10/05/09 3:21 AM ET
Franklin prepared to kick it up a notch
Cardinals reliever has been to playoffs, but not as closer
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
Franklin was a rookie reliever on the 2001 Seattle Mariners, a juggernaut of a team that rolled to 116 regular-season wins. But he didn't get to pitch in the postseason for that club, and he's waited ever since for a chance to get back. It would have been difficult to envision it happening like this, though.
In his first full year as a closer at any level, Franklin will be pitching the ninth inning in October for the National League Central champion Cardinals. He came up through the Mariners' system as a starter, and that was his job until the Phillies put him in the bullpen in 2006. He signed with the Redbirds hoping to compete for a rotation spot in 2007, but once again was shunted to the bullpen.
Even then, it wasn't the glamor work. Franklin was pitching the middle innings, mostly setting up, until Jason Isringhausen's injury-riddled and ineffective 2008 campaign forced him into the ninth inning. Even after Isringhausen departed, and the Cardinals were unable to add a closer in free agency, Franklin appeared to be second or third in the competition to take ninth-inning duties in 2009.
A week into the season, though, he was the guy. And he's thrived, for the most part. Now, though, he will test himself when the games matter most. Franklin's first career playoff appearance will likely come with his team holding a slim lead and needing three outs to finish it off. No pressure, big guy.
"I'm looking forward to seeing how I take it," he said. "I think I can control my emotions and mind enough to stay focused out there. I think that would be the only thing that would kind of be a problem for me, and I don't see that happening."
Manager Tony La Russa expressed total confidence in Franklin on Sunday. He said he doesn't worry one bit about the right-hander's lack of October experience, and that Franklin is indisputably, immutably his closer.
"Postseason experience cuts both ways," the manager said. "You can actually be a bit smug about it and you lose an edge. That nice, healthy fear that you're going to screw up gets you crossing your T's and dotting your I's. I think he'll be fine."
Franklin garnered an All-Star selection, his first, for a bulletproof first half. He converted 21 of 22 save chances, posted an ERA of 0.79 and issued all of seven walks in 34 innings. He was brilliant, and one of the biggest reasons the Cardinals made it to the second half with a division lead.
However, he's faded a bit in the second half. His post-break ERA is a much more typical 3.33, he's blown four of 21 save opportunities and his walk rate has skyrocketed. He hasn't been bad, but he has been human.
If the slip was a result of fatigue, however, there's reason for optimism. Franklin has scarcely pitched down the stretch. Over the season's final 15 days, he appeared in a total of three games. It's a good-news, bad-news situation, since most relievers feel they need to pitch in order to stay sharp, but at the same time the Cardinals have made it a priority to keep Franklin from being overworked.
"Unless it's absolutely impossible, I'm a half-full guy," La Russa said. "So for example, if he had to save three games this weekend to get us in, we'd be worried, 'Is his arm heavy for Wednesday?' ... He's going to feel fresh Wednesday. I like the half-full part of that. I think he'll be fresh and strong."
Franklin has maintained all along that he's felt strong. And his stuff seems to reflect that. His strikeout rate has been better since Sept. 1 than at any other time during the year. It's the command that's an issue. But fleeting command might well be the result of a simple slump, rather than a dead arm.
That's the hope. After all, a slump is fixable. Pitchers battle command issues all the time, and the good ones find their way back to where they need to be. And Franklin has established himself to be, if not the sub-1.00-ERA monster of the first half, a very good reliever.
"I know I'm not going to be tired going into the playoffs," he said. "As far as sharpness, I think that I've been pitching long enough that I'm not going to have any problems walking guys or anything like that."
And he doesn't expect to shy from the challenge. Franklin has been looking forward to this. He's been waiting a long time to pitch in the playoffs, and now that it's close, he's doubly eager to get going.
"I think about it," he said. "I think about it, but it's kind of hard to visualize who I'm going to be facing, going over the hitters in my head. But I go over the scenarios all the time."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.