Cards' 'pen shows growth, confidence

Cards' 'pen shows growth, confidence

NEW YORK -- Something happened to the Cardinals' bullpen on the way to the postseason.

They found confidence at just the right time. And now, it's paid off.

Although the relief corps allowed its first run in the 2006 playoffs on Friday, it did more than enough to help the Redbirds come back for a stunning 9-6 win over the Mets in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series at Shea Stadium.

"Our guys have really picked it up," said manager Tony La Russa of his bullpen, which has allowed only one run in 19 2/3 innings this postseason. "It's been fun to watch because they don't go out there with a lot of experience, and they have got good arms and they're excited. It's been a big reason why we're here in the postseason, and they got a bunch of big outs today."

After the Mets rocked Chris Carpenter for six hits and five runs in five innings to post a 5-4 lead, five Cardinals relievers combined to hold the Mets' offense to one hit and one run the rest of the game. Meanwhile, the Redbirds mounted a comeback off the usually reliable Mets 'pen -- which ranked first in the National League during the regular season -- started by Scott Spiezio's triple in the seventh that produced two runs. It was later capped by the Cards' three-run outburst in the ninth, highlighted by So Taguchi's solo homer off Mets closer Billy Wagner, that won the game.

"Our young guys have stepped it up and really faced the pressure amazingly," said Spiezio, who went 2-for-4 with three RBIs in place of Scott Rolen. "You need a clutch bullpen when you get into the postseason, and our bullpen has been unbelievable."

Not that anyone expected it after Jason Isringhausen, the organization's all-time saves leader, went down for the season after having surgery on his arthritic left hip in September.

But La Russa said the influence of Isringhausen, as well as a visit from Cal Eldred late in September, has helped the 'pen find success late in the season.

A hands-off approach has also been applied.

"Dunc doesn't allow me to talk to our pitchers," joked La Russa, in regards to pitching coach Dave Duncan. "[The] only thing I'm allowed to say when I get in there is, 'Here, get a pitch and get an out.'"

And besides a run allowed by Josh Hancock in the sixth, that's exactly what the 'pen did.

Hancock started the inning in relief of Carpenter and -- after striking out Anderson Hernandez and walking Jose Reyes -- allowed a double to Paul Lo Duca, which increased the Mets' lead to 6-4. But La Russa then handed the ball to Randy Flores, who forced the Mets' two deadliest hitters, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado, into groundouts to second to end the inning.

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Flores pitched the seventh and escaped unscathed despite allowing a two-out single to Jose Valentin.

But after the Redbirds tied the game in the seventh, the bullpen's biggest test of the postseason came in the eighth.

Josh Kinney began the inning and struck out Julio Franco, who was pinch-hitting in the ninth spot. Reyes then singled off the 27-year-old rookie, who then walked Lo Duca. With Shea Stadium's record-setting crowd of 56,349 rocking, it looked like the young right-hander would fold under pressure.

"You can't let the atmosphere and everything that's going on away from home plate and the pitcher's mound affect what you're going to do," said Kinney. "You just have to take it in stride, maybe take a little bit more time, keep your composure out there and try to make your pitches."

Kinney did just that. After Beltran fouled off several pitches with two strikes, Kinney induced Beltran into a double play to end the inning. The battle with Beltran, who had 41 home runs this year, proved that the young bullpen has grown by leaps and bounds since Isringhausen's departure.

"It's awesome," said Flores. "That was me last year, so I know what they're feeling. And to know that they're competing and executing what they feel, it's impressive. It's also impressive to see those three guys do it after taking some heat some of the year. It would be one thing if they came here, they were hot, got even hotter, made headlines and carried it into the playoffs.

"To face what they've faced, and to compete on this stage and execute, is something that they should be proud of."

After the Cardinals scored three runs off Wagner in the ninth, Tyler Johnson struck out Delgado and gave way to Adam Wainwright, who forced out David Wright and Shawn Green to end the game.

"We're doing good so far, but it's not over yet," said Wainwright. "We've got to keep going."

But for a bullpen that had to play second fiddle to the vaunted Mets corps heading into the playoffs, it looks like things have shifted in favor of the Cards. Just as long as La Russa keeps handing them the ball.

Chris Girandola is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.