10/22/2004 5:27 AM ET
St. Louis 'pen steps up in clutch
Relievers limit Astros to one run in final two games
By Rich Draper / MLB.com
|Jason Isringhausen, who struggled earlier in the NLCS, pitched a perfect ninth in Game 7 to clinch the series. (Al Behrman/AP)
ST. LOUIS -- Something was dreadfully wrong with the Cardinals' bullpen during the National League Championship Series, with the relievers taking more heat than throwing it.
All their supposedly lightning-bolt pitches came back as frozen ropes, with the Astros scoring 11 runs on 20 hits against them over the first five games in relief.
It wasn't a surprise, then, that the Cardinals trailed in the series, 3-2, after losing Games 3, 4 and 5 at Minute Maid Park, and faced a pair of can't-lose contests in Busch Stadium.
Closer Jason Isringhausen felt the sting of the Killer B's and friends when he allowed a three-run homer to Jeff Kent in the bottom of the ninth in Game 5, leaving the bullpen's confidence at perhaps the lowest point in the season.
But a remarkable thing happened. With the pressure on, the Cardinals' relievers held the Astros to only one run over 11 innings in the final two games, with Isringhausen fittingly nailing down the 5-2 victory in Game 7 on Thursday with a perfect ninth.
Bedlam broke out with the final out. As did redemption.
"It's about time I got a 1-2-3 inning," said Isringhausen, who notched his third save of the NLCS. "I'm not gonna lie to you. In the eighth inning, I couldn't feel my legs. I was hoping we'd score a couple more runs, actually. But in the same sense, I just wanted to go out and make sure I didn't walk anybody. I didn't want to give them a chance to get back in it, get some momentum."
Pitching coach Dave Duncan was proud of the bullpen for rebounding from early struggles.
"Houston is a really good offensive club, and with their hitters came into this series swinging the bat, we weren't allowed to make a mistake against them," said Duncan. "That made it even more important what the bullpen did."
Another man standing tall was Cardinals reliever Julian Tavarez, who broke bones in his left hand in a dugout tirade after giving up the game-winning homer to Carlos Beltran in Game 4.
But in Game 6, Tavarez threw perfectly in the 11th and 12th innings, then shut the Astros down again in Game 7 despite his gloved hand being jarred in the eighth inning on a Lance Berkman drive.
"It was painful, but we got the out," said Tavarez, whose hair and outfit was soaked in postgame champagne. "We did go through some tough times early, but that's baseball. We've done it all year long, and we didn't doubt we could finish the series against Houston. We did it. I am proud of myself, but also proud of my teammates."
Kiko Calero had a few rough outings early on as well, yet didn't allow a run in his final 2 2/3 innings, including the critical seventh on Thursday.
"It's like a dream come true," said Calero. "This is going to be my first World Series, and I'm so happy. Right now, I'm feeling so great. The bullpen did a great job the last two games."
Ray King also had his troubles, but says the bullpen made a strong statement over the final two games.
"It shows the quality guys we have in the bullpen. They never say die," said King. "We're going to fight. Tonight, we came through in the seventh, eighth and ninth. Tavarez came through and Izzy topped it off."
Rich Draper is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.