Wiedmer: Dalton's Boggs starts 'to establish' himself

Wiedmer: Dalton's Boggs starts 'to establish' himself

May 1st, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

ATLANTA - Wearing a full beard, Western-style long-sleeved plaid shirt and jeans, Mitchell Boggs looked more like a lumberjack than a major league relief pitcher as he stood inside the visitors' locker room at Turner Field late Saturday afternoon.

Then again, the Dalton High and University of Georgia grad had just chopped down all three Atlanta Braves he faced in the bottom of the seventh inning to help the St. Louis Cardinals beat the home team 3-2.

"Mitchell's biggest problem - maybe his only problem - has been finding that level of being ready to go, but not too ready," Cards manager Tony La Russa said after the Redbirds' second come-from-behind victory over the Braves in two days.

"He's a very competitive guy, always a very hard worker, and when he hits that level just right, like he did today, his stuff is outstanding. And he's only going to get better."

Boggs is 27, an age that often signals the prime of a professional athlete's career. And he's surrendered only one earned run in his last six appearances and 5 2/3 innings of work.

He's appeared in 12 games this season, striking out 15, walking three, recording three saves and compiling an earned run average of 1.84. But to show what kind of staff La Russa's assembling, St. Louis has four pitchers with lower ERAs who have appeared in at least seven games.

"This was just another great outing for our whole team," Boggs said of the Cards' 16th win in 27 games, a record to keep them atop the National League Central. "Just to be able to come back against their bullpen for a second straight game is tough to do. I guess we've got a pretty good bullpen, too, though."

At the start of last week he was believed to be La Russa's favorite for the closer's role in that pen. But Boggs stumbled in that spot Wednesday at Houston, blowing a save opportunity after giving up four hits and an earned run in a 6-5 loss.

But like any pitcher who expects to make it in the big leagues, Boggs didn't get bogged down with his failure. Instead he's pitched a perfect, scoreless inning each time up against the Braves.

"I certainly feel like I've got as much talent as anyone to compete at this level," he said. "I also feel like I have a real opportunity this year to establish myself."

St. Louis first gave Boggs that opportunity in 2008. He finished 3-2 in six starts, his first win a 7-2 decision at Cincinnati on June 10, and was 2-3 in nine 2009 starts. La Russa moved him last year to the bullpen, where he also went 2-3 in 61 appearances.

Asked if part of his manager's increased confidence in him this season has come from taming his over-eagerness, Boggs said, "I'll never apologize for what I do to get ready to play. You don't want to get too excited, but that energy is part of what makes me the best pitcher I can be."

He grew up watching three of the best pitchers in the game during the 1990s - Braves by the names of John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux.

"I was here for Game 6 of the 1995 World Series, when [the Braves] beat the Cleveland Indians to win it all," Boggs said. "I was so fortunate that my family gave me so many opportunities to come here for games. I still love this place."

He'll always especially love Smoltz for the way the former Braves great treated him when Smoltz briefly played for the Cards a couple of seasons back.

"It was definitely a little weird," Boggs said. "I mean, I was watching him pitch when I was 7 years old. But he actually introduced himself to me. I think someone had told him what a big fan I was, and that made it all a lot easier. He was really a great friend to me ... very helpful. It was pretty neat."

Life back home in Dalton has been anything but neat the last few days, the tornadoes too close for comfort to the home he bought last fall for himself and bride Lele Crutchfield.

"Fortunately, we didn't have any problems," said Boggs, who intended to spend Saturday night in Dalton with his wife and family. "But that doesn't mean it hasn't affected us. It's tough to see people suffering so much in a place I've spent so much of my life."

No matter what ultimately happens with his baseball career, Boggs intends to spend the rest of his life - at least during the offseason - with Lele in Dalton.

"We started dating when I was a junior and she was a freshman," he said. "She liked me when I was terrible in sports and ugly, so I knew I'd found a great one."

That it basically took him 10 years to tie the knot proves that on at least some fronts Boggs learned long ago to be ready to go, but not too ready.