Anatomy of the Cardinals' bullpen
St. Louis relievers get the job done in Game 5
ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals are going back to Shea Stadium with a 3-2 lead over the Mets in this National League Championship Series. It remains to be seen whether new Busch Stadium has seen its last game of the inaugural season or whether everyone will come here again next week for a World Series against Detroit, but either way, there will always be a story to tell about one glorious autumn night when an unheralded bullpen met a challenge and made a wild crowd very happy.
Here is the anatomy of the bullpen's contribution to a 4-2 victory:
Thanks to a Chris Duncan pinch-hit homer moments earlier, the cushion is now 4-2 for St. Louis. After six outstanding innings from Jeff Weaver, Josh Kinney enters the game. It was in 2001 the Cardinals had purchased his contract from the River City Rascals, an independent Frontier League team in the area that supplies alternative "bonus baseball" for local fans.
"I wouldn't be here if not for people who believed in me," Kinney says. "It's still pitching and playing the game you love to play, whether it's for River City or in Game 5 of an NLCS. If I didn't love the game, I wouldn't have pitched independent ball. I did it because I love to play. I've loved to play my whole life.
"Obviously, this is very special to me. But I'm truthfully focused on what I have to do. I'm not caught up in what it means to everyone else. I don't get caught up in all of that. It's not my personality. Competition is what's fun."
His competition in the seventh is Michael Tucker as a pinch-hitter in the ninth spot. Called strike, called strike, swinging strike. Boom.
His competition after that is Jose Reyes, one of the most electrifying players in the game. Reyes takes a 93-mph fastball for ball one. Trouble? It was a changeup middle-away at 78 mph, a called strike. Then came two pitches in the mid-80s, one at the knees that was fouled off and the next just a bit lower and farther outside for a swinging strike three.
Huge. Two batters, each a lefty facing a Cardinal righty. Each a K for Kinney.
His competition then is Paul Lo Duca, who singled his last time up. Kinney throws a cut fastball at 93 mph, catching the outside corner for a called strike. Then came the same pitch, which was grounded to second baseman Ronnie Belliard for the out. One, two, three.
"You're gonna take your lumps," Kinney said after his third consecutive scoreless inning in this series. "As a bullpen, we know that and you can't carry baggage with you."
Here they come.
"When you're going through those guys in the middle of the Mets' lineup, you really have to buckle down," Kinney said. "But they still can get out, though. They're human. You make your pitches, and they can get out."
First up is Carlos Beltran. He has 755 postseason homers just against St. Louis, or so you would think. Kinney doesn't care -- it's a batter, the same as it was when he was pitching for the Rascals.
There will be no fastballs. He starts off with a curve that breaks exactly one foot middle-in, a quick 0-and-1. Then a ball, foul, and two balls for a full count. He's waited all his life to be in this situation. What does he throw? "Slider there," Kinney said later. Six pitches are mixed throughout the zone to Beltran, and No. 6 is low-away for called strike three.
Bedlam at Busch, as the first mighty Carlos sits down. A quick exhale. Then comes the next Carlos -- Delgado -- ready to inflict more damage. Now comes the moment of truth. Delgado works a seven-pitch at-bat for a single to the right side, and David Wright, so quiet in this series, refuses to chase a strike three in the dirt. He takes that one and then rips the fifth pitch of the at-bat for a double to left. The Mets have men on second and third with one out, and Redbird Nation is nervous.
"Now it's time for my buddies to come out of the bullpen and bail me out of the eighth," Kinney said.
That means Randy Flores, who had been the only member of the bullpen to not allow a run in Game 4. Kinney is replaced for the situational lefty vs. lefty matchup: Flores against Shawn Green. Game and maybe the series hanging in the balance. Meeting on the mound. Three inside pitches, a called strike and then a ball.
"Against Shawn Green, I just want to execute pitches," Flores says. "I don't want to make a mistake, with our closer being there behind me and a lead."
