Young pitchers have stepped up as St. Louis inches toward NL pennant
LOS ANGELES -- Manager Mike Matheny always preferred to skirt around the topic of depth. He was aware of the stockpile of talent, sure. Plenty proud of it, too. But he found that whenever he praised the organization's pipeline, that depth would soon after be tested.
The Cardinals have undoubtedly been carried by contributions from their veterans. Without a pair of dominant starts from Adam Wainwright in the National League Division Series and key hits from one of October's best in Carlos Beltran, the Cardinals would not be sitting two wins away from the NL pennant.
But in many ways, it's the kid pitchers who are stealing the postseason show in St. Louis --Michael Wacha flirting with no-hitters; Trevor Rosenthal saving games with 100-mph fastballs; Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness serving as a shutdown relief bridge.
So far this postseason -- one in which the Cardinals have won five of their first seven games -- the rookie pitchers (of which there are six on the 12-man staff) have garnered 42 percent of the outs.
"I knew that this organization has always been the type of organization that has been able to put good teams together, but I didn't know they had those guys in the Minor Leagues who were going to be able to come here and make that impact," Beltran said. "It's incredible. It's incredible."
"I think what they have in their blood expresses what type of players they are," said David Freese, who knows a thing about thriving on the October stage. "They are unfazed. It's amazing that they challenge the moment. They don't fall back, they push back. They understand what's at stake. They enjoy the moment."
Though intentional in their efforts to develop impact homegrown talent, the Cardinals did not expect to build their roster around it this postseason. Injuries and ineffectiveness gave them little other option. The biggest surprise in the domino effect of roster reshuffling is that the replacements, in most cases, proved to be more dominant than the replaced.
Shelby Miller wouldn't have cracked the Opening Day rotation had Chris Carpenter made a successful return from thoracic outlet syndrome. If Jason Motte hadn't needed elbow surgery and Mitchell Boggs not imploded, Rosenthal may have been pitching in middle relief.
Wacha wouldn't have been in St. Louis so early if Jake Westbrook and Jaime Garcia had stayed healthy. Marc Rzepczynski's struggles opened a spot for Siegrist. Maness and Martinez were brought up to in desperate moves to help a leaky bullpen.
These young pitchers were initially needed as stopgaps. Now, they are cogs.
"This is how it works," Carpenter said. "I got an opportunity because Juan Guzman got hurt. I wasn't prepared to pitch in the big leagues, but Guzman had an elbow problem -- they needed somebody and I was the guy. I had an opportunity, and I took advantage of it. Every single one of these guys has done a fantastic job of stepping up and taking advantage of the opportunity."
Carpenter, though, wasn't nearly this good this quickly. It took a move to St. Louis after six seasons in Toronto before the 38-year-old right-hander emerged as elite. He didn't pitch in the postseason until he was 30 years old.
Even Wainwright -- who as a 25-year-old rookie had his coming out party on the 2006 postseason stage -- has watched in awe of this next wave of pitchers.
"I was terrible at 22. Terrible," Wainwright said. "I was mentally weak. I was physically not strong. I was not even in the same zip code as these guys. They are way ahead of the curve."
Carpenter and Wainwright have had so much fun watching these kids that they joked on the bench during Saturday's game that next year, teams will be hoping to face Wainwright instead.
"Like, 'Please, let us get Waino.' He only throws 90, 91, 92 [mph]," Carpenter said. "All these other guys are throwing 98. It's like, 'Sweet, we don't miss Waino. He's the pitch-maker, the crafty, veteran pitch-maker.' We're enjoying the ride, watching these guys doing what they're doing and getting the experience."
While the names and faces of these youngsters are largely new on a national stage, the Cardinals -- to some degree -- saw this burst coming. They opened the season with baseball's best farm system, according to multiple national publications. The Cardinals had six prospects -- including pitchers Miller, Martinez, Rosenthal and Wacha -- in MLB.com's top 100 preseason list.
Spring Training provided a litmus test for several of these kids, too. Wacha responded with a standout spring. Rosenthal made it clear that he belonged in the back end of the bullpen. Miller, seemingly the underdog in the rotation battle, stole a spot.
Even though most of the young pitchers were sent to the Minors to open the season, the Cardinals believed they had ready reinforcements. Now they're just letting everyone else know.
"Catching in Spring Training, this year and last year, I knew that we have some good arms," Yadier Molina said. "I wasn't surprised at all. I mean, they're young, but at the same time, when you're throwing 95-plus, that's easy for me to catch because they're unbelievable. They've got some great arms and they're not afraid to pitch."