Unexpected talent

Low-dollar pitcher Jeff Suppan matches the Cards’ style well.
Tuesday, June 1, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:29 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

ST. LOUIS — Instead of going for Greg Maddux or Andy Pettitte, the St. Louis Cardinals settled for low-budget free agent Jeff Suppan in the offseason.

So far, they’re happy with their two-year, $6 million investment.

Suppan, a right-hander whose middling claim to fame is he is one of two players with a run of five straight 200-inning seasons (Mike Mussina of the Yankees is the other), is a solid 4-4 with a 3.83 ERA. He doesn’t throw too hard, between 88-91 mph. Of his nine starts, he has worked six or more innings seven times.

“You’re always looking for that premier pitcher,” pitching coach Dave Duncan said. “But seldom are they the type of guy you can get. He’s going to have more good days than bad days, and with a club like ours we felt like he was a good fit.”

Suppan has a 66-79 record, which kept his price tag down. He has moved around a lot, playing for five teams.

He won a career-high 13 games for the Pirates and Red Sox last year and his best game of that season was a seven-hit shutout in St. Louis in July right before the trade deadline.

“When he gets the lead, he smells it,” Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon said after losing to Suppan and the Cardinals last week. “He knows what he’s doing out there.”

This season Suppan has been a lot better on the road than at Busch Stadium, where he won for the first time in five decisions by beating the Pirates. Suppan is 3-0 with a 2.10 ERA on the road heading into today’s start at Pittsburgh.

After losing his first four starts at home, where he is 1-4 with a 5.40 ERA, he avoided any psychoanalysis.

“I try to work on the things that I may do well or may not do well,” Suppan said. “As you go out there for however many starts you get, I can’t think like I’ve never won here and that means I’m not going to win today.

“You try to keep the team in the game as long as you can.”

He also points out some unfavorable matchups. He allowed two runs in seven innings April 13 and got the loss against the Astros and Roger Clemens, and gave up three runs in eight innings May 1 in a 4-2 loss to the Cubs and Matt Clement, the outing marred only by Aramis Ramirez’s three-run, fourth-inning home run.

“I can’t think like I’ve never won here, so that means I’m not going to win today,” Suppan said. “You try to keep the team in the game as long as you can.”

Cody McKay, the Cardinals’ seldom-used backup catcher, has been behind the plate for all but two of Suppan’s starts. He likes the relationship they have developed.

“I caught him in spring training, and I guess Tony La Russa liked the way I caught him, so he stuck with it,” McKay said. “I think it also helps me in planning.”

McKay, a career minor leaguer before this year, has a lot of respect for Suppan’s professional approach.

“He’s really low maintenance,” McKay said. “I just let him pitch his game. He takes care of himself real well.”

The postgame interview session is the only area of the game in which Suppan doesn’t excel. He’s the master of the bland postgame quote, often prefacing his remarks with “I would have to say ...” and then saying not much.

Suppan is purposely noncontroversial. Vintage Suppan minimized the effect of an early six-run lead against the Pirates.

“I would say as a pitcher, as a starting pitcher, you really try to go pitch by pitch and focus on making pitches,” Suppan said. “Whether you have no runs or a lot of runs, you really have to get outs, and that’s the bottom line.”

The bottom line for the Cardinals is Suppan gets the job done.

“He’s got a lot of different weapons,” Duncan said. “When he’s got them working he’s very effective.”

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