As is so often the case, the game reminds you that you know less about it than you think you do. Wednesday, figuring that there’d be less need to write about the Cardinals' bullpen before Game 3 -- with Chris Carpenter starting, it made sense to save the 'pen story for before Game 4 -- I wrote about David Freese and Jon Jay doing good things in October.
Then Carpenter was pulled out of the game just five innings in, and as Wayne Drehs subsequently described, it was the bullpen that was the “player” of the game.
My old colleague Joe Sheehan has been trumpeting the virtues of the Cardinals’ bullpen in his newsletter (if you don’t subscribe, you should). How this relief corps has become one of the game-changing units of October serves as a great example of how, come the postseason, a team is not the sum of what it was during the regular season. The Cardinals' ratio of converting saves and holds in save situations (to credit the guys trusted with leads who held them before the ninth) was just over 74 percent; the NL average was 82.5 percent.
However, the team that generated that much late-game misery doesn’t exist anymore. Ryan Franklin and Trever Miller are best forgotten, and Mitchell Boggs’ alarming proclivity for leaving his fastball up in the zone doesn’t enter into late-game calculations anymore -- he has pitched with the lead just twice since July.
Instead, between the veteran relievers GM John Mozeliak brought in -- some things old (the ubiquitous Arthur Rhodes and Octavio Dotel) and something new in lefty Marc Rzepczynski -- manager Tony La Russa’s bullpen has the situational studs he long has been known for using to such game-delaying success.
But homegrown talent, such as rookies Lance Lynn and Fernando Salas, serves as an important reminder that La Russa doesn’t hate young pitchers. The power-ground ball mix of former starter Lynn made him the middle-inning go-to guy with runners on, while Salas’ mix of off-speed sliders and changeups off his average fastball made him an unconventional closer option for much of the season.
And beyond all that, the Cardinals have Jason Motte coming into his own as the closer, looking eerily like Bruce Sutter of old while throwing as hard as Todd Worrell. It’s as if Dr. Frankenstein conjured up a synthesis of the two best closers in Cardinals history (with apologies to Jason Isringhausen and Lee Smith).
The Cardinals’ late-season transformation has a lot in common with other dynamic late-developing bullpens that wound up winning the World Series. Halfway through their surprising championship run, the 2003 Marlins had a bullpen every bit as awful as the Cards’ crew appeared to be a few months into 2011, but trading for Ugueth Urbina and resurrecting Chad Fox transmogrified their 'pen into the unit that helped beat the Yankees. Both former Angels coach Ron Roenicke and former Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez no doubt remember K-Rod’s arrival on the national stage in September 2002, when his electric stuff became the shutdown weapon of choice in the Angels’ World Series run. And Cardinals fans, however much they might not like how the 1985 World Series ended, will remember that year as the season when Worrell arrived late, the cherry on top of a bullpen already well-stocked with quality arms -- Ricky Horton and Ken Dayley, Jeff Lahti and Bill Campbell.
Going into Game 4, you can expect the Cards’ bullpen performance to be a key to the game. Starter Kyle Lohse has managed two quality starts in his past five against the Brewers, having been hit hard by Ryan Braun and usually choosing discretion over valor and putting Prince Fielder on first base. But with this bullpen behind him, Lohse might not need to see them more than twice.
In contrast, with a shaky Randy Wolf on the mound facing a Cardinals lineup that mauls lefties, the danger that this series doesn’t get back to Milwaukee is strong. The man you might have expected Roenicke to leave be to use for an extended stretch in Game 4, Chris Narveson, was used in Game 3, and Roenicke’s one of the game’s more cautious managers about using relievers on consecutive days. If Wolf runs into trouble early, Milwaukee can ill afford seeing Roenicke stand by his starter as stoically as he did Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum and Yovani Gallardo in each game of this series.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.