Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

STRAUSS: Uncertainty Offers Cards Only Bullpen Certainty

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

STRAUSS: Uncertainty Offers Cards Only Bullpen Certainty

Article excerpt

If there is a role in professional sports cloaked more in pop psychology, superstition and managerial butt covering than major league closer please tell me where to find it.

You're also invited to include a sentence on how to win without one in the modern game.

The Cardinals currently offer a notable case study: A franchise rife with young, power arms finds itself confronting a late-inning identity crisis due to closer Jason Motte's open-ended absence.

Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.

The industry envies their production line of hard throwers that include Mitchell Boggs, Trevor Rosenthal, Joe Kelly, Maikel Cleto and Eduardo Sanchez. Equipped with triple-digit velocity, Jorge Rondon labors in relative obscurity in Memphis. Converted starters Eric Fornatero and Michael Blazek add to the system's heat index. The Cardinals promoted five minor-league relievers to their 40-man roster last November. Yet April's story has focused more on lost chances than future promise.

"Nothing is more disheartening than an inability to close out a game," concedes John Mozeliak, who's seen this too often during his 6-year term as Cardinals general manager.

The Redbirds entered Thursday's opener in Philadelphia leading the National League Central and boasting the league's third-best overall ERA (3.31). However, numbers split abruptly between the rotation (2.19 ERA) and a bullpen that ranked last in the league with a 6.18 ERA. The NL bullpen average stood at 4.13. Only the Phillies and Chicago Cubs pens had allowed an on-base percentage greater than the Cards' .354 figure.

This is small-sample theater; less than 10 percent of the season is complete. A team's personality may still change abruptly before June.

One of only two NL teams with four blown saves, the Cardinals can hope for such a transformation. Though shut out twice in their first 14 games, they can make a case for an 11-3 start without the bullpen hijinks.

Offensive numbers tend to seek the mean. The Cardinals surely won't continue to hit .392 with runners in scoring position. Likewise, they're certain to improve on their .202 average without runners at second or third.

An uncertain bullpen can bleed for months as the 2003, 2011 and 2012 teams proved. The parent club's distress has been mirrored at Memphis, where Victor Marte fumbled three of his first four save chances and Sanchez landed on the disabled list with a forearm strain. Cleto's inconsistent command remains at issue as does his straight, but triple-digit fastball.

Such chaos cost the Cardinals a postseason berth in 2003 despite scoring 876 runs. It took a major renovation around the 2011 trade deadline to salvage that season.

Mozeliak believes this mess is easier to clean up than a year ago, when Chris Carpenter's nerve-related shoulder weakness prompted Lance Lynn's move to the rotation. …

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