More Bullpen Hijinks in Houston

You know, it's beginning to feel like pretty much an everyday occurrence, writing something about the current state of the Cardinals' bullpen. I suppose it's understandable, though; the relief situation for the Cards this year is rapidly becoming the single biggest defining characteristic of this team. 

There was that first frustrating week when the pitching was brilliant but the team just wasn't hitting and none of us could quite figure out why. Those offensive struggles seem further and further away all the time now, going far and wee and looking like just-a-slump, the exception rather than the rule. 

There's the absence of Adam Wainwright, too. Barely spoken of but still noticeable. There's a very tall hole with a very big curveball right in the middle of this team, and the lack aches just a bit. Still, the fact the rest of the rotation has come up so solid to this point has taken much of the sting from Waino's surgery. 

No, more than anything else, the 2011 Cardinals are beginning to be defined day in and day out by their bullpen. Good days by the relievers mean wins. Bad days mean losses and gnashing of teeth. So with that in mind, let's look at each of the relievers who threw last night and see just how they did. Working back from the end of the game, since that's the way you build a bullpen, you know. 

Eduardo Sanchez -- I feel somewhat privileged to know one day I'll be telling my grandchildren -- okay, fine, my herd of stray cats I've taken in, dressed in short pants, and refer to as 'my granbabies' -- that I got to witness Eduardo Sanchez's very first major league save. I also know I'll have to tell them right after that it was one of the ugliest saves I can recall.  

I was impressed with Sanchez last night, to be completely honest. 

Now, lest I be accused of holding a double standard, of running down certain players for poor performances but finding the silver lining in others' struggles just because I like them (which I admit to being guilty of in certain circumstances, but not this one), I'm going to qualify that statement. 

I was impressed with Sanchez last night, but not because he was actually all that good. 

He really wasn't particularly good. He gave up two runs and nearly allowed Houston to hit for the cycle (lacking only the home run, thankfully), before he finally got Hunter Pence to fish for a breaking ball he couldn't quite reach. However, what Eduardo Sanchez did that impressed me was keep himself together just enough to get that final out and secure the win. 

It's important to remember, Sanchez is just 22 years old and has been in the big leagues for, oh, right around two weeks now. He was pitching for the chance at his first major league save, and there was absolutely no one warming up behind him. I'm pretty sure you could see little drops of blood squeezing out from between the stitches of that baseball he was gripping. And still, Sanchez didn't lose his composure. Even when a relatively routine fly ball turned into a double that put the tying run in scoring position thanks to a combination of bad positioning and a questionable (at best), route by Lance Berkman in right field, Sanchez reached back into his bag of pitches and pulled out a winner. 

Fernando Salas -- I was impressed with Sanchez's fortitude and ability to maintain when things were tottering on the edge. If anything, I was even more impressed with the way Fernando Salas entered the game. 

He came in to a bases-loaded, no out situation, and ended up allowing two hits. Three runs crossed the plate before Salas was able to escape the inning. Even so, Salas was very good, and I'll tell you why. He didn't walk anyone. He threw strikes. He didn't try so hard to prevent any runs at all from scoring that he ended up making the situation far worse than it already was. 

Salas came in with a six run lead, and he acted like it. From the beginning he essentially conceded a run or two would score, and just focused on getting outs. He got three groundballs, one popup, and one strikeout. Unfortunately, two of the grounders found holes, but both came on good pitches and could just as easily have found gloves instead. (And one of them I'll chalk up to Tyler Greene being 6'2". If he were 6'6" his arm would have been long enough to corral the ball.) Big innings happen when a pitcher compounds his problems by pitching tentatively and putting more runners on base. Salas cleaned up the mess he inherited by staying aggressive and retiring hitters. It could have gone a bit better with a little better luck (or, ahem, taller shortstops), but it also could have been a whole lot worse. 

Trever Miller has been a mainstay for the Cardinals in recent years, but his 2011 performance is not encouraging.
Trever Miller -- Okay, I'll admit it: I'm starting to worry about Trever Miller. After a brilliant 2009, he was still good in 2010, but not quite at the same level. So far this season, Miller seems to have lost a big chunk of his arsenal, and it has to be a concern. 

Watching Miller in 2011, I've found myself thinking of the way Dennys Reyes looked much of the time last year. Reyes would come in to face a lefty, get a strike or two on him, and then proceed to throw three straight breaking balls out of the zone, usually bouncing two of the three. Then, having worked himself into a full count corner, Reyes would be forced to come over the plate with something predictable, and he would get smoked. 

Trever looks a little like that this year, in that he'll throw a couple good pitches early in the count, get ahead of a hitter, and then seem to be at a complete loss how to put the guy away. He can't seem to get that really good breaking ball in the zone, instead trying to get hitters to chase pitches well out of the zone. If a batter just waits him out, Miller eventually either has to come over the plate with something fat or -- more often -- give the hitter the free pass. 

It's obviously a ridiculously tiny sample size, but Miller has now failed to record a single out in his last four outings, and has allowed at least one baserunner in his last six. His last unblemished appearance came against Arizona on the 11th of April. Hopefully this is just a bump in the road, but I would be lying if I said I'm not worried about Miller going forward. 

Ryan Franklin -- And so we come to the very first reliever used, the pitcher who really got the ball rolling. For the Astros, that is. He gave up two more hits, both of which eventually came around to score, without retiring a single hitter. 

I'm actually going to give Franklin a bit of the benefit of the doubt here. The double he allowed wasn't exactly a weak fly, but in another stadium with a more normal left field Matt Holliday might have made the catch. Then again, maybe not. Franklin still gave up hard contact to both hitters he faced, and didn't fool either of them with anything he tried. 

I honestly wonder if, by this point, it hasn't turned into a real mental issue for Franklin. There's a definite physical component to his struggles, I think, as his stuff just doesn't look good to me at all, but I'm much more worried about his mental state right now. As someone who suffers from writer's block fairly often I can certainly sypathize; many is the day I sit down to the computer and just can't, for the life of me, come up with a single thing to write. It isn't just a lack of an idea; that's easy enough to deal with. It's a complete inability to do anything about that big white blank demanding to be filled. Sometimes I manage to fight through, sometimes I don't. (And I'm sure plenty of readers would argue I do my best work on days I can't write anything at all.) I would imagine throwing a pitch when your confidence is shot is probably a little like sitting down at the computer on one of those days when the words just won't come. It's worse than just frustrating. It's a helpless, impotent feeling when you know you have the ability to do what you want but something just keeps fighting you. 

The more I see Franklin pitch, the more I worry about his head. When he lashed out at the fans for booing him, I immediately thought he was in serious trouble. Blaming external factors for your own poor performance is never a good idea, and says far more about the one casting the blame. I think Ryan Franklin needs a mental health break in the worst way. 

It may not have been pretty, but the Cards managed to pull out a victory that could just as easily have slipped away. No matter how you look at it, the game last night was a success. Still, I could really go for a pretty, stressless blowout, and soon. 

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