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Overlooked bullpen ready for call

Overlooked bullpen ready for call

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ST. LOUIS -- Dan Wheeler has a sense of pride in the fact that the average baseball fan would not recognize his name.

His job is to be the utilityman of the pitching staff; be ready at any time in any situation for any undermined amount of time. He, along with Russ Springer, Chad Qualls and Mike Gallo are the middle relievers in a bullpen that is easily overshadowed by the Astros starting pitching. Their sole mission: get the ball in the hands of closer Brad Lidge.

"If you mention the names of Qualls and Wheeler and Springer, it doesn't exactly make people shudder, and most people don't know who they are," Astros skipper Phil Garner said.

It's a relay that has taken time to develop, but its harmonious synchronization is an area that is overlooked and could be a decided edge against the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, which gets under way Wednesday night.

"I prefer it that way," Wheeler said of being overlooked. "I just go out and do my job, and if I slide under the radar, that's OK with me. It's more valuable to me to know my teammates know I am out there doing my best job."

Last season, the Astros bullpen was full of youth, which translated into a bullpen that was inconsistent at best. This season, Qualls and Wheeler have emerged as the top middle relievers. Qualls has improved his holds total from just nine last season to 22 in 2005. Wheeler has upped his holds from five to 17. And to cap it off, Lidge improved his saves total from 29 in 2004 to 42 in 2005. He finished third in the National League in saves, and he led all closers with 103 strikeouts.

Some already consider Lidge -- who made his first All-Star appearance this season -- the best closer in the National League.

"Lidge is the real deal," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "He's the guy who is in the upper echelon of closers. You don't have a plan when you face him; you just go to bat and try to compete. If he's pitching, it's good for Houston and not good for us."

But behind every great closer are great middle relievers and Lidge knows why he has been successful this season.

"[The middle relievers] have thrown so well in the late innings this season that I haven't had to throw nearly as many innings as I did last year," Lidge said.

The turn from potential to talent began last season and has equaled consistency in 2005. Wheeler began to gain confidence last season in the playoffs, appearing in four games and giving up no runs in seven innings.

"[Wheeler is] a sneaky pitcher. His fastball doesn't light up with velocity, but it jumps on hitters," Lidge said. "Chad Qualls has tremendous stuff. He can throw in the mid 90s with his sinker. It was just a matter of time before he started doing well. It's young guys that are learning to pitch and learning to trust their stuff more."

Never was the bullpen's effectiveness more evident than on Sunday in Game 4 of the NL Divisional Series against Atlanta. Starter Brandon Backe was pulled after 4 1/3 innings and the bullpen (including Wandy Rodriguez and Roger Clemens who usually start) combined for 13 2/3 innings, giving up just one run and eight hits. Rodriguez allowed the only run.

"It's hard to say that there has been a better performance that that by our bullpen," Lidge said. "The [regular relievers] didn't give up anything. I think it speaks a lot about our bullpen guys' will to win the game."

Several of the relievers used went further than the one or two innings they typically pitch, including Wheeler, who pitched three innings, and Lidge, who pitched two. Despite having to pitch longer, the bullpen should be ready and rested come Wednesday.

"Physically, having yesterday completely off was huge," Wheeler said. "We had a light workout today and we're ready to go."

Stephen A. Norris is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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