St. Louis Cardinals: Back Of the Bullpen Is Taking Shape

Apr 18, 2017; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Seung-Hwan Oh (26) celebrates after closing out the ninth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 18, 2017; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Seung-Hwan Oh (26) celebrates after closing out the ninth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

After a shaky start to the season, the St. Louis Cardinals’ bullpen is a big reason the team swept the Pittsburgh Pirates and won Friday night against the Milwaukee Brewers.

As their record stood at 3-9 after being swept by the New York Yankees, arguably the most disappointing facet in the St. Louis Cardinals‘ game was their relief pitching.

Closer Seung-Hwan Oh still hadn’t recorded a save. Trevor Rosenthal had just returned from the disabled list. Kevin Siegrist had struggled with command. Brett Cecil had been hit around a couple of times. Matt Bowman had been the Cardinals’ most reliable arm out of the bullpen.

Since being swept in the Bronx, the Cardinals’ relief corps has stabilized. Through April 23, Oh capitalized on all the opportunities he had this past week.

Rosenthal twice held leads in the eighth inning and picked up a save on Wednesday to secure the sweep of the Pirates.

Bowman continued his early-season dominance, picking up two holds in the Pittsburgh series. He leads the team with four holds. He has yet to allow a run this season through 8 2/3 innings.

Cecil had his best outing yet in a Cardinals uniform Friday night in Milwaukee. He struck out the side in order and featured an uptick in velocity. He’s tied with Bowman for most relief appearances to begin the season with nine. It appears manager Mike Matheny won’t let Cecil’s early-season struggles deter him from leaning heavily on the lefty.

Another factor in how many times Matheny goes to Cecil is fellow lefty Siegrist’s struggles out of the gate. He’s allowed seven runs and walked ten in just 6 1/3 innings to begin the year. He started slowly in Spring Training two months ago because of tightness in his pitching shoulder. One wonders if that discomfort has carried over to the beginning of the season.

A third lefty, Tyler Lyons, was added to the Cardinals’ pen earlier this week. He figures to be the team’s long reliever, although he could see some high leverage or specialty situations if Cecil and Siegrist continue to falter.

Cecil and Siegrist projected to be the team’s two set-up men for Oh as the season began. Until Siegrist sorts out his command issues, it appears Rosenthal is in line for the bulk of the eighth-inning work.

Bowman probably isn’t penciled in for the seventh inning because of his value in coming in the middle of an inning to let the starting pitcher off the hook and get the team out of a jam. Still, he’s in line for plenty of high-leverage assignments.

Look for Matheny to hand the ball to Cecil with a seventh-inning lead. He’s strung together five consecutive scoreless appearances.

If on any given day the Cardinals’ starting pitcher can hand a lead off to the bullpen after six innings, the parade of relievers appears to be: Bowman, Cecil, Rosenthal, Oh.

Better yet, if the starter can go seven innings, it affords Matheny more flexibility with the back end of his bullpen. As we saw in the Pittsburgh series, the Cardinals have two closers. If Oh is unavailable because of a recent workload, Rosenthal can slide into the ninth inning.

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Oh is the closer, but Rosenthal has done it before, and he’s pitched well to begin the year. In 5 1/3 innings, he has yet to allow a walk and has struck out eleven. His undoing in previous seasons was his lack of command. Now, his fastball is hovering around triple digits with regularity and he has more confidence in his breaking ball. If he maintains his command and the bender becomes a wipeout pitch, Rosenthal could be better than he’s ever been.

Like Cecil, Oh had his best outing of the year Friday night in Milwaukee. Pitching with a three-run lead, he worked around a two-out hit and struck out the side for his third save of the year. He still has yet to pitch a clean 1-2-3 inning this season, but he located his pitches better and stayed away from the middle of the plate and the top of the strike zone.

The Cardinals’ bullpen isn’t without its concerns (Siegrist, Jonathan Broxton, Miguel Socolovich), but it appears that the late-inning relievers are gradually molding into form as the early season progresses. If Rosenthal and Oh continue to stabilize, they could be one of the better late-inning combinations in baseball.

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Add a confident Matt Bowman and consistent Brett Cecil to the mix, and the Cardinals’ back end of the bullpen could soon be humming. That makes the success of the starting pitchers all the more important. It will be their job to hold on to leads and eat up innings to get games to the late-inning hurlers.