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10/15/05 3:38 PM ET

Suppan well-rested for Game 4 start

Cardinals veteran has not pitched since Sept. 25

HOUSTON -- The stat sheet says St. Louis right-hander Jeff Suppan hasn't pitched since Sept. 25 and hasn't faced the Houston Astros all season.

But he's been doing it all in his mind.

Suppan will return to the mound -- physically, at least -- Sunday afternoon for Game 4 of the National League Championship Series.

"Mentally, I think the key is staying prepared in a number of ways," Suppan said. "One, just visualizing that you're out there and, when you're watching the game, seeing the pitch that you would throw and just trying to put yourself in the situation, because it has been a while since I've thrown."

When Suppan last threw, it was special. Suppan pitched eight scoreless innings in a 2-0 victory over Milwaukee, is 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA in his last six starts and went 7-3 with a 2.78 ERA after the All-Star break. Suppan has exerted himself more than usual in a couple of bullpen sessions, and once he was asked to warm up during one of the playoff games, although it turned out to be a dry run because he wasn't called into the game.

"That adrenaline rush was great to feel," Suppan said. "When you're throwing a normal bullpen, the adrenaline is not the same. When you're getting ready for a game or getting ready to go into a game from the bullpen, it's obviously a lot more."

Suppan, 30, doesn't have to rely solely on his imagination to prep for success in big games.

Last year, Suppan was the winning pitcher in two clinchers for the Cardinals -- Game 4 of the NL Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers and Game 7 of the NLCS against the Astros.

In each, Suppan overcame early difficulty. The Dodgers' Jayson Werth homered in the first inning in the NLDS, and Houston's Craig Biggio led off Game 7 of the NLCS with a home run during a two-run first. But Suppan, who was the losing pitcher in Game 3 against the Astros, strengthened as each of those pivotal games progressed.

"When you have not gone through it, you're going to say it doesn't matter. When you've gone through it, you're going to say it's helped," said Suppan, 2-2 with a 3.80 ERA in four playoff starts, all last year. "So I think the more times you're in those situations, that experience is going to benefit you.

"I just think that you know what's at stake and you really go out and it helps you focus when you've been in those situations before, and [you know] the things that you really need to focus or concentrate on."

Suppan also has little reason to worry about not meeting the Astros this season. He faced them seven times last year, counting the NLCS.

Last year's big-game success helped sway Cardinals manager Tony La Russa in the choice of whether to start Suppan or Jason Marquis. Part of it was La Russa felt comfortable pitching Marquis out of the bullpen -- seven of Maquis' 10 postseason appearances have been in relief.

Seeing the Chicago White Sox' Jon Garland shut down the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on Friday night after being inactive since Oct. 1 also made La Russa feel better.

"I was really encouraged to see Garland throw the ball so well," La Russa said. "He got a lot of rest, so it shows you if you have good work between [games] and your mind is strong, you can pull it off."

For some, the enduring postseason memory has nothing to do with clinchers, but with a baserunning mistake during Game 3 of last year's World Series. Suppan didn't immediately run home, although he would have easily made it, from third base on Larry Walker's ground ball. When he finally decided to take off, Red Sox first baseman David Ortiz's throw beat him.

"If it comes down to the difference in this competition [being] Jeff's baserunning, then we're way out there somewhere," La Russa said. "It's going to be his pitching, but I think what we all think about is Jeff coming through for us."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.