10/13/11 1:59 AM ET
Bullpens take center stage in NLCS
By Jenifer Langosch / MLB.com
Only thing is, this duel had nothing to do with a pair of staff aces.
The road to the Cardinals' 4-3 win over the Brewers in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series had much less to do with Chris Carpenter than it did the job of the four who, from out of the right-field bullpen, followed him on the mound. Unexpectedly, it turned out to be the unfolding of the final four innings that proved most intriguing, a we'll-hold-'em-and-see-if-you-can-too challenge that both 'pens rose up and met.
"When I left the game after the fifth tonight, typically as a starting pitcher, you're concerned about that," Carpenter said. "You don't want to leave 12 outs for your bullpen. I was OK with it. I worked as hard as I could. I had confidence in my guys down there. I had confidence in what they were going to do. And they did it again."
Leading up to Game 3, the offenses of these two clubs had held a monopoly on attention. Such is to be expected when two clubs combine for 30 runs in the first two games. In the process, the bullpens had little opportunity to assist in or affect the outcome.
All that changed Wednesday, when St. Louis manager Tony La Russa pulled Carpenter and entrusted his 'pen to take care of a one-run lead. Milwaukee skipper Ron Roenicke went to his relievers in the sixth as well, their task obviously being to keep the game one swing away from a tie.
Most of the pre-series dissections gave the bullpen edge to the Brewers, particularly because of their strength in the back end of the 'pen. Get the ball to Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford and little could go wrong for Milwaukee.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, didn't appear to have the same stability, evidenced by the fact that they shuffled through closers all year long after Ryan Franklin flopped in the role.
Jason Motte has seized those ninth-inning reins now, but, as the group showcased in Game 3, it's now the depth of this St. Louis 'pen that stands as most impressive.
"We have guys who can do multiple things. That showed tonight," said Lance Lynn, who retired all four batters he faced. "We have guys who can go in and get outs when we need them. Our starter just needs to give us the best things he's got that night, and we're just going to try our best to win the game in the end."
That came in the form of 12 batters faced, 12 batters retired Wednesday. A group of four St. Louis relievers needed only 45 pitches to roll through those last four frames. Four of Milwaukee's final five hitters struck out, with Motte getting Casey McGehee to swing through a 98-mph fastball to lock up the victory.
The collective performance came one game after the relief corps combined to allow just one hit and one earned run in 4 2/3 innings.
"That's a quality bullpen," Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun said. "It's a deep bullpen. They have a couple of lefties, a lot of righties who throw hard and have command of their offspeed pitches. And Tony is always not afraid to go to his bullpen early, because he knows there are some tough matchups for us."
Though missing the same dominance, the Brewers' bullpen hardly wobbled much itself. Three Milwaukee relievers combined to toss three scoreless innings, allowing just one hit and one intentional walk and hitting a batter.
In a series that is far from completion, it was a critical collective bounceback after that same 'pen surrendered 10 hits and seven earned runs in Game 2.
"They did their job. We did ours," said Brewers reliever LaTroy Hawkins. "The thing about the playoffs is that everyone who makes it has good bullpens."
Success from Milwaukee's bullpen holds little news value, in that those relievers have formed one of the better NL relief units all year. The performance by St. Louis, however, is much more a recent development.
Through July 27, this is a group that blew 19 save opportunities and posted an undistinguished 4.03 ERA. But the arrival of Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski -- both of whom were acquired in an eight-player deal with the Blue Jays -- a day later changed the bullpen's complexion almost immediately.
All of a sudden, roles were much more natural to find, and the results reflected such. The 'pen finished the year with a 2.86 ERA, while holding opponents to a .217 batting average. And since Game 1 of the NL Division Series, that group has limited the Phillies and Brewers to 10 hits and four earned runs in 24 2/3 innings.
"That [gave] a lot of confidence to the bullpen, knowing that we have Rzepczysnki and Dotel," Fernando Salas said, with Dotel serving as an interpreter.
"With what we did at the Trade Deadline," Lynn added, "our bullpen is deep."
It's a particularly encouraging development for the Cards, who now hold home-field advantage along with a 2-1 series lead. Expect it to also challenge any assumption the Brewers might have had regarding that late-inning edge.
"I know early in the season they gave up some runs there," Roenicke said. "But like I said, when you have guys that are coming out and throwing that hard, they don't walk people, they have got good sliders, and they are not -- their arms are exactly how we thought they were."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.