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Saturday, August 29, 2009

Cardinals' sideshow is quite an event

By Bryan Burwell

As you begin to trace the zephyr stream that has led the Cardinals onto this high perch among the National League's best and hottest teams, the trail eventually will lead you to some rather unlikely places.

The most obvious trail surely leads us to the spectacular personnel moves that still have the entire NL buzzing. For other clues to the Redbirds' late-summer success, you must, of course, search in the vicinity of the top of the starting rotation, where the Big Three of Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Joel Piñeiro have proved to be nearly unbeatable since the start of July.

But here's exactly where we veer from the obvious.

It was early Tuesday afternoon at Busch Stadium, when it was still full of the echoes of a near-empty ballpark. Batting practice was just cranking up, and the hitters were all just working up a good sweat when you saw all of the Cardinals starting pitchers come marching out of the bullpen slowly walking across the right-field grass. They were spread out, shoulder to shoulder, strutting together in a scene reminiscent of one of those classic, slow-motion scenes you see in old NBA championship highlight films.

It was 'Carp' and Wainwright, Piñeiro, John Smoltz and the injured Kyle Lohse and Todd Wellemeyer, and they had just completed one of the most significant, yet rarely noticed rituals for the starting staff — the daily bullpen side session.

Every team in baseball has a daily side session for its starting pitchers. But few teams do it quite like the Cardinals. Along with pitching coach Dave Duncan and bullpen coach Marty Mason, every starting pitcher comes out to observe his fellow starter's important between-starts shakeout session.

"When I first got here a few years ago and did my first side session, I went into the bullpen to start working, and 'Carp' and 'Waino' and all the other guys were out there too," Piñeiro said. "I was like, 'Oh man, why are they out here?' I was thinking, 'Shoot, why can't I just get out there, do my thing and be done as quick as possible?'"

It didn't take Piñeiro long to appreciate what was going on. It was the ultimate team thing. The Cardinal pitchers are big on sharing information and dispensing knowledge. This is one of the most interactive pitching staffs in baseball, with everyone practicing the simple philosophy of paying it forward.

As well-trained as Duncan and Mason's seasoned eyes are, it's so much better when an athlete also can hear vital information coming from the astute observations of another craftsman. "At first I thought it was weird," Piñeiro said, laughing.. "But now I love it. Those side sessions are great because the other guys are just picking up on stuff. They detect the slightest thing that you are doing."

So the side session that many pitchers probably use as a mundane workout to just stretch out the arm between starts, takes on a greater meaning with this Redbirds staff. It is a heightened film study session without any need for a laborious film breakdown, because the other pitchers are the ones breaking down even the most subtle tendencies of their teammates.

It all began a number of years ago at the suggestion of Duncan, when he asked veterans Matt Morris, the late Darryl Kile, Woody Williams and Carpenter if they would mind participating in the bullpen sessions on a daily basis. "We became a group inside a group," Carpenter recalled. "You had 'Dunc' and Marty down there, but you also had a bunch of extra eyes down there trying to learn, but also trying to help, and it just caught on. You get to watch and learn different things from different guys.

"Never mind that it can help you. You can help the other guys, too. And with the quality of pitching we have here, you can watch, you can ask questions, and everyone can learn."

Smoltz, the 42-year-old graybeard who has done it all and seen it all, couldn't believe how unselfish and generous — and also how darned observant — his new teammates could be. In his first side session a week ago in San Diego, Smoltz got an eye-opening experience on the value of the Cardinals all-for-one, one-for-all collective. He thought he had already worked out all the mechanical issues that led to his early-season struggles. But what Smoltz quickly learned with the help of the collective eyes was how badly he was tipping his pitches, too.

With each pitch Smoltz threw, Carpenter, Wainwright and the other starters were basically identifying each pitch before he threw it. "When 'Carp' and the other guys were down there and they knew every pitch I'm throwing, I didn't have to look at any film of what I was doing wrong," Smoltz said. "I knew if they figured it out that easily out there, then I had to be doing the same thing in a game."

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