ST. LOUIS — More than timely offense was responsible for the St. Louis Cardinals’ three straight comeback victories last week.
Without stingy work from a rebuilt bullpen, the rallies wouldn’t have been possible. Entering a three-game series against the Chicago Cubs today, the relievers haven’t allowed a run in their past 10 home games.
The streak covers 32 1/3 innings. The relievers have also been close to untouchable on the road, with a June ERA of 1.22.
The bullpen has been good enough for the NL Central leaders to go with three catchers and a six-man bullpen.
Manager Tony La Russa prefers having 12 pitchers, but the team optioned right-hander Jason Simontacchi to Triple-A Memphis last week when it activated Mike Matheny from the 15-day disabled list.
“We’re just playing baseball the way we’re capable of playing,” closer Jason Isringhausen said. “We’re not doing anything to shoot ourselves in the foot.
“Our starters are going deep and then we’ve got five quality arms to get the last six outs, so La Russa can carousel us around to get the outs we need.”
Isringhausen, back among the game’s top closers after missing the first half of last year after shoulder surgery, has thown 15 saves in 18 opportunities. In 31 1/3 innings, he has 30 strikeouts.
The guys who pitch earlier in the game are as important. Newcomers Julian Tavarez and Ray King are key additions, a righty-lefty mix that perhaps represents the Cardinals’ best offseason moves.
Tavarez has appeared in 34 games, going 1-0 with a 2.73 ERA and has two saves in two chances. King has appeared in 37 games, going 1-0 with a 1.35 ERA, and hasn’t allowed a run in 22 games covering 15 1-3 innings since May 3.
Steve Kline, the other lefty, is back on his game after a so-so 2003 season, going 1-1 with a 2.59 ERA. Kiko Calero, a right-hander coming off a serious knee injury last year, has retired the past 13 batters he has faced and has 14 strikeouts and two walks in 16 2/3 innings.
Right-hander Cal Eldred, who has a staff-high 5.54 ERA but has shown signs of right-
ing himself after a slow start, is the only member of the bullpen who has struggled.
All five pitchers have closing experience, so tight, late situations don’t intimidate them.
On Thursday, Eldred, Simontacchi and King held the fort after Jeff Suppan, in a hard-luck outing, left trailing 4-1 after five innings. The Cardinals rallied for their first ninth-inning comeback of the season on pinch hitter Reggie Sanders’ RBI single, capping a 5-4 victory.
“Think about it,” La Russa said. “The way that game was played, if they mark at all this game’s probably over.”
On Friday, it was Tavarez’ turn to keep the game close for another comeback, which Albert Pujols’ 10th-inning home run capped.
“When you’ve got a one-run lead like they did, if you can stop them then we’ve got a shot,” La Russa said. “We’ve got our weapons, too.”
On Saturday, as the Cardinals won their sixth straight, relievers retired four of the last five hitters while the offense came alive with eight runs the last two innings to make a 9-2 winner out of Williams. Kline got the big outs when he retired Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn while nursing a two-run lead to start the eighth.
“They’ve done a great job all year,” Williams said. “After they scored the runs for me, there was no doubt in my mind they were going to hold on.”