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WAUKEE -- As we speak, the strength of the St. Louis Cardinals seems to be starting pitching. This is not the way this team appeared on paper earlier in the season, but there are many worse ways to go into the second half of the season.
The problem for the Cardinals, particularly in recent series against National League Central rivals the Reds and Brewers, has been in the other half of the game. They scored just 15 runs in the six games against their division rivals, and went 1-5.
They finished the Milwaukee series on Wednesday with a 4-3 loss that underscored their situation in both directions. Starter Adam Wainwright was superb in what in a more nearly perfect world would have been a winning effort. In this world, he was undermined by a three-error first inning that led to three unearned runs. And then there was the lack of timely hitting that has become too close to the trademark of recent Cardinals games. The Cardinals battled back from a four-run deficit. They had the bases loaded in the ninth. But again, the big hit eluded them.
Conventional wisdom has the Cardinals, like most teams not named the Washington Nationals, seeking pitching help before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Acquiring more pitching is never a bad idea, but this is not an area of immediate need for the Cardinals. In fact, if the offense was performing as well as the starting pitchers, the Cardinals could be leading the division. That is, after all, where they believe they belong.
On the encouraging side, at the top of the rotation, Adam Wainwright pitched like Adam Wainwright on Wednesday. He struck out nine, didn't walk a batter and gave up just four hits over seven innings. Coming back after missing the 2011 season following Tommy John surgery, it's apparent that Wainwright is, in fact, all the way back with this commanding performance. Wainwright, just two years ago, was one of the very best in the game. He didn't look any less than that on Wednesday. All that was missing was the victory.
"It's a shame," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of the result. "As soon as we came back in here I wanted to make sure to let him know how pleased we are with the way he's throwing the ball. That's why he's got so much respect in here, for a number of reasons.
"We just haven't given our starting pitching what they deserved this whole trip. Hopefully, they just keep doing what they're doing, because you know the offense is going to happen. There's no question. But unfortunately, we've wasted some opportunities as far as those starts go."
Wainwright, who typically produces plenty of self-critical game analysis, chided himself for not coming up with two ground balls hit up the middle. Those probably weren't the core issues in this game, but the search for perfection goes on for Wainwright, and that's part of the reason he is as good as he is. But he did acknowledge that this was as well as he had pitched this season.
"I felt like I mixed my pitches the way I wanted to, commanded the corners the way I wanted to," Wainwright said. "Fastball and breaking stuff was pretty sharp. Really, I felt in command of the game most of the time."
Beyond Wainwright's return to form, the Cardinals have done a remarkable job of replacing truly significant starting talent. The loss of Chris Carpenter alone might have sent another team into a tailspin. Carpenter was the pitching star of the 2011 postseason, and a focal point for the St. Louis rotation. The Cardinals inserted Lance Lynn into the rotation, and Lynn became an NL All-Star.
When Jaime Garcia was lost with a shoulder injury, the Cardinals put Joe Kelly into the rotation. Kelly has produced five consecutive quality starts
Even more recently, the Cardinals needed bullpen help, so they brought up a starter from Double-A, Trevor Rosenthal. He made his debut on Wednesday, showing his 98-mph fastball and considerable poise, getting out of a bases-loaded jam in the eighth against Milwaukee. A lot of teams talk about developing organizational pitching depth. The Cardinals have actually developed it.
"Trevor Rosenthal is another bright spot in the Minor League development system," Matheny said. "Our scouts have done a great job and we've got some depth. So it's just a matter of giving these guys an opportunity to show what they can do. Talking about our pitching, we're still a couple of years away with some of these guys, but it's something to be excited about."
In the meantime, the Cardinals are convinced that they can find their collective form and become the team they are supposed to be.
"We haven't played our game yet, all season," Wainwright said on Wednesday. "We had a pretty good stretch to start the season, and since then we have not played Cardinal baseball like we can. We will play it. It's just a matter of time. We need to crank it up, get some urgency in here, play every inning like it's the last inning we're going to play. There's no doubt in my mind that we can play better ball than we have been playing. We've proven that time and time again, we just have to prove it again. We can't live on last year, we can't live on the postseason, we just have to live in the moment."
With the starting pitching the Cardinals have been getting, it is difficult to believe that their future holds anything other than success.