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World Series could become battle of bullpens

Neftali Feliz #30 of the Texas Rangers celebrates

Neftali Feliz #30 of the Texas Rangers celebrates after the final out of the Rangers the 3-2 win over the Detroit Tigers in Game One of the American League Championship Series at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. (Oct. 8, 2011) Photo Credit: Getty Images

ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals advanced to the World Series by relying less on their starting pitchers in a seven-game playoff than any team in history. The St. Louis rotation accounted for only 46 percent of the innings during the NLCS.

That's to be expected from Tony La Russa, whose reputation as a frequent button-pusher is not limited to the postseason. But Ron Washington had someone call the bullpen nearly as often in the ALCS, with the Rangers sticking to their rotation only 51 percent of the time.

It's enough to make a starting pitcher jump when hearing his BlackBerry ring.

"I wouldn't say worry is a good word," said the Rangers' C.J. Wilson, who will oppose Chris Carpenter in Game 1. "You don't worry your way to the World Series. We have the ability to go deep into games -- it's just sometimes the game situation hasn't dictated that."

With deep, powerful lineups on both sides, that trend is not expected to change in this World Series, which begins Wednesday night at Busch Stadium.

"With the firepower we have in the bullpen, we can turn these into five-inning games," said the Rangers' Mike Adams, who was acquired from the Padres at midseason to be their setup man. "If that's what it takes, we're ready to go."

It's important to note that Adams didn't specify who gets to pitch those five innings -- did he mean the starters or the relievers? It used to be considered a coup if a team could shorten a game to seven innings, with a dominant setup man and closer. Or maybe even six, with a lethal lefty-righty matchup combo to stretch that bridge farther.

But five? That's almost unheard of. For a team to advance to the World Series, it figures to have a rotation that at least can pitch long enough to earn credit for a victory on occasion. But in the NLCS, Carpenter was the Cardinals' only starter to pick up a win by squeezing in five innings. For the Rangers, the bullpen earned all four victories, with Alexi Ogando getting two.

"It's a different atmosphere now," said Cardinals starter Edwin Jackson, who was pulled from Game 2 of the NLCS after 41/3 innings despite having a 7-2 lead. "During the regular season, you might be allowed to get out of a jam, but not in the playoffs. That jam might cost you the ballgame."

La Russa made an NLCS-record 28 pitching changes in the six games the Cardinals needed to oust the Brewers. Not surprisingly, that broke his own record of 25.

Washington is prepared to do the same. He pulled his bullpen strings 25 times during the ALCS in toppling the Tigers in six games. When asked Tuesday about "matching wits" with La Russa, Washington deferred to the future Hall of Famer.

"Well, I don't think I can ever live up to matching a wit with Tony La Russa," Washington said. "But what I will try to do is put my players in the right position, and if my players perform, I don't have to worry about matching wits. They'll take care of things."

La Russa employs an amoeba-like bullpen, one that doesn't necessarily take on any defined shape or structure. Only toward the end of the season did he settle on using Jason Motte as the closer. The rest of the spots can be filled in any way La Russa sees fit, depending on the matchup and situation.

"If the phone rings, you go out there and do your thing," Motte said. "It's one of these bullpens where you check your ego at the door."

When that door has swung open this October for both teams, the result nearly always has been good. During the regular season, the Rangers' 4.11 bullpen ERA was 27th in the majors, but in the playoffs the relief corps is 4-0 with a 2.34 ERA. The 1997 Indians, in the 1997 ALCS, are the only other team whose bullpen won four games.

As for the Cardinals, their 3.60 bullpen ERA ranked 13th in the majors during the season. This month, the relievers are 4-0 with a 2.55 ERA.

"How many World Series do you find where the bullpens are going to be the deciding factor?" Adams said. "It's going to come down to the bullpens. The leash is going to be quick."

New York Sports