Isringhausen’s nightmare year continues

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ST. LOUIS – Jason Isringhausen’s countdown to 300 saves has been on hold since early May. When and if it resumes with the St. Louis Cardinals, it’ll almost certainly be a slow climb to the milestone.

The team’s fallen closer has been rehabilitated in spirit and mechanics to the point that manager Tony La Russa has been using him in the ninth inning whenever stand-in specialist Ryan Franklin needs a break. But Isringhausen flunked his latest test, failing to protect a two-run, ninth-inning cushion on Sunday against the San Diego Padres. He got booed off the field.

What happens now?

“No matter how much a veteran he is, he’s trying to do more, and today it was less,” La Russa said. “But he’s got it, he just needs to be more consistent.”

Isringhausen was 32-for-34 last year in a huge comeback from hip surgery that caused him to miss the 2006 World Series, and appeared a lock to become the 22nd member of the 300-save club this season.

He came into 2008 with 281 saves, but this season he’s been only slightly better than a coin flip in the ninth, going 11-for-19 with a 1-5 record and unsightly 6.27 ERA.

Isringhausen’s failure, and the corresponding bullpen shuffling his problems have created, is the principle reason the Cardinals’ bullpen was second in the major leagues with 20 losses and led the majors with 23 blown saves. St. Louis comfortably leads the majors in holds, a statistic reflecting the number of pitchers La Russa has had to churn through to eke out victories for one of the National League’s surprise teams.

The Cardinals were a season-best 14 games above .500 entering a four-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers, another team with a closer issue, giving Isringhausen a chance to commiserate with Eric Gagne.

Isringhausen missed a chance at save No. 293 on Friday through no fault of his own, warming up with a 1-run lead but pitching in a mop-up capacity after a four-run eighth put the game away on another day off for Franklin. While in the bullpen, he felt that old surge of excitement.

“Yeah, I got those butterflies in my stomach again,” Isringhausen said. “Like I always do.”

The old Izzy would have sat down after the salvo, leaving one of the less valuable members of the bullpen for such duty.

“It makes no difference,” Isringhausen said. “We could have tried to get somebody else up to pitch the ninth with a four-run lead, but what’s the point?”

This version of Isringhausen barely resembles the guy who holds the franchise record of 216 saves with five 30-save totals in his first six years. Instead, he appears to be just another 35-year-old in the final year of his contract who needs to rebuild badly shattered confidence.

That was the real reason he went on the 15-day disabled list in mid-May, although a lacerated hand from striking a television set in La Russa’s office in frustration gave the team a convenient out.

Before Sunday’s failure, La Russa made it clear the right-hander will have to prove himself over time, that a handful of effective outings won’t cut it.

“If he gets really hot, yeah,” the manager said. “But you just can’t give stuff up, for any of the players. The better you pitch, the more you pitch, and the better you play, the more you play.”

Franklin has been far more reliable, with 14 saves in 18 chances and an ability like Isringhausen in his prime to handle the old-style long saves. Last year Franklin was the setup man in his first year with the Cardinals and he’s been diplomatic since landing in the closer role, refusing to make waves.

“It’s totally up to the skipper,” Franklin said. “Izzy has 292 saves for a reason, he’s good at it, so whatever they decide.”