Julian Tavarez says he feels sharp despite missing eight games with a suspension. (Tom Gannam/AP)
ST. LOUIS -- Quick: What team had the best bullpen in the National League this year? Hint 1: This team is playing in the Dodgers-Cardinals National League Division Series. Hint 2: It's not the Dodgers.
Over the six-month regular season, no NL team had a better bullpen ERA than St. Louis' 3.01, a pretty remarkable turnaround after relief pitching was an absolute hazard for the Redbirds in 2003. St. Louis also led the league in saves with 57, fewest relief losses with 16 and fewest home runs allowed by relievers with 36. Fixing the relief corps was one of general manager Walt Jocketty's top priorities in the offseason, and he definitely succeeded.
A trade with Atlanta brought in Ray King, who teamed with Steve Kline to form possibly the best pair of lefties in baseball this year. Julian Tavarez was signed to a two-year deal to be the primary right-handed setup man to Jason Isringhausen. Then there was the simple fact of having Isringhausen healthy all year and Kline returning to form. Add in another strong year from Cal Eldred and the continued development of Kiko Calero, and you had a unit that matches up with anyone top to bottom.
But the Cards bullpen is not without questions. Kline is battling an extremely painful finger injury that is unlikely to heal. Tavarez, who thrives on frequent work, missed eight days before the end of the season due to a suspension. He pitched the final two games, but it's uncertain just how sharp he can be.
Tavarez says not to worry, though.
"It wasn't [a problem]," he said, "because I was working. I was throwing BP, simulated games, working out. So I wasn't really concerned by it.
"I think I'm much better because at the time I got the rest, it's not that I was looking for it, but anybody can use it. Especially after you pitch so much, like I've been doing."
And Kline? He's willing to bear the pain as long as he can throw strikes with good movement.
"I'm just trying not to overthrow, just trust my stuff," he said. "My breaking ball is good. It's the pitch I'm probably most going to need in the playoffs."
Tavarez, Kline and the rest of his mates will need to be in fine form, because the Cardinals enter the Division Series without top starter Chris Carpenter and facing a homer-happy Dodgers club. Los Angeles sandwiches ferocious right-handed slugger Adrian Beltre between a pair of dangerous lefties in Steve Finley and Shawn Green, so expect plenty of mid-inning pitching changes.
"Some clubs just aren't real left-handed," said manager Tony La Russa. "The Dodgers do have some left-handed guys. The thing about good left-handed hitters is that they do face the left-handed pitchers. [Dodgers manager] Jim Tracy will let them hit because they're usually pretty successful. That's where our guys have to be good. They have to make really good pitches.
"[King and Kline] have been an important part of our bullpen, but they also have some good right-handers. I think our bullpen is gonna be an important part of this series."
No surprises: As promised, the Cards' Division Series roster featured no surprises. In addition to the four starting pitchers -- Carpenter was left off the roster due to his arm injury -- and eight position player regulars, St. Louis is carrying seven relievers and six reserve position players.
Danny Haren / P
Weight: 220 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
Dan Haren joins the six relief pitchers who made up the corps of the bullpen all year. Haren is primarily expected to get work as a long reliever, but he has succeeded in a variety of roles this year.
"When he's had to be the innings guy, which is his main responsibility here, he's done that very well," La Russa said. "But you'll see, if there's a chance for a hitter or an inning, he's also done that. So his versatility has been very good. And I think it starts with how tough he is. He's a very tough-minded guy."
The six reserve position players are catcher Yadier Molina, infielder/outfielder John Mabry, infielder/outfielder Marlon Anderson, infielder Hector Luna and outfielders So Taguchi and Roger Cedeno.
No surprises, part two: St. Louis put out its expected lineup for a left-handed pitcher in Game 1. It was the first time since Sept. 10 that all eight regulars -- Tony Womack, Larry Walker, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Edgar Renteria, Jim Edmonds, Reggie Sanders and Mike Matheny -- started in the same game. Renteria hit in the fifth spot with Edmonds sixth, which will be flipped against right-handed starters.
"Nine good hitters," quipped La Russa, noting starting pitcher Woody Williams' talent swinging the bat.
Tradition: In a nod to the rich history of the Cardinals franchise, two Hall of Famers participated in the ceremonial first pitch before Tuesday's game. Throwing the pitch was the greatest Redbird of them all, Stan "The Man" Musial. The man catching Musial's offering was his old roommate, fellow Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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