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Who'dda Thunk? Cardinals Bullpen Saves the Day

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Fernando Salas was just the first in a parade of lifesavers last night for the Redbirds, but may very well have been the most important.
The Cardinals -- and their oft-maligned bullpen -- did the impossible last night. They beat Cliff Lee in the playoffs. 

It clearly wasn't the way things were supposed to go, and the looks on the faces of the Philadelphia fans told the full story. Lee was their invincible postseason superman, the man who went undefeated in the playoffs the last time he wore a Philadelphia uniform in October. Roy Halladay might be the true ace of the Phillies' staff, but Lee was their Mr. October. 

Plus, as Jayson Stark pointed out, Lee in his career was 94-1 when his team staked him to a lead of four runs or more. (Also, his middle name is Phifer. I was not aware.) Bottom line, the Phillies and Cliff Lee had game two firmly in hand. Until, that is, this team decided to pull another magic trick out of their bag and do what they shouldn't have been able to do. 

The MVP of game two had to be the Cards' bullpen as a whole. Six innings, no runs, a single hit. All against an offense that, while maybe not quite the juggernaut of a couple seasons ago, still features premium talent up and down the order and hung eleven runs on the Redbirds in game one. 

Fernando Salas gets the biggest nod of all, taking over following Chris Carpenter's abbreviated outing and holding Philadelphia down. Carpenter was removed for a pinch hitter after only three innings, and Salas's quick work over two frames set the tone for the rest of the night. The comeback never gets off the ground if Fernando doesn't serve as the tourniquet the Cards so badly needed him to be. 

Really, though, singling out Salas doesn't do justice to the bullpen's performance. Every member contributed, from Octavio Dotel's relatively uneventful inning and a third to Marc Rzepczynski's timely pickoff of Jimmy Rollins. Even Arthur Rhodes got in on the action in a positive way, striking out Ryan Howard in one of the biggest at-bats of the game. It was, to put it lightly, a remarkable performance from a unit which has caused as much consternation as any in the league. 

Included in that bullpen MVP award has to be the manager's handling of the relief corps as well. As much as I often disagree with Tony La Russa's strategic decisions, I have to give the man full respect for his deployment of his 'pen last night. Pitch perfect, inning after inning. The right reliever in the right situation, time and time again. My hat goes off to La Russa for his bullpen management last night. 

Then again, while Tony's handling of the 'pen may have been brilliant, I still think his insistence on running Chris Carpenter out on three days rest -- for the first time in his career, mind you -- was an enormous mistake. I understand the impetus, the desire to get your horse into the series twice. But putting a 36 year old pitcher in a situation he's never been in before, against the team with the best record in baseball, is just asking for disaster. Sure, it could have worked, but it also could have done just what it did, and blow up in the team's collective face. 

Such is the way it so often works with La Russa, though. He overmanages his team into a hole, then gets credit for his brilliance when the players somehow overcome the handicap. It's possible Carpenter comes back on full rest Friday in game five and pitches the Cards to the NLCS and Tony looks like a genius. Never mind, though, the pitcher the team gave up so much to get, Edwin Jackson, has actually been extremely solid of late and probably would have given the team a much better chance to win game two without having to resort to the bullpen heroics quite so heavily than Carp on short rest for the first time ever. 

As the series heads back to St. Louis Tuesday, the Cardinals actually find themselves in an unexpected place -- the driver's seat. Splitting the two games in Philadelphia gives the Redbirds home field advantage now, and with Jaime Garcia on the mound for game three. Garcia has been brilliant against the Phillies in his short career, with a 1.20 ERA and just a .502 OPS against in 30 innings. 

Regardless of how things eventually play out in this series, game two will ultimately go down as a credit to the Cardinal bullpen. Facing down the best team in baseball, with one of the best postseason pitchers in recent memory on the mound, the Cards' relief corps turned in a masterpiece to pull even. They made the impossible a reality, and depending on how the series goes from here, may very well have permanently etched all their names into postseason lore. 


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