ST. LOUIS (AP) -When Tony La Russa brings Jason Isringhausen into a game, the St. Louis Cardinals manager believes he's calling on one of baseball's elite closers - as long as the pitcher is healthy.
Derailed by a hip injury last year, Isringhausen has been better than ever the first two months of the season.
``The times he's struggled,'' La Russa said, ``there's always been some physical thing that's kept him from being himself.''
Surgery knocked Isringhausen out of the 2006 postseason after the injury contributed to a career-worst 10 blown saves. Adam Wainwright filled in for Isringhausen as the Cardinals won the World Series.
This season, Isringhausen has converted 13 of 14 save chances and displayed his durability. The franchise's career saves leader got five outs one game. In another, he pitched to one batter before a rain delay of one hour and 41 minutes, then came back to finish the game.
``I still want to go out there and prove to myself and prove to people that doubted me that I can get people out,'' Isringhausen said. ``I got people out last year on one leg for the most part, but I didn't have a good year to my standards.''
La Russa believes Isringhausen's arm is so strong he could throw every day for a week. Rarely has he been unavailable to pitch. In 19 innings, he has given up nine hits and five walks and posted a 1-0 record and 1.42 ERA.
Isringhausen walked 38 batters in 58 1-3 innings last season.
``My biggest thing last year was all the walks; it was just uncharacteristic of me,'' Isringhausen, 34, said. ``To pound the strike zone, that's what I've always been able to do. And if I can do that, I can get people out.''
His other major improvement is keeping the ball in the park. Last year, Isringhausen allowed 10 homers; he gave up 11 total in his first four seasons in St. Louis. This season, he hasn't allowed any.
Isringhausen scoffs at suggestions he might deserve a third All-Star selection. If the Cardinals were to merit only one representative, Isringhausen said, he'd prefer it go to a younger player such as Chris Duncan or Yadier Molina. Isringhausen has been more consistent than either of them in a season with few success stories for the reigning world champions.
Isringhausen has saved seven of the team's last 10 victories. He's maximized his chances on a club saddled with the second-worst record in the NL (20-28).
``When we have a game or two a week and the pressure to bring that game into the clubhouse as a winner, imagine if one of those gets away,'' La Russa said. ``Then we would really have more problems record-wise.
``If we take the lead enough, we get back in this thing.''
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