The way Bruce Sutter sees it, when he doesn't pitch it means things are either going really well or terribly for the Cardinals.
"Either we're winning, 7-0 (as they did Thursday), or we're getting blown out," said Sutter as he and his teammates waited out tonight's rain delay and eventual postponement, the second in three days of the National League championship series. "If I'm in, it means it's still close."
Sutter, the bearded reliever from Lancaster, Pa., finished up 58 games for the Cardinals this year, saved 36 and won nine. But he hasn't been on the mound since Saturday and people have begun wondering if the long layoff could affect him when he does get the call.
Sinker pitchers thrive on excessive work; the sink seems to get stronger the wearier they are. But Sutter said not for him, because his pitch isn't a conventional sinker, as most baseball fans know, but instead a split-finger fast ball that plummets as it reaches the plate.
"Most sinker ball pitchers throw three-quarters overhand, but I throw over the top and I have to be strong. If I'm tired, I throw horsefeathers."
As to the notion that the unaccustomed layoff could dull his edge, Sutter said, "After 162 games I'm not going to lose it in four or five days."
Sutter's name is being mentioned for league most valuable player honors after his season of game-saving for the Cardinals. But nine years ago his career was almost ended when a pinched nerve took the bite out of his fast ball. As a 20-year-old second-year man in Class A ball at Quincy, Ill., he looked for something to save his livelihood.
"Fred Martin showed me the (split-finger) pitch," said Sutter. "He was a minor league coach in the Cubs chain. He really liked me and he spent a lot of time with me." After an arduous apprenticeship, Sutter mastered it.
With all the success Sutter has had with the pitch, it seems odd no one else has followed his lead. But, Sutter said, "not everybody can do it." After a look at exactly what he does with the baseball, it makes sense.
"I hold it like this," said Sutter, jamming the ball about a third of the way through the gap between his first and second fingers until it was wedged in firmly. "Then I push it through with my thumb as I release it," and he did that, the ball emerging with a pop.
The effect is that his arm comes winging through the air with great speed but the ball's speed doesn't match it, having been slowed by being forced through the gap between the fingers.
"Plus I have a herky-jerky motion," said Sutter.
He said the pitch came easily to him. "The first time I threw it it broke. It just took three years for me to learn how to control it. In class A ball if I could get it over nobody could hit it. But I'd come out one day and throw strikes, and the next day I'd bounce it halfway to the plate."
Less committed pitchers might have given up, but Sutter said he threw nothing but split-fingers until he had it under control.
In 1976 he was called up to the Cubs and went 6-3 with 10 saves using his unusual pitch. In the six seasons since then, he's saved 184 games while emerging as the premier late relief man in the league. He was acquired by the Cardinals Dec. 9, 1980, in trade for two third basemen, Ken Reitz and Ty Waller, and outfielder first-baseman Leon Durham.
If the rain ever stops and he gets a chance to pitch in this series, it will mark his first postseason appearance ever. He's waiting enthusiastically. "Let me tell you about getting psyched up for that spoiler role," he said of his long tenure with the lowly Cubs. "It don't mean nothing."