By Grant Braden
(The Cardinal Nation Show) --The Cardinal bullpen has been a hotter topic than usual as of late. So much blame has been placed on a bullpen that has been shuffled around, overworked and scrutinized to the last pitch. Relievers always seemed to be placed under a microscope and unable to breathe the second they start to unwind. But overuse and high expectations may be the problem.
Since the start of June, the bullpen has devoured exactly 45 innings, which is spot on at three innings per game. They have allowed 48 hits (3.2 per game), 23 runs (1.5 per game) and fanned 37 while walking 14. A nine game stretch in the month called on the bullpen to work three or more innings, eight times. The outtings start to pile up after a while, which is one reason why manager Mike Matheny has chosen to go with an eight man bullpen.
On top of it all, a majority of the arms in the pen are less experienced guys. Fernando Salas and Victor Marte are in their third season, Maikel Cleto and Eduardo Sanchez have one year under their belt and the lefty Sam Freeman is the lone rookie. Experience is not everything, but in tough, late game situations, teams will always desire a pitcher who has been there several times before.
With that being said, these young arms have a lot of upside, which may be part of the problem. Fernando Salas, who struggled early in the season, has returned to the big leagues allowing only two hits in four innings. Eduardo Sanchez got a long look as closer last season before ending up on the DL. He absolutely has the stuff but just is not back to old form quite yet. Marte, Cleto and Freeman all have power arms that can put the ball in the mid 90's. The Cardinals have envied over young guns that possess that ability for a while.
If the starters can make it through the seventh, the last two innings seemed to be covered. Mitchell Boggs, a righthander who can reach the mid 90's as well, has penciled himself into that eighth inning role. Combining location and velocity, Boggs continues to let big league clubs aware of his skills. The final frame is anchored by Jason Motte. Motte has a fastball that can reach triple digits and bring a breeze two rows into the stands. His offspeed pitch, which he rarely needs, still needs work but is a solid compliment to the heat.
The big question mark has been Marc Rzepczynski. The lefty specialist was such a vital part to the World Series run last year, and seemed to have been on the same note this year. But since May 18th, Scrabble has appeared 15 times, giving up 19 hits and 12 runs, alarming numbers without a doubt. Much blame was put on Rzepczynski facing a lot of right-handed hitters, who pick up the ball a lot better and have been hitting for a higher average than the lefties. The bottom line for Rzepczynski is location. If he can locate his slider, the man seems to be a lot more confident and makes better pitches overall.
All the pieces are on the table, whether each of them find the spot they are supposed to fit into is the question. More importantly, can the starting pitching pick its game up and help give relief to the ailing pen? Realistically, in order to gain traction in the Central and return to initial season form, the offense needs to score more and the pitching simply needs to get better.