ST. LOUIS -- Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa insists that the ninth inning is a different animal for a reliever. For La Russa, protecting a tight lead for the final three outs is a much higher mountain to climb than doing the same thing in the eighth.
He put his closer where his mouth is on Thursday, and it didn't work out. Jason Isringhausen found holding onto a one-run lead in the eighth to be just as trying as collecting a save. Isringhausen was charged with four runs, three earned, and his sixth blown save of the year in an 11-5 loss to the Pirates.
Now the right-hander is left wondering not only how to get right, but what his future holds.
"I don't know what we're going to do," Isringhausen said. "I wish I could say that I was hurt, that my arm was falling off or that I couldn't land. But I can't do that. The people that are standing there at home plate tell you what the end result should be. I'm not getting any swings-and-misses, so that's saying something about my stuff. I feel healthy, but maybe my healthy is not good enough."
Not that Isringhausen was alone in contributing to the demoralizing defeat. Handed a 5-1 lead, Joel Pineiro allowed the Buccos to crawl back into the game with a three-run fifth. Ron Villone allowed three runs of his own in the ninth, turning a significant deficit into an insurmountable one. And the Cardinals' offense went to sleep after a big fourth, with three base hits and no runs over the final five frames.
But the player who drew the most postgame attention from reporters, as well as the ire of an announced crowd of 41,244, was Isringhausen. The deposed closer saw a modest two-game scoreless streak end as his ERA ballooned to a season-high 8.00.
The Cardinals had removed Isringhausen from ninth-inning duties, preferring to use him in lower-pressure, lower-leverage situations. He pitched with a large deficit on Monday, in his first game after being demoted. On Wednesday, Isringhausen protected a four-run lead in the ninth.
That was evidently enough to convince La Russa that Isringhausen was very close to being his old self, because the manager called on his horse in a tight situation. Pitching less than 18 hours after his previous appearance, Isringhausen was summoned to protect a 5-4 lead in the top of the eighth.
"I knew kind of what the program was going to be," Isringhausen said. "Get a few innings in non-save situations, then try to ease my way back into it. So this was the perfect one. After a couple scoreless, put me in a game like this. And I just proved to them that it's not going to work."
La Russa explained that while it might have been his preference to keep Isringhausen out of such a situation, he felt he had few options. Russ Springer was unavailable after pitching two days in a row. Kyle McClellan had already pitched earlier in the game. Ryan Franklin is serving as the closer while Isringhausen tries to get right. And Mike Parisi is being held out until Sunday, if possible, because a sore shoulder could cause Kyle Lohse to skip a start.
That left Isringhausen.
"If we're playing games with a chance to win, the guys in the bullpen are all important," La Russa said. "If you're playing games that get away from you, it's different. You can only do so much not to use Izzy in a situation."
The manager pointed out that if Pineiro had not come unraveled, it likely would have been a different game. With a low pitch count and a good game going in the fifth, Pineiro permitted three runs on four hits and a walk, and he was pulled for a pinch-hitter in the bottom half of the frame. If Pineiro lasts six or seven innings, Isringhausen likely doesn't have to pitch.
Isringhausen's command was clearly off from the start, as he issued a four-pitch walk to Doug Mientkiewicz to open the eighth. He got ahead of Ronny Paulino, 1-2, but Paulino lined a single into left field to put the go-ahead run on base.
The turning point of the inning likely came with the next batter. Chris Gomez attempted to bunt the runners over, and Isringhausen fielded the ball with a chance to retire the lead runner. However, his throw sailed wide of Troy Glaus at third base, sending Mientkiewicz home, Paulino to third and Gomez to second base.
Four pitches later, Jason Bay crushed a three-run pinch-homer to send Pittsburgh to victory.
"They give me a freebie, and I still don't make an out," Isringhausen said. "That's just one of those things where if it can go wrong, it does go wrong. You just try to regroup and make a better pitch. Make a decent pitch, but it still gets hit out. If anybody has any answers, go ahead and give them to me."
It's unclear what options the Cardinals have with Isringhausen, other than simply to avoid using him for a while. He is adamant in his assertion that he is healthy, so he almost certainly can't be placed on the disabled list. For a 13-year Major League veteran, a stint in the Minor Leagues would be quite complicated -- though Isringhausen admitted that if the possibility were broached, he might be open to it.
"I'm sure I'll either get a phone call tonight at home, or I'll meet with everybody tomorrow," Isringhausen said. "It's just the way it's worked in the past. Not with me, but with people that have been [playing poorly]. I never thought this day would come, but it's here."