CINCINNATI -- In the Cardinals' bullpen, it's starting to look like 2006 again.

During the Cards' improbable run to the World Series title that year, a corps of young relief pitchers emerged as go-to guys, not only in the ninth, but throughout the late innings. Adam Wainwright is the one who still is canonized in October history, but his star turn was supported by terrific showings from Josh Kinney and Tyler Johnson.

Now, it's Chris Perez and Kyle McClellan seizing control of the late innings.

The St. Louis field staff is loath to declare Perez the main man in the ninth inning, or even to acknowledge McClellan's rising stature on the depth chart. But they don't have to say anything. The games tell the story. In the Cards' past four close wins, it's been the same story three times -- McClellan in the eighth, Perez for the save. The exception was Thursday in Miami, when both youngsters needed a break.

The question from earlier this year -- Ryan Franklin or Jason Isringhausen -- has been answered, frankly, in an unexpected manner: neither.

Actually, that's not entirely fair. St. Louis manager Tony La Russa remains an adamant believer in Franklin's ability, and he feels with appropriate rest Franklin can be a very effective contributor, even in the late innings. Franklin got the last two outs of Thursday's 3-0 win, a clear indicator of the manager's continuing faith in the right-hander.

But Perez is the preferred choice for a ninth-inning lead when he's available, and when the matchup doesn't look too risky for him.

"There's a number of things that an effective closer has to do," La Russa said. "If I made a list, it would probably be about half a dozen if you want to be a high-percentage, effective closer against all hitters in all situations. Right now you can't give him a check mark in all six categories. ... But he has a real possibility of filling in the blanks."

Similarly, and much more subtly, McClellan has emerged from his apprenticeship to seize the job as the top setup man. Like Perez in the ninth, it won't be every night. But when everyone's fresh and the matchups make sense, the line of succession is clear, perhaps for the first time since April.