HOUSTON — Suddenly, it’s the St. Louis Cardinals questioning the quality of their middle relief in the NL championship series.
After winning the first two games by knocking around the early men in Houston’s bullpen, the Cardinals saw their set-up guys fail to bail them out of trouble Sunday for the second straight game.
Kiko Calero allowed a leadoff home run and a tying single in the sixth inning, then Julian Tavarez gave up the winning run on another home run in the seventh, sending the Astros to a 6-5 victory that tied the series at two games apiece. Game 5 is Monday night.
In Game 3 on Saturday, the Cardinals were within a run until the eighth, when Danny Haren and Ray King each allowed a home run.
Of Houston’s 11 runs the past two games, five came off relievers, none of them closer Jason Isringhausen.
“We just didn’t get it done, but tomorrow is Game 5, not Game 7,” King said. “We’re going to regroup. We’re going to talk and get everything out in the air, then do what we’ve done all year and close out games.”
Manager Tony La Russa isn’t panicking. The bullpen was a big reason why St. Louis won 105 games in the regular season, and he credits Houston’s hitters more than he blames his relievers.
“When you have tough hitters at the plate, you have a chance to have somebody break through against you,” La Russa said.
The toughest hitters right now are Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman. Each hit home runs in Game 3 and Game 4, with Beltran smacking the winner this time.
He drove a 2-2 pitch off Tavarez into the Houston bullpen in right-center with one out and the bases empty in the seventh. It was his record-tying eighth home run this postseason and the record-setting fifth straight game he has gone deep.
La Russa couldn’t force the switch-hitting Beltran to bat from his weaker right side because he had used King and his only other lefty, Steve Kline, has an injury to his pitching hand. It also was too early to turn to Isringhausen. La Russa didn’t use Isringhausen in the eighth inning of Game 3 because St. Louis went into it down 3-2.
La Russa went with Isringhausen in the eighth Sunday, but it was too late. The Astros had gone to their closer, Brad Lidge, and for the second straight game he lived up to his billing as “Lights Out.”
Calero and Tavarez weren’t terrible. Unlike Houston’s middle relievers who came into Games 1 and 2 and immediately surrendered runs, Calero avoided trouble in the fifth, starting with a strikeout of Beltran with no outs and a runner at first, and Tavarez got a double-play grounder to escape a bases-loaded jam in the seventh.
They didn’t do their ultimate job, though, which was to protect the score and get the ball to Isringhausen.
“We’ve pitched pretty well the whole year,” Calero said. “For relievers like Tavarez and me, this is just one day. We’re not concerned. We will forget it and come back tomorrow.”
Tavarez also is on the spot because he stirred up emotions in the Houston clubhouse Friday by saying, “We feel like we’ve got it,” and adding, “They’ve got a great team, but we’ve got a better team.”
He kept things swirling Sunday by following his gopher ball to Beltran with a 3-0 pitch at the head of Jeff Bagwell and a heated discussion about the pitch. Then, after the double play, Tavarez let out a huge scream and kept talking to himself animatedly all the way to the dugout.
“I said to myself, ‘That’s me right there,’” said Tavarez, a ground-ball pitcher when he’s on. “But by the time I got it, a lot of bad things had happened.”
The Cardinals have had to rely on their bullpen a lot this series, and more than ever in this game because starter Jason Marquis went only four innings. No St. Louis starter has gone more than six against the Astros.
La Russa carries seven relievers, including Isringhausen, and has used all but Kline the last two games, including King in both.