Not feeling penned

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- Over time, Cal Eldred has learned to embrace the bullpen.

The right-hander came to the St. Louis Cardinals in the spring of 2003 looking to compete for a spot in the rotation. Before undergoing reconstructive elbow surgery, he had been a top starter for the Brewers and White Sox.

But he quickly settled into long relief, and lately has been one of the more reliable members of the bullpen. He assumed a more prominent role after injuries to Mike Lincoln and Kiko Calero, appearing in 15 of 31 games in a stretch of heavy activity ending Thursday.

It's been high quality, too. He's allowed runs in only eight of his last 29 appearances.

"I believe being a starting pitcher in the big leagues is the best job in America," Eldred said. "Being a realist, this is where I am and this is what I need to do to help the team.

"So it's what I'm doing."

Manager Tony La Russa believes Eldred, who has won 10 or more games five times in his career, could be a starter again. But he and pitching coach Dave Duncan also believe the move to the bullpen is best for Eldred's longevity, and La Russa noted that Eldred has been injury-free both of his seasons as a reliever.

"This is a good role for him," La Russa said. "I think he could be a good starter on this team, but it would be a question of 'Would he be able to stay healthy?'

"I think he's going to have a much better chance to pitch for several more years doing what he's doing now."

Eldred, 36, isn't arguing the point. Not after seven stints on the disabled list, all but one for his elbow, from 1995-2002. He missed the entire 2002 season and had to make the Cardinals as a non-roster invitee.

"We're into August and I haven't had any problems, so you've got to pay attention to that," Eldred said. "I feel fine, my body feels good, and I think this is something that may actually turn out to allow me to play for a few more years."

The chance of pitching in the postseason also is a nice incentive. He's never made it, and he'd much rather be in the Cardinals' bullpen than starting for a middle of the pack team.

"I spent eight years with a team that when you're at the All-Star break you're making your offseason plans, and that's not so much fun," Eldred said. "I know how much fun it is to be part of a team that gets into the playoffs."

And with age, Eldred has gained a better perspective.

"If I'm 26, I may feel totally different about the situations, but now sometimes I think my thinking is a little closer to that of a coach than a player," Eldred said. "You just understand. It's not one of the five starting spots but you still need somebody to do long relief or get an out here or there."

Eldred came to St. Louis at the urging of catcher Mike Matheny, a close friend. He wants to return next year, possibly even if Matheny isn't with the Cardinals anymore.

The team has been grooming Yadier Molina as its catcher of the future and Matheny is in the final year of his contract.

"I think they also know how well these two guys have worked together," Eldred said. "I'm glad I don't have to make that decision."

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