Tavarez finds a home in St. Louis

Wednesday, May 4, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- Last year, the Cardinals became the sixth team in six often tumultuous seasons for Julian Tavarez. And finally, the pitcher most likely to get the bulk of the save opportunities while Jason Isringhausen is on the disabled list appears to have found a home.

Controversy still seems to follow Tavarez, considering his broken left hand sustained in a playoff tantrum last fall and an ejection for having a foreign substance on his cap in August. But the Cardinals couldn't have asked for more on the mound or in the clubhouse.

"We like him a lot," manager Tony La Russa said. "I think he's really an asset."

Tavarez arrived in St. Louis with baggage that likely kept him on the move. He's been suspended at least five times and his left hand still feels the effects of his attack of a dugout phone in the playoffs against Houston, when he broke his left ring finger and fifth metacarpal.

The pinky is unnaturally bent.

"It's still messed up and when the weather is cold, it hurts," Tavarez said. "I don't mind. I will live."

Tavarez also received an eight-game suspension last August for using a foreign substance, believed by umpires to come from the often smudged bill of his cap.

But for the most part, La Russa said the Cardinals have seen a much more mature pitcher. It didn't take long for Tavarez and La Russa, who seem to have a playful relationship, to get on the same wavelength.

"I call him the big horse, caballo," said Tavarez, who is from the Dominican Republic. "I've got a lot of respect for him like he's got respect for the players."

Entering Tuesday's game at Cincinnati, Tavarez had saved two of the Cardinals' three victories -- including Monday night's come-from-behind victory at Cincinnati -- since Isringhausen was sidelined with a strained right abdomen last week. He was the natural choice for the stand-in job, given that he had 11 saves in 2003 for the Pirates and four more last year with St. Louis.

And that the role didn't spook him.

"I go out there and get three outs, and the seventh, eighth, ninth inning, it's all the same," Tavarez said. "The game is always on the line.

"Some guys make it a little harder because they haven't been around long enough, but I've been around and I know it's just part of the job."

Says La Russa: "He's fearless. He's absolutely fearless."

Tavarez knows he's just a caretaker for Isringhausen, who tied a franchise record with 47 saves last year and is 7-for-7 this year.

"I'm not going to get comfortable in somebody's house because it doesn't belong to me," Tavarez said. "I'm just happy they let me in for a while."

The top left-hander on the team, Ray King, has the same attitude. He knows whatever chances he get are as a fill-in.

"That's everybody's ultimate dream, being a closer," King said. "We're kind of like that temporary service, Manpower, we get to work for a few weeks and then everybody goes back to their role.

"For now, guys just have to step up."

Tavarez, who'll turn 32 later this month, has been effective starting and relieving in his career. He led the NL with 89 appearances with the Giants in 1997 and made 55 starts in 2001 and 2002 for the Cubs and Marlins. Last year, he had a career-best 2.38 ERA and appeared in 77 games with St. Louis.

Through it all, he's been a marketable commodity for seven teams in 10 major league seasons. He's happy pitching, period, although he knows he could be on the move again next year after his present two-year contract expires.

"I would want to stay here for the rest of my career," Tavarez said. "But I won't be surprised when it's time to leave. That's the way it goes."

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