ST. LOUIS — Players whose names don’t exactly roll off the tongue are largely responsible for the St. Louis Cardinals’ somewhat improbable presence in the NL Central picture.
The rotation has been horrible and the offense has been spotty. But the bullpen, featuring the likes of Ryan Franklin, Russ Springer and assorted other under-the-radar types, has been consistently reliable with a 3.70 ERA that contrasts with the rotation’s ugly 5.50 ERA.
The bullpen reeled off 13 scoreless innings in the last three games of a weekend series against the division-leading Brewers, keeping the situation from worsening and allowing them to rally from deficits of six and five runs. The opposition was 4-for-41, all singles for an .098 average.
“We had to eat up a few innings the last few days, but we kept through it and I’m really proud of how we came back at the end,” Franklin said. “We’ve been pretty solid but to step up against Milwaukee, it’s just huge for us.”
Without the bullpen putting up zero after zero, the defending World Series champions likely would be out of the race and perhaps preparing for a sell-off on the non-waiver trade deadline on Tuesday. Instead, they’re six games back of the fast-sliding Brewers and 5½ behind the second-place Cubs entering a six-game trip that starts Tuesday with the first of three games in Pittsburgh.
The Cardinals are within four games of .500, at 49-53, for the first time since July 5, and have won three in a row for the first time since June 3-6. St. Louis trailed by 10½ games at the end of June.
The anchor is closer Jason Isringhausen, who has 20 saves in 22 chances and a 1.35 ERA. The rest are more transient types, toiling with lower-end contracts, although Franklin’s sterling work as the setup man (1.27 ERA) earned him a two-year contract extension in midseason.
The Cardinals spent a lot more money on their regulars and the rotation, with a lot more uneven results. Chris Carpenter made one start before season-ending elbow reconstruction; Mark Mulder is still rehabbing from rotator cuff surgery last September; Scott Rolen has only six home runs, and Jim Edmonds has been slow to come around from offseason surgery on his shoulder and foot.
The rotation is populated with former relievers and down-on-their-luck veterans. It all came together, at least for one weekend, with Anthony Reyes ending a 12-game losing streak, the offense batting .395 with runners in scoring position the last three games with Rolen getting two game-tying hits, and the bullpen tying it all together.
“We plug in a hot starting rotation and our chance to win gets serious,” manager Tony La Russa said. “The rotation gets hot and the rest of it stays in there, we can have some fun.”
Springer, Randy Flores, Franklin and Isringhausen shut the door on the Brewers on Sunday after Kip Wells gave up five runs in five innings, giving the offense time to rally.
Brian Falkenborg, Troy Percival and Springer did the honors on Saturday after the Brewers took a 6-0 lead against Brad Thompson after three innings.
The group has been durable, too. Springer, who tied his career high with his fifth win on Saturday, has appeared in 47 games and has 46 strikeouts.
Franklin, who had been in contention for a starting job in spring training, allowed a hit in 12/3 innings on Sunday.
“Most of us have been relievers for a while and Franklin is trying to learn the best he can, and we try to help him out,” Springer said. “The rest of us know it’s a grind and we know what it takes to prepare ourselves to throw every day, and that comes into play.”
But they’ve got to keep it up, with 60 games to go and two teams to catch.
“We need to go into Pittsburgh and start playing better baseball and have a good trip, or we’re going to end up right back where we started,” Rolen said.