ST. LOUIS -- After a regular season in which the Cardinals' bullpen led the National League in ERA, it all blew up in the Division Series.

The ERA, that is. Not any games, and that's the important thing to Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.

"I feel like in that series, just like all year long, when things got tense, each of those guys made pitches, and we kept the lead," La Russa said.

True, the bullpen kept the Padres from ever taking the lead in the Cardinals' three-game sweep, but it wasn't always pretty. From the five-run rally the Padres sparked by scoring against four different relievers in Game 1, the Cardinals' bullpen wasn't sharp as a whole, but ultimately wasn't detrimental to the bottom line.

In a combined 11 appearances during the three-game sweep over the Padres, covering 8 1/3 innings, Cardinals relievers had an 8.64 ERA, with each of the five relievers who pitched allowing at least one run. For a unit that held a 3.17 ERA through the course of the regular season, the series won't go down as its shining moment.

"I won't say the first round was good for our bullpen," said setup man Julian Tavarez, who gave up a run on two hits in each of his two outings. "We were a little shaky. But our starting pitchers and our hitters made sure we didn't have to panic with the leads we had.

"We're looking forward to getting back out there for the second series, and we expect to do better than what we did in the Division Series."

Like his manager, Tavarez has been around long enough to look at the bottom line -- they were scored upon so they bent, but the Cardinals relievers did not break.

"We gave up runs, but we didn't really give up anything," Tavarez said.

Added La Russa: "Each guy got important outs to get us to the finish line."

For example, lefty Randy Flores got a bases-loaded strikeout to end the eighth inning of Game 2, and closer Jason Isringhausen got the final out of the eighth in Game 3 before battling through the ninth for the series-clinching save.

The Cardinals had to adjust heading into the Division Series, having lost versatile right-handed reliever Al Reyes with a season-ending elbow injury on the final day of the regular season. Reyes allowed a run in just nine of his 65 appearances, posted a 2.15 ERA and allowed a .177 opponents' batting average.

Both Brad Thompson and Cal Eldred made the Division Series roster with the absence of Reyes, joining fellow right-handers Tavarez, Isringhausen and left-handers Flores and Ray King -- the veteran who did not appear in the Division Series after learning of his father's death.

La Russa isn't about to look to the absence of Reyes as any factor in the Cardinals' relief issues in the Division Series.

"I want to make sure Al Reyes gets the credit he deserves, but you don't want to speak so much about that and pretty soon it sounds like we can't win without him," La Russa said. "That's an important miss for us, but we have other guys who can step up."

La Russa certainly had his relief charges stepping up to the rubber plenty in the Division Series. He used four relievers in Game 1, three in Game 2 and four in Game 3.

The Padres were able to scratch out some late runs each time, but La Russa came away content that the relievers were throwing strikes and going after the hitters.

"I've answered this question every time exactly how I believe it, and that is that we had the luxury of a crooked-number lead, and the responsibility of our relievers were No. 1: Get outs. But No. 2: Don't give them any cheap opportunities, which means walking guys because you're being too fine," La Russa said.

The Cardinals' relievers have a tough task ahead of them with the Astros, who hit Tavarez pretty hard (6 ER in 9 IP) and created two of the four blown save opportunities for Isringhausen in his 39-save season.

For Tavarez, feeling good physically is the key to moving past what in his words was a shaky Division Series.

"I feel 120-percent healthy, so it's easy to put it behind me," Tavarez said.