Erratic bullpens will help determine what is now best-of-three Series
ARLINGTON, Texas -- At the conclusion of the first inning on Sunday night, in which Rangers starter Derek Holland retired the Cardinals' side in order, including a strikeout of scorching hot Allen Craig and a groundout from history-making Albert Pujols, Texas reliever Mike Adams turned toward bullpen-mate Scott Feldman and offered a prediction.
"We might get 'Complete Game Derek' tonight," Adams said.
"We might get 'Shutout Derek,'" Feldman replied.
Neither was exactly right -- Holland threw 8 1/3 shutout innings before closer Neftali Feliz got the final two outs as the Rangers won 4-0 to even the World Series at two games apiece -- but the prevailing sentiment rang home.
Perhaps no group benefited more from Holland's brilliant outing than the Rangers' relief corps. It was the first time this postseason that a Texas starter had even completed seven innings, much less more than eight, and meant that the mostly-excellent but heavily-taxed bullpen would -- aside from Feliz, who threw 17 pitches and was coming off two days of rest -- be given a much-needed extra day off.
"Tonight we got a great start," Adams said. "It helped the bullpen tremendously. I think we'll be a little bit reloaded tomorrow and ready to go."
Much of the pre-Series attention focused on the wizardry of the Rangers' and Cardinals' bullpens, which were an essential component in helping those teams get to the Fall Classic, especially once they brought in reinforcements at midseason (Adams and Mike Gonzalez for the Rangers and Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel for the Cardinals). But both 'pens had surprising struggles during the first four games, and with the Series now a best-of-three, it is once again likely that the team with the better-performing bullpen will emerge victorious.
Among those who haven't been as effective as they were in the first two rounds are Cardinals closer Jason Motte and Rangers set-up man Alexi Ogando. Motte had allowed just one baserunner in his first eight innings of the postseason but was yanked in the ninth inning of Game 2 after allowing the first two batters to reach in a one-run game and hasn't pitched since. Ogando emerged as a star in the first two rounds, giving up just one run in seven outings, but he has surrendered key run-scoring hits in each of his three appearances in this series.
Ogando allowed four runs while getting just one out in Game 3, a night in which he was far from the only Texas reliever to be hit hard. Five Rangers relievers allowed 11 runs in 5 1/3 innings, the fourth-highest run total allowed by a bullpen in a single World Series game. This came after the bullpen had given up just 11 runs in 47 innings (2.11 ERA) in the first 12 games of the postseason and notched five wins, tied for fourth-most by relievers for any team in postseason history.
The story of the Cardinals' bullpen was similar. They yielded 13 earned runs in their first 47 1/3 innings through World Series Game 2 (a 2.47 ERA) before allowing four runs in six innings in Game 3. In Game 4, Mitchell Boggs gave up a three-run homer to Mike Napoli in the sixth, crucial insurance runs that effectively killed St. Louis' chances, as it never sent the tying run to the plate for the rest of the game.
Boggs said after the game that he thought he had a pretty good outing except for the one bad pitch to Napoli, and he's exactly right. Boggs remained in the game and got five outs, forming an effective bridge from starter Edwin Jackson (who only went 5 1/3 innings) to Jake Westbrook, the converted starter who's the last man in the bullpen (and pitched the final three outs for the Cardinals). That rested St. Louis' other bullpen stalwarts: Lance Lynn, Dotel, Rzepczynski and Motte.
As the series enters what effectively becomes a best-of-three to determine the world champion, Holland's outing helped balance the remaining pitching by resting a Texas bullpen that was starting to feel the effects of abundant use. In fact, both bullpens -- save maybe Boggs and Ogando (who has made 10 relief appearances this postseason despite starting in 29 of 31 outings during the regular season) -- should be at or near maximum efficiency entering Monday's pivotal Game 5.
That's been rare for both clubs this month in which relievers have been relied upon to shoulder a significant burden. Texas manager Ron Washington made 36 pitching changes in the ALCS and first three games of the World Series, an average of four per game; St. Louis manager Tony La Russa had made 42, or 4.7 per game.
Few relievers ever admit that they feel fatigue, and entering playoff situations -- often in close games and with runners on base -- negates that feeling.
"Once you get out in the game, especially here in the postseason, adrenaline kind of takes over," said Feldman, whose 11 2/3 innings lead all relievers.
Routines have been hard to come by. Most relievers like knowing which inning they're most likely to appear, but the carpe-diem nature of the postseason has made the intended recipient of calls to the bullpen into a guessing game.
"It's been crazy down there the last couple of weeks, but it's part of playoff baseball," Boggs said the day before the World Series began. "You never know what's going to happen, but you do whatever you can to win. It's been fun for the bullpen to have as much success as we've had.
"Any time that you can develop a routine and stick to that, it helps you out, but at this point we're all down there ready for anything. The routine goes out the window, and you just be ready to throw yourself in any situation."
Adams has only pitched one inning in this World Series, back in Game 2, so he's now had three days' rest, which could make him an unlikely secret weapon for the rest of the series. He also said the fact that he warmed up and threw in the bullpen during the eighth inning of Game 4 would prevent him from getting his usual stiffness from inactivity.
"Usually the more consecutive days I throw, the better I feel, but we're late in the season right now, so it's kind of tricky," Adams said. "Some days you feel good right now. Some days you don't feel so good."
There's the rub. At this juncture of the season -- the Rangers have played 176 games and the Cardinals 177 -- all bets are off, especially given the heavy recent workload at the back of the bullpens.
"Anytime you get a start like that, it's awesome. Anytime you can win the game, that's better," Feldman said. "I think the biggest thing with Derek's performance is that we were down 2-1, and now we're right back in this thing."