The Duncan brothers have been an unexpected big hit, but their old man has quietly pulled off a bigger surprise
This is an article from the Sept. 3, 2007 issue
ONE MID-AUGUST night the Slugging Duncan Brothers were all over the highlight shows. Chris, 26, the Cardinals' leftfielder, was shown drilling a double for his 60th RBI in a win over the Brewers. Shelley, just shy of 28 and a rookie utilityman for the Yankees, got airtime for swatting a game-tying three-run homer in the ninth against the Orioles.
Sitting stone-faced as usual in the shadows of the dugout that same evening was their father, Dave, the St. Louis pitching coach. Though he didn't make the highlights, he had a pretty good day at the office too. His latest reclamation project, 28-year-old righthander Joel Pi√±eiro, threw seven strong innings against Milwaukee for his second straight win. It was the eighth of what would be 10 straight quality starts by Duncan's patchwork rotation—a run that produced seven wins and lifted the defending World Series champs, who were eight games back in the NL Central as recently as Aug. 5, into the pennant race. After Sunday, the Cards were two games behind the Cubs.
Long regarded as having the finest pitching mind west of Leo Mazzone, the 62-year-old Duncan must have passed along some hitting tips to his sons along the way. A one-tool masher, Shelley instantly became a Yankee Stadium darling when he homered five times in his first 22 at bats following his call-up on July 20. At week's end Chris was second on the Cardinals in home runs (20) and RBIs (62). "He's been cheering on Shelley and me all year, but, really, he doesn't have time to give advice or worry about us too much," Chris says of his father. "He's had his hands full."
In the off-season St. Louis lost starters Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver and Jason Marquis to free agency; then, before this season was two weeks old, 2005 Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter hurt his arm and was gone for the year. To climb back into the race in the admittedly weak NL Central, the Cardinals have relied on a solid bullpen (box, below) and an improbable rotation of Adam Wainwright and Braden Looper, former relievers who had logged 163 1/3 and 139 2/3 innings, respectively, after not having pitched more than 86 innings in a season; Kip Wells and Anthony Reyes, a pair of starters who at the All-Star break were on pace to lose 20 and 19 games; and Pi√±eiro, who last year had the worst ERA among major league starters (6.36) but was 3-1 in five starts after being acquired from the Red Sox on July 31.
St. Louis's 3.90 ERA for August was second in the NL to the Padres' 3.75. "Looking at their team, you wouldn't necessarily think starting pitching would be their strength," says Braves manager Bobby Cox, "but their pitching has gotten them back into the hunt, and I think that's a credit to the coaching."
Known for his exhaustive preparation—his scouting reports on each opponent fill up a thick binder—-Duncan has made a career out of remaking broken pitchers, from Dennis Eckersley and Dave Stewart in Oakland to Carpenter in St. Louis. (According to the noted sabermatrician J.C. Bradbury, Duncan's tutelage lowers a pitcher's ERA by 0.35.) Now it's Pi√±eiro's turn. "One of the first times he watched me pitch, he said, 'Relax your hands,'" says Pi√±eiro. "I said, 'That's it?' But that one change made my delivery so much smoother." (Actually, Duncan also told him that he'd been tipping his off-speed pitches.)
Enjoying his sons' successes, helping the Cards get back to the postseason—these aren't the dog days after all. "It's been fun watching the boys, and now that we've been winning, it's been even better," he says. "And, yeah, pretty emotional too."
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How does St. Louis hang around .500 despite having been outscored by 68 runs at week's end? A major reason is the reliability of the bullpen, particularly after a starter has a strong outing. When they get a quality start (defined as giving up three runs or fewer while pitching at least six innings), the Cardinals are 43-12. That .782 winning percentage is significantly better than the major league average of .699 in those circumstances. In fact, St. Louis has the best such winning percentage in the National League, just ahead of the Dodgers' (46-13, .780) and the Mets' (56-16, .778); the Mariners are the only team in the majors with a better mark (43-11, .796) than the Cards'. Much of this success is attributable to closer Jason Isringhausen (above), who has converted 20 of 21 save opportunities following quality starts (and 27 of 29 overall).