Once the most dominant aspect of this Cardinals team, the bullpen seem to have lost their way as of late. Is this a slump or the new trend?

Last year, the Cardinals’ bullpen had the 3rd lowest ERA in the MLB at 2.82. Without losing anybody from that dominant unit in the offseason and even gaining Seung-hwan Oh, we expected the bullpen to continue their level of success, if not get better than they were in 2015. However, currently, they are ranked 7th with a 2.89 ERA. Though the statistics may not seem that different, the bullpen deserves the blame for many of the recent losses.

What happened in the Pirates series was just a microcosm of what has been happening all season. In blowouts or games against bad teams, the bullpen has taken advantage of those innings to boost their ERA. However, in tight games or games against good teams, they haven’t risen to the occasion. We have seen them give up key runs too many times in pivotal innings, which usually results in a loss for the Cardinals.

In the second game of the Pirates series, Adam Wainwright did his job and delivered the bullpen a 1-run lead in the 7th inning. However, Oh was not able to strand the inherited runner at third base and the hit he gave up resulted in a tie game. Later in the game, the offense delivered another 1-run lead, but Trevor Rosenthal blew the save opportunity and the Pirates once again tied the game. Had it not been for a clutch 2-run walk-off home run by Matt Carpenter, the Cardinals would have been swept by their division foes.

In the final game of this three game set, the bullpen struggled again. The bullpen gave up 6 total runs including a key 3-run home run to Gregory Polanco. The offense tried to rally and even scored three runs in the 7th, but the 6 runs the bullpen gave up in 3 innings was too tall of a task. The bullpen simply blew up.

So, what is the problem? Well, as it stands right now, of the seven-man bullpen, four pitchers have been solid and three have not performed well enough.

Oh (1.65 ERA), Rosenthal (1.80 ERA), Jonathan Broxton (2.77 ERA), and Kevin Siegrist (2.77 ERA) have all effectively pitched in their roles. These are the numbers you expect to see from this dominant unit. Though Rosenthal blew his most recent save opportunity, he still has been good at his job in the 9th inning role. Oh has slowly become the most reliable pitcher for any situation in the back end of games.

Unfortunately, Seth Maness (4.38 ERA), Matt Bowman (5.25 ERA), and Tyler Lyons (5.27) haven’t been as good. Each of these pitchers were called upon in a key moment during the Pirates series and none of them delivered. Those breakdown innings are what separate contenders from pretenders.

So, can this bullpen figure it out? Well, I blame the bullpens failures on two factors. First, Maness, Bowman, and Lyons all need fine tuning. They have all shown glimpses that they still have their 2015 form somewhere inside of them. But, they all need time to figure it out.

This leads me to my second factor. Mike Matheny‘s decision-making to put these struggling pitchers into key situations. More times than not, the pitching rotation has gone six innings or longer. In a close game, that leaves only three innings where you need your bullpen to be lights out. In those situations, Matheny needs to go to his top four guys (Oh, Rosenthal, Broxton, and Siegrist). Though its tough to ask 4 guys to shoulder that load from night in to night out, that’s what needs to happen until Maness, Bowman, or Lyons can prove that they are reliable.

For now, the bottom three guys need to pitch in every meaningless game possible. Those stress-free opportunities give them a chance to work out their mechanics. Eventually, they’ll figure it out. Let them figure it out in easy wins, not in rivalry games where every game counts. Unfortunately, the Cardinals are embarking upon a week-long road trip to Los Angeles and will face two very tough opponents in the Dodgers and Angels.

Right now, Matheny doesn’t have a system developed yet. With the exception of Rosenthal at closer, every other pitcher has been experimented in every scenario. When a struggling pitcher is put into a key situation and he blows the game, it has such a negative impact on that pitchers confidence and the blame belongs to Matheny.

The stuff has certainly been there for this bullpen and we’ve seen enough to believe that they can truly be the best bullpen in this league. However, for now, certain pitchers need to figure out their mechanics and Matheny also needs to understand how to use his relievers.

As it stands right now, the playoff race will likely come down to the last few days of the season, with the Cardinals battling for a spot in the October Classic. If they want to be there, then the bullpen will need to be better. For the Cardinals to be successful, the hitting, the starting pitching, and the bullpen have to all work as one to win a game. Right now, the hitting has been there and the starting pitching is starting to figure it out. Now, it’s time for the bullpen to get back on track.

Photo Captured by Jeff Curry- USA Today Sports