Liberal use of 'pen paying off for Cardinals

Liberal use of 'pen paying off for Cardinals

ST. LOUIS -- So much for starting pitching setting the tone.

The Cardinals have discovered a formula for success that defies conventional baseball wisdom. They score runs early and turn the game over to a lockdown bullpen, regardless of how many innings they have to work.

It's not like the starting pitchers haven't done their job. They've just not stuck around very long, which again was the case on Friday night in a 7-1 win over the Brewers in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium.

Jaime Garcia, who was effective, was lifted after 4 2/3 innings, despite his team ahead 4-1 at the time.

Remarkably, the Cards hold a 3-2 advantage in the best-of-seven series, despite the fact their starters have thrown 22 1/3 innings in the NLCS, compared to 21 2/3 innings by the bullpen. Only once has a St. Louis starter worked through the fifth inning.

"You certainly don't want to do that if you're playing 162 [games]," right fielder Lance Berkman said. "But in a seven-game series, you can do that. They've been outstanding."

Manager Tony La Russa has mixed and matched, and he has pulled all the right strings, as his relievers threw 4 1/3 scoreless innings in Game 5.

"You can't award a postseason MVP at this point," Berkman said. "But if you could, and you could do it collectively, I think the bullpen may be the front-runner, in my opinion.

"They've done an outstanding job, and we couldn't have done this without them."

Jason Motte recorded his second four-out save of the series, but arguably the biggest out of the night came in the fifth.

Garcia was lifted for Octavio Dotel, and the Brewers had already scored in the inning. They had two on and two outs with Ryan Braun at the plate. Dotel won the showdown by striking out the All-Star slugger.

"I wasn't really thinking that I was going to be in the game in that situation, because Jaime was throwing a really good game," Dotel said.

Braun had already doubled in two at-bats off Garcia, and La Russa didn't want to see a third matchup. So Dotel warmed up in a hurry, and to buy a few more seconds of time, first baseman Albert Pujols made a mound visit. That allowed Dotel to finish his warmups.

"Two out and Braun coming up, it was kind of quick and that's when I started to realize that the game can be changing," Dotel said. "So I just put it in my mind at that moment, and they gave me enough time to warm up and get ready for Braun."

Dotel worked 1 1/3 innings, before giving way to Lance Lynn. Lynn handled the next 1 1/3 innings, but got in trouble with two on and Prince Fielder stepped up.

La Russa went to the lefty Marc Rzepczynski, who snapped off some nasty sliders and struck out Fielder.

In need of one more win to reach the World Series, the Cardinals' relievers are riding on adrenaline.

"Luckily we've got those days off," Rzepczynski said. "I think we feel pretty good right now. Tony has done a good job not overusing us. We're going out there. It's the postseason, even if we're feeling a little tired, we're still going to go out there and do our job."

Scoring early is another tendency the Cards have displayed in the playoffs. They had a string of scoring in the first inning in five straight games snapped in Game 4, but in Game 5, they scored three runs in the second inning and didn't look back.

"It's always good to get out in front," Berkman said. "Playing from in front, your at-bats are a little easier. You're not putting too much pressure on yourself, because you have a lead. The flip side to that is if you fall behind, which we have done a couple of times in this series, you just have to shrug it off, and take it one at a time and get back in the game."

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. He writes a blog, called The Fish Pond. Follow him on Twitter @JoeFrisaro. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.