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Cardinals' rotation will determine postseason hopes

Miller, Kelly have pitched well, but Redbirds need more from Wainwright, Lynn @RichardJustice

To be fair, the St. Louis Cardinals never thought they'd have all these kids in their rotation for the final weeks of the season.

Unfortunately, Chris Carpenter didn't make it out of Spring Training. And then Jaime Garcia went down after nine starts. And Jake Westbrook went on the disabled list last month with a sore back.

Suddenly, baseball's best farm system was forced to produce. And for the most part, the kids have been all right.

That's the part of this story that shouldn't be forgotten as the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates punch away at one another in baseball's best division race.

Pitchers aged 25 or younger have started 60 of St. Louis' 138 games (including seven by Lance Lynn before he turned 26 on May 12). Two of the kids -- Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly -- have been very solid, and rookie Michael Wacha threw six shutout innings against the Reds on Tuesday in his fifth Major League start. If there was a moral victory for the Cardinals on Tuesday, it was Wacha's outing. Unfortunately for the Redbirds, it was the only kind of victory they got. The Reds won the real contest, 1-0, and the three teams were separated by 3 1/2 games in a National League Central race that has fans in each city in nail-biting mode.

At the moment, the Cardinals appear to have the most to worry about. If a close race is to be settled by the starting rotations, they could have a problem.

In April and May, St. Louis had the National League's best rotation ERA at 2.58. In August, it had the worst at 4.71.

Now about those kids: They're not to blame.

Miller is coming off a bad start in Pittsburgh, but he had a 3.13 ERA in his previous nine starts. Kelly has won seven of his 11 starts and has a 2.11 ERA as a starter.

The problem is every single pitch is magnified in the heat of a close race, and with Adam Wainwright and Lynn pitching poorly, there's pressure on others to step up and stop the bleeding.

Even after the injuries to Carpenter, Garcia and Westbrook, the Cardinals still had a legitimate No. 1 starter in Wainwright. He may still be that. In fact, he has promised to be just that. But in his past two turns he has allowed 15 earned runs.

Lynn has struggled for longer that. Before the All-Star break, he was 11-4 with a 4.00 ERA. Since then, he's gone 2-5 with a 4.91 ERA. He had trouble in the second half of last season as well, but he was better than this.

If the Cardinals had better options, Lynn might be pitching for his spot in the rotation when he gets the ball on Thursday against the Reds. The bottom line is that unless Wainwright and Lynn get better, the Cardinals probably won't finish in front of the Reds and Pirates.

Besides, it hasn't been smooth sailing for those teams. The Reds lost their ace, Johnny Cueto, after nine starts, but still have Mat Latos and Homer Bailey at the front of their rotation. Bronson Arroyo has been solid as well. Mike Leake? He had a 2.59 ERA in his first 21 starts, but a 7.72 mark in his past six.

Likewise, the Pirates lost Wandy Rodriguez after 12 games and James McDonald after six. And then Jeff Locke, an All-Star, performed so poorly that he was demoted to the Minor Leagues last month to skip a start.

Still, Pittsburgh found solutions in unexpected places. Francisco Liriano has been about as good as any starter in baseball, and Charlie Morton has pitched the best baseball of his career. Rookie Gerrit Cole has been as good as advertised.

So while every team has been forced to scramble, the Cardinals are going to go as far as some of those young guys can carry them.

This season is into its sixth month. Yes, some guys are tired. Yes, some guys are struggling to make adjustments as scouting reports on their strengths and weaknesses get around.

If you'd told the Pirates early on that their two best starters at this point would be Liriano and Morton, they might have wondered if they'd even still be in contention.

When the Reds lost Cueto, they were without an ace who made 33 starts and pitched 217 innings last year. But Latos, Bailey, Arroyo and Leake may all pitch 200 innings this year.

Rookie Tony Cingrani stepped in for Cueto and won six games and had a 2.76 ERA this season before doing on the disabled list with a back injury. He's expected back Thursday to start against the Cardinals.

So while the Cardinals' rotation has been hit hard, and while the Reds and Pirates seem to have more, St. Louis is still solidly lined up for a third straight postseason appearance. If Wainwright rediscovers his magic, the Cardinals will have an entirely different look. He could set a tone for an entire staff. All things considered, the Cardinals would still be in decent shape.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

St. Louis Cardinals, Jaime Garcia, Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright, Jake Westbrook