year.

Izzy played in the All-Star game last season, and despite his sub-par numbers this year, he should have gone again.

The answer to the pop quiz at the top of this column is choice three, and the answer was known before Izzy admitted it last week.

That being said, it is now up to Cardinal management (since we're after both trading deadlines now, Walt Jocketty isn't as important in this decision as Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan are) to be decisive and do what is best for the team.

Question 2, not multiple choice: What is best for the team?

Short answer: Adam Wainwright

There is a precedent that can be followed within the organization, and a current example with another major league team that both illustrate success. Although it was done under the past managerial dynasty (Dal Maxvill, Whitey Herzog and Mike Roarke), when looking at the results and success, it may be hard for this current regime to overlook the similarities between Todd Worrell's minor league stats and success as a major league closer and the numbers that Wainwright had in his minor league career, both in the Cardinal organization and while in the Braves' system.

Jonathon Paplebon will win Rookie of the Year in the American League for Boston. He'll win fireman of the year in the AL, and if he doesn't win the Cy Young Award, he'll finish in the top five, and might even get a few votes for MVP. He'll also be in the Red Sox starting rotation next season.

It is very understandable that Wainwright is looked upon as a vital cog in the Cardinals' starting rotation in 2007 and beyond. Wainwright has shown all the makings of a quality major league starter and with at least two rotation spots being up for grabs next year (figure that Chris Carpenter, Jeff Suppan, and Jeff Weaver will be back, Mark Mulder will either be gone or injured, and Jason Marquis has no chance of being back) it seems natural that he is one of the five next year.

The team has all but made the playoffs, so the team should be worried about winning games in October. The two keys to a successful October are clutch hitting, and steady if not dominant pitching. Since the team has the league's best pitcher (Carpenter) and two of the three best all around players in the league (Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Philadelphia's Ryan Howard), clutch hitting and steady/dominant pitching shouldn't be all that difficult to achieve.

But here's the catch: bullpens are best built from the ninth inning forward. Look at the 2004 team. A dominant Isringhausen in the ninth inning, and a starting staff that averaged just over 6 1/3 innings per start meant that between Julian Tavarez, Ray King, Steve Kline and Cal Eldred, only had to account for eight outs.

If La Russa does the right thing and installs a rookie closer, and gets starting pitching from Carpenter, Suppan and Weaver that they are all capable of delivering, and gives Braden Looper the ball in the eighth inning, then there is only one inning to worry about.

While it sounds extremely simple, and is easier said than done, finding a way to get from the sixth inning to the eighth inning may be the key to winning a pennant.


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