The first is a called strike, inside middle-in. Then a ball to back Green off the plate. Then middle-in again, pounding, pounding inside. Green can't get full extension, but he gets the ball into the air out in center, and all eyes are on Jim Edmonds. One of the loudest moments of spontaneous Busch combustion is when the ball softly nestles into his glove, keeping the runners on hold with two outs.
"That whole at-bat is completely different if Edmonds is not working center field," Flores says. "At least 70 percent of other outfielders break back on that swing, but he came right in. It was the difference in him getting it."
Before the game, Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan had been asked if he would look to Adam Wainwright for a critical situation in the seventh or eighth inning, or whether they would save him for a pure save situation later.
"I think right now, we would go into the game thinking that we are going to save him for the save situation," Duncan said. "You never know what might happen during the course of the game. Something might lead you to do something differently."
Something does right now. Jose Valentin is up. He has come alive in this series with that big double and three RBIs in Game 4, and a two-run double and a walk already on this night. Now is the time for Wainwright, a right-hander.
"He's a tough hitter, especially in that situation with runners at second and third," Wainwright said. "I'm not going to give away my strategy, but I knew how I wanted to face him. First off, my plan was to stay ahead."
Again, speeds and location are all over the map. Called strike, ball, swinging strike (blocked by Yadier Molina), ball and foul. Full count. Fans on their feet. Money pitch. It's 76 mph and middle away, just catching the paint. Home-plate umpire Jeff Kellogg says it's strike three. The bullpen passes the crucial test of the night, one that will be remembered a long time if St. Louis advances.
"Things fell into place," Wainwright says.
Standing just a few feet away from where Jason Isringhausen had just dressed, Wainwright stood as the Cardinals' closer of the here-and-now. Izzy is here in heart and spirit this October. A hip injury ended his season early.
"To lose a guy like Jason Isringhausen, that's a big void to fill," Wainwright said. "Filling his shoes is hard, but I'm trying to do that."
He has to do it now. This is the moment that every Cardinals fans has wondered about. It's the ninth inning of a game you have to win, with your team ahead. Another young reliever in another vital role. He has been reliable so far. Now he faces Endy Chavez, a lefty who had doubled in the first and has dangerous wheels if he gets on base.
Three pitches, all in the 93-mph range and all with more than 10 inches of break. Nothing straight. Two called strikes for immediate command, and then a groundout to short.
Next up is Cliff Floyd. The "Kirk Gibson" in every Mets fan's mind. He's got a bad Achilles tendon, but still a menacing bat, and anything can happen in that pinch-hit role.
Wainwright starts him off with two balls low. Then comes Floyd's pitch, over the heart of the plate, but he misses it foul. The fourth and final pitch of that at-bat is high and dribbled down to Albert Pujols at first; Pujols naturally wins the race to the bag. There is no Gibson moment. The Cards are one out away from a 3-2 series lead.
Once again, it is time for Reyes and the top of the order. First a ball at the letters on an off-speed pitch. Then a low fastball for a called strike, and then 20 mph slower in the same spot for a called strike two. The crowd is ready, knowing the next pitch could be the last one they ever see in the first year of new Busch Stadium -- or the last one until the World Series comes back here.
Strike three in the dirt, swinging. Cardinals win, 4-2.
"Just 'cause we're young doesn't mean we can't pitch," Wainwright said.
When asked if he enjoys being the Cardinals' closer right now, he smiles, repeats the question and then says:
"I can't put into words how lucky I am right now."
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has seen exactly what he had hoped to see after the Game 4 bullpen meltdown. It had been all Mets that night.
"This is a tough game. Nobody is automatic," La Russa said. "Nobody does it 100 percent of the time. We've got real good depth and a lot of different weapons in our bullpen and once in a while, you give the other side credit. That's what we did a couple of nights ago, we tipped our caps to the Mets. We've got a lot of confidence in the guys we have out there."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.