JUPITER, Fla. — Arriving for the first time at the St. Louis Cardinals' spring training clubhouse, Scott Linebrink plopped down an Atlanta Braves equipment bag in front of his locker stall.
It was a vivid reminder of the front row seat the relief pitcher had during the collapse that helped the Cardinals make their improbable World Series title drive last fall. The Braves were 9-18 in September, and the 35-year-old right-hander took the loss in a 13-inning setback to the Phillies on the final day that gave St. Louis the NL wild card.
"It was crazy. It was like a three-week car wreck watching it in slow motion," Linebrink said. "I felt like we had as good of a team as I've played on and I definitely thought we'd go deep in the playoffs, but we just, we ran out of gas. It was hard to watch, knowing how good we were for 5 1/2 months."
Linebrink surrendered the go-ahead run on a two-out bloop single by Hunter Pence off the fists that dropped between first baseman Freddie Freeman and second baseman Dan Uggla, barely making it to the outfield grass.
"Somebody the other day was talking about that Pence hit that beat us and they were like 'Who was that pitching?' Uh, it was me," Linebrink said, chuckling.
A few months of separation has provided perspective. Linebrink said the Atlanta bullpen was overworked because of a mostly young rotation that didn't usually go deep into game.
"I think a 162-game season has a way of working itself out and the best team always wins. You can't slide into anything," Linebrink said. "The best team won, but it wasn't a whole lot of fun being on the team that lost that spot on the last day of the season."
By the second day of workouts for pitchers and catchers, the Braves bag was gone.
"They probably threw it away," Linebrink said. "Good riddance."
The Cardinals signed Linebrink to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training, and is envisioned as an elder statesman type who can help school a mostly young bullpen. He's been a consistently solid middle reliever for five other teams, and was 4-4 with a 3.64 ERA in 64 games last season with Atlanta.
St. Louis was his first choice in free agency among a handful of offers, one of which included a roster spot. He's long admired the city and the organization's reputation. Not to mention the Cardinals are coming off their second title in five seasons and have the look of a contender despite losing Albert Pujols in free agency, manager Tony La Russa to retirement and pitching coach Dave Duncan, who didn't return so he could focus on his wife's medical recovery.
"When I would make a list of pros and cons going anywhere, there's always a few cons," Linebrink said. "But when you're talking about St. Louis, I can't think of anything bad. You go to a team that's ready to win immediately."
Linebrink has averaged little more than an inning for his 607 career appearances, but showed the Cardinals some work ethic on Monday. He was still throwing off a practice mound several pitches after the other three that had been in the same group had shut it down, estimating his session lasted 45 pitches.
He's one of probably nine pitchers competing for seven spots in St. Louis.
"The majority of his innings were late in the game on a team that had a great season," new manager Mike Matheny said. "I think he brings a lot to the table."