Tavarez recalls bone-breaking night
Reliever uses memory of last year's NLCS as motivator
HOUSTON -- St. Louis relief pitcher Julian Tavarez can't forget last Oct. 17. The two still-broken bones in his left hand serve as reminders. Yet, Tavarez, at the scene of the pain, can't help but smile at the memory.Tavarez gave up a tiebreaking homer to Carlos Beltran, which led to a Houston 6-5 victory in Game 4 of last year's National League Championship Series. He then came into the dugout and punched the phone that manager Tony La Russa had used to call the bullpen and get him ready in the first place. Yet, in the twisted world of Tavarez, specifically, and relievers in general, all this brings a smile to his face. "To me, it was bad, but it was good," Tavarez said. "It pushed me to get out there in Games 6 and 7 -- to get out there and pitch well. I was really proud that I went out there -- and did it with two broken fingers in my hand -- three scoreless innings in Games 6 and 7, and I won Game 6." Nearly a year later, Tavarez finds himself trying to turn a bad experience into a good one, against the same opponent, possibly in Saturday's Game 3 of this year's NLCS, a series that's tied at a game apiece. And he doesn't have to wear a soft cast and take painkilling injections to do it, the way he had to last year when he made not only the big appearances against Houston, but went 0-1 in two World Series appearances against Boston. The key setup man for closer Jason Isringhausen, Tavarez has been hit hard this postseason. In three appearances, he has faced 16 batters and accomplished seven outs -- but also given up seven hits, including a home run and a triple, walked one and hit a batter. Tavarez hasn't lost any games. The first two appearances coming in the three-game sweep of San Diego didn't hurt. But on Thursday, La Russa went back to Tavarez in the eighth inning of Game 2 with the Cardinals trailing, 2-1. Tavarez gave up two runs on three hits. Two of them were hit hard. Lance Berkman led off with a double, and Adam Everett added a two-out, RBI triple on which left fielder Reggie Sanders suffered back and neck injuries trying to make the play. Tavarez threw his hands to the sky in dismay after a couple of the hits, but no punches flew. La Russa saw enough good pitches from Tavarez to trust that he'll learn from the bad ones. "I think it's been mostly the breaking ball," La Russa said. "If you watched yesterday's game, he made two breaking ball mistakes, and that's where he got hit. His sinker, he's the guy that retired [Jason] Lane and [Morgan] Ensberg, right? Dynamite sinker. "Just make the adjustment, man. Make better pitches with the breaking ball and keep firing that sinker in there." The Cardinals lean heavily on Tavarez, who leads the staff with 29 postseason appearances (2-4, 3.81 ERA in 28 1/3 innings). The phone incident and several emotional outbursts over a career spent with seven teams has led some to brand Tavarez a hothead, but the Cards see a dependable and talented pitcher. "He's been around [since breaking in with Cleveland in 1993], and it's what he does," bullpen coach Marty Mason said. "He has pitched in World Series [with Cleveland and St. Louis] and knows how to handle himself. He knows how to bounce back."
The frequency of bad pitches is no laughing matter. Tavarez said he'll go back and look at replays of his good breaking balls to find his groove again. At his best when aggressive, Tavarez said he became too careful with two out and gave up a Chris Burke single and the triple.But the phone incident continues to evoke laughter from him. If he ever stops laughing, there are his teammates. "I have to hear at least once a day about the phone," he said, smiling. Fellow reliever Ray King said the least he can do is profit. "We all joke about it with him, tell him he should get a phone deal," King said. "But in perspective, he's been our go-to guy in the seventh and eighth inning. I tell him no matter what people say or do, the only guys that matter are the 25 in here." Tavarez said he often pays no attention to the thousands in the stands. But the memory of last year is such a fond one that he'll welcome hearing about it from the sold-out house at Minute Maid during pregame introductions. "They should, because this is not home for me," Tavarez said. The ringing in Tavarez's ears will only make him smile.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.