Kline wrestles back into success

Thursday, May 27, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- Getting back on the wrestling mat helped Steve Kline put his career back on track.

The St. Louis Cardinals' left-handed reliever, toughened by offseason bouts with high school wrestlers in his native Pennsylvania, is back on his game with a 2.40 ERA in 25 games. Before allowing a pair of runs on Friday at Chicago, he had been unscored upon in 14 consecutive appearances covering 8 2/3 innings, and only four of 18 inherited runners have scored all season.

Kline didn't wrestle in the offseason following the 2002 season because the Cardinals had injury concerns, and his numbers suffered. So did his waistline. He played at about 230 pounds, or about 15 pounds heavier than usual, and the result was a so-so 3.82 ERA.

"They were worried I was going to get hurt or be tired at the end of the year," Kline said. "Last year I came in out of shape. I had to get back to what got me ready."

Those extra pounds are gone now, melted away during the winter by an assortment of opponents that included a three-time state champion, and the bite is back on his breaking ball.

"He's pitched great," general manager Walt Jocketty said. "Part of it is he's in much better physical condition than last year.

"He'll be the first to admit that. It makes a big difference: You can't just show up and play."

Kline also has peace of mind after signing a one-year contract with the Cardinals. His lame-duck status bothered him last season, contributing to the worst of his three seasons with the team even though he was among the league leaders with 78 appearances.

"There were times I didn't want to come to the ballpark," Kline said. "It was hard to get happy when I was here.

"That was my first year of failing and I actually ended up OK, but in my eyes I had a failing year."

This year, in addition to being in better shape, Kline has a better attitude.

"I just worry about pitching; I don't care about anything else," he said. "I got caught up in things I didn't have to get into, and I was worried about what people were thinking and saying, and what the organization was thinking.

"This year I'm just showing up to pitch and having fun, enjoying my time in the big leagues."

Kline, who is making $1.7 million this year, said his experiences last year brought it home that this is business.

"I had an eye-opener with the free agent market and now I know what I have to do," Kline said. "Now I know what the game is all about.

"This year I wanted to come back to prove I could be as good as the last couple of years."

Kline has always been extremely durable, and at his best he can also be dominant. In 2001, his first season with the Cardinals, he had a 1.80 ERA. He led the NL in appearances for the three straight years from 1999-2001.

This year, he's been so effective that no one knew he was bothered by a stiff neck for the last two weeks. Worried a bit because he also had neck pain last year in spring training, Kline had an MRI exam Tuesday that showed no problems.

"I felt a little bit of pain so I didn't want it to get to the point where it was last year," Kline said. "Everything seemed OK."

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