Call for Cal - Eldred gives Cards some relief in closer spots

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- Cal Eldred signed with the St. Louis Cardinals aiming to resurrect his career as a starting pitcher. Instead, right now he's the only guy who can get outs in the ninth inning.

Jason Isringhausen's painfully slow rehabilitation from offseason shoulder surgery has held back the defending NL Central champions, who were two games above .500 after beating the Chicago Cubs 2-0 Monday. The stand-in closers were a collective 9-for-19 in save situations.

Right now, Eldred is giving the team a welcome dose of security. He earned his first career save in his 209th career appearance on Thursday, then followed up with two more saves the next three days.

"I think he's challenged by it, and he loves a challenge," manager Tony La Russa said.

Eldred, 35, missed all last season recuperating from reconstructive elbow surgery, and virtually all of 2001. In spring training he was among seven candidates for five rotation spots. No way, he figured, would closing be a part of the job description.

Then again, he's just happy to be in the major leagues after his ordeal. There's a 5-inch screw near his elbow, implanted in 2000.

"The last couple of years of my baseball career have been so crazy I don't know where it's going," Eldred said. "All I know is I get to come to the park, I get to put a jersey on, I get to play with a great team.

"If I can contribute whatever way it is, I'm pretty happy with that."

Nothing Eldred does is a surprise to the Cardinals, who remembered the one-time 16-game winner as a gritty competitor with the Brewers and White Sox in the 1990s. Except, perhaps, his durability. When Eldred quickly retired pinch hitters Eric Karros and Mark Bellhorn with a runner on first to nail down a 6-3 victory on Sunday, he was pitching for the third time in four days.

An occasional day off

However, he wasn't available on Saturday after working back-to-back games for the first time in his comeback because he couldn't get loose. So the Cardinals, who have gotten saves from Steve Kline (3-for-4), Jeff Fassero (1-for-2), Kiko Calero (1-for-3) and Dustin Hermanson (1-for-4), haven't ruled out any of those guys for the closer role in the near future.

Isringhausen could be back as soon as June 1 after a couple of impressive bullpen outings, the latest on Sunday. But until that happens, all of them remain in the mix.

"We'll just have to wait and see how often he can bounce back because this is something that's brand new for his arm," La Russa said of Eldred. "I wouldn't know about tomorrow, really. I wouldn't say he's a rubber arm."

Early in the season, the comeback looked extremely iffy. After his first two appearances, Eldred had retired exactly one batter and allowed five runs for an astronomical 135.00 ERA.

"I wasn't sure I was going to get an out after the first couple of days," Eldred said. "That's the game of baseball. It's a funny game."

In his last 13 appearances, Eldred has allowed only two runs in 16 innings with 15 strikeouts.

"He's got experience, he's got good composure, he throws strikes -- the things you need to do late in the game," pitching coach Dave Duncan said. "And he maintains his cool out there."

Fellow bullpen mates helped Eldred with that, reminding him at the start of the season when he was in middle relief not to let an outing drag him down. He also believes that his job really hasn't changed that much.

"More people might be standing there and clapping in the ninth inning than the seventh," Eldred said. "But you've got to make good pitches. I just think no matter what you've got to be ready right now."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: