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Skipping the U to Talk the ‘Pen…

(Schedule Note: For those of you who follow the blog, you know Saturdays are typically reserved for a Cardinals U post. Today, however, we’re skipping that post to address the struggles of the Cards’ bullpen.)

Last night, as Hunter Pence walked to the plate in the 10th against Jason Motte, I turned to my wife and simply said, “It’s over…Pence is going to win it for them right here.” This dire prediction was more than just the standard dread Cardinals fans of 2012 have grown accustomed to (according to B.J. Rains of Fox Sports Midwest, the Cardinals were 3-7 in games decided by the last at-bat before entering last night’s contest)…no, it was based on much more specific conviction than that.

You see, Pence is a fastball hitter. Motte is a fastball pitcher – a straight fastball pitcher. In another situation in the game, the Phillies’ outfielder might be looking to work the count, pick his pitch, and just try to get on base.

But not this time.

With a man at first and no outs in a tie game in the top of the 10th, Pence is thinking just one thing. Look fastball…and drive it. Everyone in the stadium knew it. Everyone on the field should have known it. Unfortunately, someone didn’t get it…because one pitch later, Pence deposited a 97 mph fastball from Jason Motte into the right field stands for a 2-run homer.

What should have happened there was simple. Motte should never have been allowed to throw Pence a fastball in the zone. But I knew he would…because I knew Matheny, Motte, and Molina would call for it (or at least refrain from calling for anything else).

Look, I know Motte wanted to get ahead of Pence by throwing him something he, at best, would foul off on the outside part of the plate. Then, ahead 0-1, he could begin tossing breaking junk that Hunter would lunge for and miss at with his patented flailing swing. But to expect Pence to sit and take a first pitch fastball in that situation was to fundamentally misunderstand the thought process of the hitter…and the match up.

At the end of day, the result was all too familiar. Another win carefully gift-wrapped and handed to the opposition courtesy of the St. Louis bullpen. This is becoming a nuisance. Amidst a rash of offensive injuries, the St. Louis lineup continues to score enough runs to win…if not for their pesky bullpen problems.

Today, the Cardinals optioned Fernando Salas to AAA and called up Chuckie Fick. Good deal. Salas was a concern. He hasn’t been effective for quite awhile, and if he can’t be counted on to throw late in a game in a close situation, he really doesn’t have a role on this roster. Send him down and let him throw enough to figure it out.

But Salas isn’t the only bullpen problem on this team.

For one, Matheny’s love affair with Mitchell Boggs is going to get us in trouble more than it already has if something isn’t done. Boggs has been nothing short of outstanding this year – most of the time. But every so often, he just flat out loses it and has difficulty controlling all of his pitches.

We saw this early on, in his spot starter days, but since becoming a reliever it’s been less of a concern. Honestly, if he was still a 7th inning guy, it would still be of little importance. But that’s no longer the case. Matheny continues to go to Boggs in the 8th inning, or in high leverage situations, as if he is the same pitcher day in and day out. That’s just not the case. Personally, I think it’s his delivery that produces too many start-and-stop movements that’s responsible for his spotty control – but that’s just me.

Whatever it is, Boggs is not the reliable pitcher Matheny would like to believe he is. On this struggling St. Louis bullpen staff, 5 players have a worse WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) than Boggs: Salas, Romero, McClellan, Sanchez, and Dickson. Two of those relievers are no longer on the roster (Romero released, Salas sent down). Two are recent AAA call-ups with only 5 total appearances between them (in Sanchez’s case, he started the season in AAA due to loose mechanics that led to shoddy control). And one was recently disabled with elbow problems discovered after a streak of ineffectiveness (McClellan).

In other words, while Boggs’ WHIP ranking could be read as “the best option after Motte, Scrabble, and Marte”…a look at the pitchers he’s beating is necessary to fully understand his place on the staff. His 1.22 WHIP isn’t ugly, but it’s tied with three other pitchers in all of baseball for somewhere in the 178-180th position. Among all relievers…tied for 133rd. Among all relievers in the NL…60th.

To put it another way, Boggs’ WHIP suggests he’s been a mediocre pitcher out of the ‘pen at best. But Matheny continues to use him as the second-best reliever on the team. Why? Is it because there’s really no one better? Or is it because Matheny is still a rookie MLB manager learning how to effectively use a big league bullpen? Likely…both.

The state of the Cardinals’ pen hasn’t exactly given Mike a lot of options. Marte has been a pleasant surprise, and Motte is getting the job done more often than not (and he should improve as the rest of the ‘pen improves and the year goes on), but on the whole, the Cards’ bullpen has been a huge disappointment.

Rarely challenged in April when the starters and the offense were pitching and hitting like a team of All-Stars, the relievers have largely dropped the ball in May. We’ve seen last year’s saves leader demoted (Salas), the critical second-lefty released (Romero), the wily veteran signed to steady this young staff injured (Linebrink), the overpowering fireballer moved to the rotation (Lynn), the incumbent long-man and pseudo-“third lefty” disabled (McClellan), and the lone lefty remaining in the ‘pen overexposed and misused (Rzepcynski). All in all, Matheny isn’t running into a lot of luck.

But he’s not creating any for himself, either.

I get that Mike wants to be a “trust his players” guy. And I get that he wants to let Yadi call the game without interference. And I really love that he’s willing to let his relievers pitch more than a single inning.

But at the end of the day, something has to change. He’s misusing pitchers by casting them in the wrong roles. He’s taking a weakness on the staff (one lefty) and overexposing it for hitters. And he’s allowing chaos and unpredictability wreak havoc in his pen. Something has to change.

Okay, okay…that’ll do it. But let me leave you with a list of items I believe can and should happen as soon as possible to right the ship on the St. Louis bullpen:

1. Mitchell Boggs should no longer be considered the set up man. Move him to a 7th inning role to be the first man out following a starter or in key situations short of the 8th.

2. Rzepcynski must be given regular but lighter work. Stop throwing him an entire inning, and instead, throw him against a lefty or two and then pull him out of the game. Let him build some momentum as a lefty specialist again, and then gradually expand his workload to include a RH hitter or two.

3. Slot Marte into the 8th inning set up role. He’s the best RH pitcher on your staff short of Motte. Start using him that way.

4. Begin using Sanchez in the Fernando Salas role…to throw a critical inning in a close game – leading or trailing – and let him rack up holds. With runners on base, bring him in for a strikeout or key at-bat.

5. Dickson is now your bail-out long man. Use him that way. This one is simple.

6. If you’re going to use Motte more than an inning, pick and choose his hitters. Don’t let him throw a fastball in the zone to a fastball power hitter in extra innings if he’s already thrown an inning.

7. And finally…and this is a big one…begin the search for another starting option (Oswalt, etc.) immediately and get Lance Lynn out of the rotation and into the St. Louis bullpen as soon as possible. Not only is his stabilizing presence and innings-eating ability needed there, but his arm is going to eventually break down due to fatigue and innings pitched. Let’s at least save him for the stretch run.

Alright, that’s all I got. Let’s hope the Redbirds can turn it around and get a win tonight behind Garcia.

GO CARDS!!!

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