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Alex Reyes is up to 9 â…” innings pitched in the big leagues, and he still hasn’t allowed a run. He made his fifth career appearance Tuesday night, getting seven outs (including four strikeouts) in what ended up being a 7-4 Cardinals loss. In that game, he took over in the fifth inning, after Jaime Garcia struggled through four and put the Cardinals in a 6-4 hole. He threw 33 pitches and faced 10 batters, on three days’ rest. That’s been roughly typical so far. In his first four outings, he faced three, nine, eight, and five batters, threw 11, 51, 37, and 22 pitches, and had two, three, two, and two days’ rest, respectively.

This is not the way these things usually work, though. Reyes was a starter all year in Triple-A Memphis, before being promoted to the parent club. Most of the time, there’s a bifurcated path top pitching prospects follow when they join contending teams mid-season. They can either be slotted into the rotation, or pushed into high-leverage short relief work. This season, for instance, Jameson Taillon has established himself as a key member of the Pirates’ rotation. When an electric pitcher comes up this late in the season, though, he usually slides into a setup relief role, the way Francisco Rodriguez famously did, and the way Trevor Rosenthal did when he came up after the All-Star break in 2012. The long relief role Reyes has filled so far for the Cardinals is not usually assigned to pitchers of his pedigree, even in the heat of playoff races.

If things were but a bit worse for the Cardinals in terms of starting pitching, perhaps Reyes would be filling in as a member of the rotation. Michael Wacha did get shelved with his lingering shoulder trouble, but Luke Weaver got that rotation slot, perhaps because he demonstrated better command during his time as a starter in the minors this year than did Reyes. Otherwise, the Cardinals have largely kept their rotation healthy, and none of their starters have been bad enough to leave an opening for Reyes.

Nor is there a pressing need for Reyes in short relief. Seung-Hwan Oh has been everything the team hoped he would be. Kevin Siegrist is a fine left-handed set-up man. Matthew Bowman and Jonathan Broxton fill in in front of him, and Zach Duke shored up their need for a situational lefty once they moved Siegrist into the eighth inning. That left the door open for the Cardinals to do things this way.

And it’s working brilliantly. The offense couldn’t come back against the Mets on Tuesday, but on Aug. 13, when Reyes took over for Weaver after four innings and fired three perfect ones, the Cardinals took advantage by catching up (and eventually beating) the Cubs. On Aug. 16, it was two innings to preserve a lead the offense had already built, after Garcia barely made it through the fifth frame. The idea with Reyes, Mike Matheny’s plan, seems to be that his dominance can be used to bring back lost games, or to keep fragile ones from tipping the wrong way during the middle innings.

That’s what the Cardinals need right now, and they need it badly. They’re not winning the division. They’re not even a lock to win a Wild Card berth, though they sit in a good spot in that regard. They don’t need someone to sew up the games they’ve already nearly won, and they don’t need someone to shape the outcome of every fifth contest. What they needed most, with this deep and talented but inconsistent starting rotation, and with so many teams vying for the small slice of a playoff berth that remains to be won, and most of all, with the prospect of a single game that ends either with a trip to the NLDS or a flight home staring them right in the face, was someone who could change the complexion of any game, if it needed changing. In Reyes, they have that now.

Matheny doesn’t do much right in terms of tactical game management. His bullpen deployment is particularly infamous, and with good reason. Maybe he’ll yet slide into the security and familiarity of traditional bullpen hierarchy, or maybe he’ll just lose his will at a key moment and call upon Broxton when the situation begs for Reyes, or maybe he’ll be too slow to pull a struggling starter and it will be too late for Reyes to make any real difference. For now, though, he’s using Reyes as well as perhaps any manager is using a high-value relief pitcher. If he keeps doing so, we’ll at least get the chance, come Oct. 5, to see which way things break. It would be fascinating if, after for so long seeming to be a manager without the imagination or flexibility to change games for the better for his club, Matheny pushed this year’s Cardinals further than they have any business going by being more imaginative and more flexible than any of the other managers working with similarly dynamic young hurlers.

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