After running through a gauntlet of starting pitcher injuries, the St. Louis Cardinals may finally be coming out the other side intact.
We all know the litany…
Chris Carpenter lost in spring training, Jake Westbrook out with unresolved elbow pain, Jaime Garcia out for the season with shoulder surgery, and John Gast sidelined with soreness in his throwing shoulder.
And as if that wasn’t enough, the bullpen decided to get involved as well…
Jason Motte lost for the season to Tommy John surgery, Mitchell Boggs’ complete inability to get hitters out, Marc Rzepcynski’s indefinite demotion to Triple-A, and seemingly-contagious bouts of ineffectiveness scattered throughout the remaining survivors in the ‘pen.
All of that finally pushed John Mozeliak to tap uber-prospect Michael Wacha to cover innings despite desperately attempting to delay the start of his service-time clock as well as protect the righty from an unfair innings load just a year removed from a college season at Texas A&M.
Is it any wonder that a few of us — when we heard of Lance Lynn’s early exit from his last start with back and leg discomfort — expected Lynn’s leg to fall clean off and his back to literally fold in half?
It just seems to be the way the Cardinals’ luck with starting pitching health is going this season. Of course, as any good gambler will tell you, sometimes you just have to endure a stretch of bad luck and play your way through to the good luck on the other side.
I have no idea if that’s what gamblers say, but it sounds good so let’s go with it.
The point is, things were bad. Way bad. But now, it could all be turning around for the Redbirds. Let’s take a look…
* After a rocky audition from previously stellar setup man Mitchell Boggs, Edward Mujica has taken the closer role from a point of nail-biting concern to 16 straight saves and a “just get it to Mujica” mentality. The rest of the bullpen has settled down in response as Matheny and the Redbird relievers have been able to identify and focus on individual roles in the later innings. (Note: Shouldn’t Moo-hica be called The Milkman — cause, you know, the Moo part…and, he delivers.)
* With Motte gone, Boggs and Rzepcynski ineffective, and Joe Kelly erratic, rookies Seth Maness and Carlos Martinez shifted from Triple-A and Double-A rotations to inject calming innings into a shaky bullpen. The fact that Martinez has been allowed to drop into the Memphis rotation to stretch back out as a starter is testament to the new found stability in the Redbirds bullpen. A lot of the credit for that recovery effort goes to the restructuring work of Maness and Martinez.
* Jake Westbrook became the first casualty of the dreaded SI cover curse with right elbow pain after the magazine featured the entire Cardinals rotation on the front of their “Cardinal Way” issue. After progressing nicely in his rehab effort, the pain suddenly resurfaced and a visit with Dr. Andrews was scheduled. But the day of the appointment, Westbrook asked to throw again just to see what, if anything, had changed. The experiment became a set of pain-free simulated innings, and the appointment with Andrews was cancelled. The Cardinals now hope to see him sooner rather than later.
* When Jaime Garcia, the one lefty in the Cardinals rotation, went down for the season, the Cardinals turned to two different lefties (see: Westbrook injury as well) from Triple-A. John Gast and Tyler Lyons — two lesser-known pitching prospects in the best-rated farm system in baseball — stepped in and earned four wins in five starts (the lone loss was the game Gast left after one inning with an injury) for the Cardinals.
* Speaking of John Gast, remember his supposed “shoulder” injury? The Cardinals are now being told that what was once thought to be a shoulder strain has now been diagnosed as a left lat strain. In other words, instead of a season-threatening surgery, Gast is now looking at a month or month and a half of rest and rehab before being available to return to the rotation. By then, his PCL-best ERA could return to Triple-A to prepare as future protection for baseball’s best starting rotation.
* And about that career-ending nerve condition that left Chris Carpenter’s right arm mysteriously bruised…yeah…it looks like Carp is on his way to completing yet another miraculous comeback. Now the most challenging question facing John Mozeliak and the front office is how to use The Ace if and when he’s ready to return. A somewhat stable bullpen? Or a less-than-sturdy rotation?
How about some bonus bits of luck?
* After Rafael Furcal went down with season-ending elbow surgery, the Cardinals were so desperate for a starting shortstop that they seriously considered Ronny Cedeno for the position. But then Pete Kozma stepped up and took control of the job. His timely hitting and reliable glove have injected long-sought-after stability at shortstop for St. Louis.
* Of course, defense was only half the value of the All-Star Furcal. His role as leadoff man for an explosive offense was often understated. After Jon Jay struggled to start the season in the one hole, Matt Carpenter ascended to lead the offensive charge for the Redbirds. His OBP and runs scored now ranks among the National League’s best leadoff men.
And all that while producing the best record in all of Major League Baseball.
Let’s get into the rest of it…
While most of us salivated over the possibility of seeing a super lineup when the Cardinals were gifted the DH in Kansas City, Mike Matheny had other plans. The Cardinals manager decided to use the designated hitter “rule” (cheat) to gain much-needed rest for his regulars. Monday night, it was Matt Holliday. Tuesday, it was two of his hottest hitters over their last 10 games in Pete Kozma and Yadier Molina (the latter had just gone 2-for-2 with 2 walks, 4 RBIs, and a home run the night before in KC). The Cardinals won both games and now Matheny looks like a genius heading back to St. Louis without the DH but with a fresh set of legs for several key players in the Cardinals lineup.
Tyler Lyons now has two starts in the major leagues. In both, he’s thrown seven impressive innings allowing just one earned run in each. If he keeps throwing like this, the Cardinals are going to have a tough decision when pitchers like Jake Westbrook and Chris Carpenter (if) return from the disabled list. Of course, the way things seem to be going for the starting rotation, it’s more than a little likely that the young lefty with a deceptive ERA over 4.00 in Triple-A this season will injure his pitching hand opening a jar of pickles. Or…as I said above…maybe the Cardinals’ luck is finally turning.
And now, Michael Wacha. The Cardinals have been backed into a corner regarding starting pitching. After starting the season with a so-called surplus, the farm system is nearly depleted of major-league-ready arms. That means finally starting the clock on Wacha. John Mozeliak did not want to see this happen — not just from an economic standpoint, but from a fitness standpoint as well. Wacha’s innings load last year — thrown mostly every seventh day for Texas A&M — totaled just over 150 innings across multiple levels and a split season. His body is likely unprepared to throw up to 180 innings every fifth day against major-league hitters. But…with the Reds and Pirates pressing, Mozeliak had little choice than to go with the pitcher who gives the St. Louis club the best chance to continue this insane pace of win-win-more-win. Let’s hope Wacha’s arm can answer the bell as long as the Cardinals need him without damaging his chances over the next few years.
That’ll do it. The Cardinals have taken both games in KC and now head to St. Louis for two more games against the cross-state rivals.