Cards' bullpen young but confident
Inexperienced arms shouldering brunt of relief responsibility
ST. LOUIS -- From the River City Rascals to staring down Mike Piazza in a mere five years, Josh Kinney is just one of many improbable stories in the bullpen of the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals.
Once closer Jason Isringhausen went down with a hip injury, manager Tony La Russa had a month to get a feel for his new-look bullpen before postseason play. He pondered veteran Braden Looper as his ninth-inning option, but ultimately decided that Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend had it correct all along:
The kids are all right.
So the Cardinals are employing one of the least experienced relief corps you'll ever see in a League Championship Series. New closer Adam Wainwright, who had all of two Major League innings before this season, had made only two professional postseason relief appearances -- both of those in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2000. Kinney wasn't even invited to big-league Spring Training this year. Left-hander Tyler Johnson, a 2004 Rule 5 draftee, who was returned to the Cards, made five Major League appearances before 2006.
All told, five relievers appeared for Triple-A Memphis in 2005 before pitching for the Cards in the Division Series against the Padres. Three of them -- arguably the three most critical -- are rookies. They're essential cogs in a bullpen that was dominant in the Division Series. And they'll need to be outstanding again in order for the Cardinals to make their second World Series trip in three years.
"We know that we have some talented young pitchers," said pitching coach Dave Duncan. "I think they showed a lot of people what they're capable of doing in this series. The most important thing is that none of them really went out there and approached it in a nervous manner. They all went out there and approached it in a very confident manner. They pitched aggressively. They threw strikes. They trusted their stuff. And it worked out for them."
Isringhausen hates being out, but he's viewed the youngsters like a proud papa. He's taken Wainwright, in particular, into his counsel, offering the righty tips on how to handle the pressure of getting out No. 27.
"These kids are doing great," said the franchise's all-time saves leader. "It's fun to watch them do it. And they're doing it with a little pizzazz. They're having fun doing it, which has been very important. That's what I tell them.
"I told Adam [before Game 4]. I said, 'Hey, have you ever been swarmed on the mound before? Because no matter what the score, you're going to be in there.' I left in the eighth and I said, 'Have fun with it.' I just told him that's the main thing. Just have fun. You may never get the chance again, ever."
Looper, who closed in 2003, 2004 and 2005 for the Marlins and then the Mets, didn't pitch much in the Division Series. Not only has La Russa gone to Wainwright as his ninth-inning man, he turned to Kinney to pitch some of the biggest right-handed setup situations.
Kinney induced a key double play from Piazza in the eighth inning of the clinching game, capping his second important showing in a win. Kinney also got four outs in relief of Chris Carpenter in Game 1.
"Me and Josh go back a long way," said Carpenter. "When I was rehabbing in '03 when I first signed with the Cardinals, I met him in Florida. He was on the same team, and I moved up there to do some of my rehab starts. ... And I really thought that Josh -- from the time that I saw him in Florida to the time that I saw him in Double-A -- that he had the stuff to pitch in the Major Leagues. No question about it. He had the mind to pitch in the Major Leagues."
And then there's Johnson, who might have been a candidate for the MVP award in the Division Series if such a prize existed. He pitched in every game, recording key outs each time. Johnson got eight outs, six of them by strikeout, while allowing four baserunners and no runs.
"We're coming together and we're starting to feel comfortable," he said. "We're starting to really get that glue. It's an unbelievable feeling. You can't replace it. Everyone has just worked so hard, and this is what we're here to do."
The next round gets even tougher, with the Mets' offense a more potent attack than that of the Padres. Starting pitchers will have to work harder. La Russa and Duncan won't have rest days quite so often, so they may need to use relievers sparingly at times.
But if the youngsters' first taste of the big stage is any indication, they'll be just fine.
"I think our bullpen as a whole, but [Kinney and Johnson] especially, has really stepped up," said Wainwright. "They've pitched their butts off, pitched really well for us here. To never have been in situations like that and to come through the way they have is just unbelievable."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.