Filling all sorts of roles

An inning here, a batter there: That’s the fluid nature of Mike Matthews’ profession.

As a relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, Matthews doesn’t have a fixed role like closer Jason Isringhausen or setup man Mike Timlin.

Instead, the job is more free-flowing and often brings little notice. On June 20 against Anaheim, when Matthews, a Woodbridge High School graduate, had a line of one-third of an inning pitched, no hits, no runs, no walks, no strikeouts, one wild pitch.

Or it could be a little more notable, like Matthews’ most recent appearance, against Los Angeles: 2.2 innings, two hits, no runs, one walk, two strikeouts.

That outing earned Matthews his second win of the season, against no losses.

“One day I’ll face one batter, the next I’ll have three innings,” Matthews said during his time off for the All-Star break. “Our goal [as a bullpen] is to put up zeros every inning.”

This season, St. Louis has put up enough zeros to claim first-place in the National League Central. But standings are just one facet of the game; they reduce 25 men into three columns of numbers. The road the Cardinals took to the top of the standings doesn’t show up in those numbers.

The Cardinals and their fans dealt with the passing of longtime broadcaster and St. Louis icon Jack Buck. Less than a week later, starting pitcher Darryl Kile died suddenly in a hotel room in Chicago.

“It’s been tough. We lost a leader in Darryl,” Matthews explained. “A lot of people are walking like their heads are cut off, but we’ve had a couple of guys step up.

“I think we’ve got to pull together and be positive, with all the adversity this year,” Matthews explained. “We’ve got to keep our heads on track, play hard, and we’ll end up with a division title.”

The passing of Buck and Kile are the most visible of the Cardinals’ difficult season. But injuries and other struggles of the pitching staff haven’t helped either: St. Louis used 10 starting pitchers in April alone. Andy Benes’ rehab included a recent start with the Potomac Cannons; Bud Smith, a year removed from a no-hitter, is 0-5 this year and struggling; ace Matt Morris has been the most deeply affected by Kile’s death. Morris elected to attend, but not play in, Tuesday’s All-Star game in Milwaukee.

Smith was expected to start on Sunday, but instead was scratched the game in which Matthews’ earned his second win.

“We’ve had a lot of pitchers go down. To be two games up on the Reds, that shows a lot,” Matthews said.

The second half of the season for the rest of the major leagues begins tonight, although the Cardinals don’t have a game until Friday in San Diego. That’s when they’ll try to put a difficult first half behind them and, simultaneously, try to win a division pennant.

And whether it’s one batter or one inning or one more inning, Matthews is content with where he is, and where he’s headed.

“I expect myself to go out and pitch like I’m capable of,” he said. “I like the role I’m in, and I hope my numbers stay the same. I’m here to contribute and get us back to the playoffs.

“I’m where I want to be. [The Cardinals] gave me the opportunity to show the other teams what I can do. This is the team that I want to play with. They gave me my start.”

Brian Hunsicker is a staff writer for the Potomac News & Manassas Journal Messenger. Reach him at (703) 878-8053 or via e-mail at [email protected]

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