Versatile Salas carries Cardinals bullpen


Fernando Salas' relief efforts have helped the Cardinals reach the World Series. (AP photo)

The St. Louis Cardinals keep flying higher and higher. The best pitchers in baseball couldn’t ruffle their feathers, nor did the league’s best hitters. Now the Red Birds find themselves in the Fall Classic, thanks to a bullpen of overachievers who have defied all odds. The leader of the pack, fittingly enough, is Fernando Salas, who boasts just a bit over one year in major league service.

Salas, a 26-year-old marginal novice who hails from a fishing resort in Sonora, Mexico, has seen his 2011 season literally go full circle. Not even on the Cardinal’s 25-man roster when spring camp broke last April, he was first promoted to the role of “mop-up” middle reliever. But Cardinal manager Tony La Russa soon came to his senses and realized that Fernando should be his first choice as “closer by committee.” Salas would record 23 saves in 26 chances before becoming the key setup man for flame-throwing Jason Motte. That niche would end when he was called into emergency duty to pick up staff ace Chris Carpenter, who was pulled in the fourth inning of game two in the quarter finals at Philadelphia. With the Cardinals down 4-3, Salas racked up two shutout innings and a pair of strikeouts while using only 19 pitches.

“I was a little emotional out there at first,” admits Fernando during his first playoff action, “but then I felt comfortable.”

The encore would come this past weekend in Milwaukee, although not quite as pretty. While bailing out St. Louis starter Edwin Jackson in game six of the league championship, Salas held down the homer-happy Brewers to a single tally in another pair of innings, striking out three and leaving the bases loaded on his final pitch.

Salas isn’t blessed with superior velocity, but is a control specialist who works both sides of the plate and has a ridiculous change-up. Fernando is no longer the “thrower” he was as a kid when the Cardinals bought his contract in 2007 from Saltillo in the triple-A Mexican League. You can thank veteran St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan for that, if you want, but chalk up a save for La Russa, who’s a brilliant baseball mind and speaks fluent Spanish.

With a couple of days off for Cardinal relievers to rest up, look for the strategy to revert back to the plan of Octavio Dotel, Salas and Motte to finish games, in that order. But if things get sticky, expect Fernando to answer the bell, whatever the situation.

“It’s been intense for me, but I’m having fun,” says Salas. “I’ll do whatever my team asks me to do.”

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