One of the biggest question marks for the St. Louis Cardinals continues to be the bullpen.
While the Cards appear to have found a closer (for the time being, at least) in Fernando Salas, the setup portion of the bullpen continues to struggle. The latest episode in the nail-biting saga of seventh, eighth and ninth innings for the Redbirds came today against the Colorado Rockies.
After an impressive start, Kyle Lohse surrendered a Todd Helton double, a Ty Wigginton RBI single and a Ryan Spilborghs single to start the bottom of the seventh.
With runners on first and second and nobody out, Tony LaRussa called on Eduardo Sánchez out of the bullpen.
From the get go, Sánchez looked uncomfortable on the mound. He has a very hurried delivery that looked all the more out of control given the hand he was dealt as he entered the game. This is a 22-year-old rookie coming into a tough scenario on the road in the rubber match of the series. He showed spark with his fastball, going right after hitters early and keeping them off balance.
However, almost every time Sánchez worked ahead in the count, he felt the need to come off the plate with a breaking ball. This only worked on Jason Giambi, who couldn't hold his check swing on an inside curveball to become the first out of the inning after Sánchez walked the bases loaded.
The Eric Young at bat played in a similar fashion. Sánchez worked ahead in the count, only to waste pitches and get him back to level in the count. He eventually grooved a fastball that was lined hard by Young to short for a double play to end the inning.
Eduardo didn't look great, but he got the job done in a tight spot. I was interested to see how he'd handle a fresh inning.
The bottom of the eighth started with promise for the Cardinal's reliever, as he pitched a great at bat to Dexter Fowler, forcing a ground out. Then, as has been the case all season, his suspect control came to haunt him as he would go on to give up another walk and hit sandwiched around a flyout, forcing LaRussa to bring in Salas to try and record a four out save.
Salas looked much more comfortable inheriting two runners than Sánchez, striking out Ty Wiggington in commanding fashion. Salas started work in the bottom of the ninth by walking Spilborghs on five fastballs, in an at bat where Salas was consistently falling off the mound to the first base side.
After striking out Chris Iannetta relying heavily on the slider and Seth Smith by going right after him from the first pitch, Salas reverted back to his fastball against Eric Young, giving up an RBI single.
The rigors of the extended appearance for Fernando Salas were made quite apparent as he gave up a Dexter Fowler single on a pitch left down the heart of the plate, putting runners on the corners. Salas would attack Carlos Gonzalez early in the at bat and get a ground ball fielder's choice to end the game and allow for a sigh of relief from Cardinal's Nation.
Salas is a more-than-capable closer, with plenty of weapons at his disposal. However, for Salas to succeed as the shutdown man for the Cardinals, he needs to be able to rely on his setup men.
With Sánchez struggling early and often against the Rockies, Salas was forced into a long appearance that took its toll as the ninth inning progressed.
St. Louis may have their answer at a questionable closer position that has seen five different Cardinals record saves this season. However, ball games are sealed in the seventh and eighth innings where the Cardinals' bullpen has struggled all season.
Sánchez will be thanking his lucky stars tonight that Salas was able to pull off the save this afternoon.