Steady Mulder ready for Game 2 start

Steady Mulder ready for Game 2 start

ST. LOUIS -- It's not all on him with a team this talented, but Mark Mulder's no dummy. He knows why the Cardinals, coming off last year's World Series letdown, made him the centerpiece of their winter tinkering.

He'll take the mound in Thursday's Game 2 of the National League Division Series with a chance to put a 2-0 St. Louis stranglehold on the best-of-five series. He'll do it with the benefit of four previous postseason starts on his resume, insisting that there's no extra pressure if you've already pitched in, say, Yankee Stadium in October.

"That's the way it is," he said Wednesday after the Cardinals' off-day workout at Busch Stadium. "I'm going out there to win a ballgame. I think every pitcher, if you don't go out there expecting to win, expecting to do well, then you shouldn't be going out there, you know? You've got to be ready for these situations and you've got to thrive on it. You want to go out there for the big game. You want to be out there in a big situation. I know I do, and I hope everybody else does."

Well, not everybody else does. Everybody else talks the good talk, but Mulder takes it to the mound and delivers. He had a 2.25 ERA in four postseason starts with the A's in 2001 and '02. When the Cardinals went looking for a difference maker last December after their starters were hammered for a 9.35 ERA by the Red Sox in the 2004 World Series, they targeted Mulder and got him from the A's for Dan Haren, Kiko Calero and Daric Barton.

In his first National League season, Mulder performed as expected. The left-hander went 16-8 (his fifth consecutive season with at least 15 wins) with an ERA of 3.64 in 205 innings. His ERA after the All-Star break was 1 1/2 runs lower than before the break and he won his only 2005 start against San Diego, Thursday's opponent.

He'll have the support of a 100-win team and one of the most fervent crowds in baseball behind him. How bad can that be?

"It's a great time of year, man," he said. "I know my first experience, in 2001, pitching Game 1 in Yankee Stadium, the first pitch I couldn't feel myself. You didn't know what you were doing, but you get -- there's a difference. If you could honestly take a postseason game into every regular-season game, I think it would be a big difference, you know?

"I think a lot of pitchers try to, but it's tough to. It's a different frame of mind. There's more focus, there's more concentration."

Mulder said his second-half improvement can be credited to working on delivery mechanics with pitching coach Dave Duncan.

"I got into some bad habits at the end of last season and was working my way to get out of it, and I did," he said. "You know, with a lot of Dunc's help, things have gone a lot better, and I feel really good out on the mound, with everything that I'm throwing and everything that I'm doing out there.

"There were a lot of things we worked on to get my mechanics back to where they should be and keeping the ball down in the zone and making pitches. I left a lot of balls up over the plate early in the season. You know, they're going to get hit, so I mean, my strength is to pitch to contact and get ground balls and get quick outs."

Which is not exactly what happened in his last two starts of the regular season after the Cardinals clinched the division title. Of particular concern to Cards followers was a Sept. 24 start at Milwaukee, Mulder's shortest start of the year at 2 2/3 innings, when he was battered for two homers and seven earned runs.

"I really don't know what happened," he said. "It's not the way you really want to end the season, but that's the way it goes. I mean, the postseason's here, so you move on and you're ready to go."

It's not hard to be ready, he said, when everybody else is. There is a difference between where he left and where he is.

"The guys I play with, you see the way they approach the game every day," he said of his teammates. "It's not that it's that much different, but you can see a difference. Guys know when to back down a little bit and take it a little easier on some days. With Oakland, we had a young team. We were out there for early [batting practice] every day. It was a good time. These guys are just very prepared on this team and you can see that right away."

With the game scheduled for a 3:07 p.m. CT start, Mulder dismissed concern about the differential this year between his night starts (14-3, 2.26) and his day starts (2-5, 6.86), pointing out that he pitched the team's division-clincher in a day game at Wrigley Field.

"It's just something you guys like to talk about," he told reporters.

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