While Suppan, the Cardinals' designated big-game pitcher, has a chance to close out St. Louis' best-of-five National League Division Series against the Padres on Saturday, it's far from the first critical game he's pitched this season. In retrospect, it's clear that pretty much every time he took the mound in the second half of the regular season, Suppan was pitching a key game.
As the Cards limped to the finish line, barely nosing out Houston for the NL Central championship, they leaned heavily on Suppan every five days. He was at least arguably the club's best starter in the second half, going 6-2 with a 2.39 ERA.
So while Suppan is known in St. Louis for closing out both the Division Series and the NL Championship Series in 2004, don't sell short the games he pitched in the regular season in '06. Twice a 16-game winner as a Cardinal, he's never been more important than he was in compiling 12 victories this year.
"Each of his first two years, 16 is a big total," said manager Tony La Russa. "And you've got to give him special credit in '04, when he pitched the clinching game a couple of times. Those are all really important for the way those seasons went. This year in the second half, when we struggled so much, he's one guy who really was a consistent starter who would give us some wins."
Suppan's first playoff game was the clincher in the Division Series in 2004, when he shut down the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium in front of family and friends. He followed that up by pitching Game 7 of the NLCS, sending the Redbirds to their first pennant in 17 seasons.
"It was definitely way up there," Suppan said of the game in Los Angeles. "I don't know if I can rate all my games, but it definitely was a great feeling. I mean, we were going to the Championship Series, and I was able to celebrate with my family -- who I'm sure were more nervous than I was. So, obviously, that aspect was great. But actually, just to celebrate with my teammates was great."
A year ago, Suppan pitched the game that guaranteed the Cardinals would win the National League Central. Although they didn't actually pop champagne after a Sept. 15 win over the Cubs, Suppan's brilliant eight-plus innings secured the division title.
Even this season, Suppan took the mound in the game where the Cards clipped their magic number to one. On the second-to-last day of the regular season, he pitched St. Louis to victory over Milwaukee, meaning the Cards needed only a Houston loss to lock up a third straight championship.
So why is it that a man who has been teammates with Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder and Matt Morris keeps coming up with the spotlight performances?
Largely, it's because he doesn't treat those games any differently. He's vigilant about keeping the same quiet steadiness that serves him on a Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.
"I think when you keep it at the basics, you're able to control your emotions a little bit better," Suppan said. "Of course, you're going to have different feelings, maybe more adrenaline or more thoughts going in possibly. I think when you're able to just focus on that bottom line, it takes all those extra distractions away from your thoughts and puts them on the task at hand."
So how big is this game for Suppan? Is it at the top? Near the top?
"Every start is my biggest start, so I guess, yes, this would be my next biggest start," he said. "I think that you basically go out and every game is important. So I take every game the same, keep the same focus, the same preparation, that I do in every game, like I'm going to do this next game. So I'm going to keep everything the same and go out and make my pitches."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less