Rotation brilliant early on, with other pieces waiting to fall into place
MILWAUKEE -- Through the first month of the 2013 season, the St. Louis Cardinals were carried by their starting pitchers. And those five pitchers were not buckling under the burden of toting the rest of the roster.
There have been well-documented issues in the St. Louis bullpen, and there has been significant offensive underachievement in the everyday lineup. But when you look at the National League Central standings, you will find the Redbirds on top, at 17-11.
They are on top because their rotation has been somewhere between outstanding and stupendous. And that is a conservative estimate.
After 27 games, the Cardinals led the Major League in starters' ERA with 2.11. This was particularly important, because the same team was last in bullpen ERA at 5.77
The Cards have three of the National League's top 10 in earned run average. First, Jake Westbrook, who gave up a run in six innings Thursday night to see his ERA climb to 1.07. Eighth, Adam Wainwright at 2.03. Tenth, Shelby Miller at 2.05.
Not that far off the pace are Jaime Garcia at 2.50 and Lance Lynn at 2.75. Lynn's ERA would make him a star in many rotations. Here, he must settle for a hearty pat on the back and a 5-0 record.
It is true that the Cardinals' offense struck for six runs in the third inning Thursday night in a 6-5 victory over Milwaukee. The rally comprised seven singles and a hit by pitch. Only two of the singles were hit with particular authority. But so what? All of the runs scored with two outs. With two outs and runners in scoring positions: this is when the Cardinals do their best work with the bats.
At some point, you would think, the Redbirds will have to resolve their bullpen issues and get career-norm performances from what is a very talented lineup. The alternative would be for the starting rotation to go on being astounding for 162 games.
"Why not?" Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said with a small smile when this notion was presented to him. "That's what I want our pitchers to believe. I don't want anybody on that starting five to think that what they're doing is not possible to keep doing. They've shown what they can do, and that's the level of expectations.
"Some days they're going to have different stuff. You look at each of our guys, and there have been times in the first couple of innings when they've come out and struggled where other times they've dominated. But they seem to keep fighting and figure out how to do it, and all of a sudden they find themselves in the later part of the game.
"We're going to keep them believing in themselves that this is the staff that they can be. With that being said, there are some other components of our game, as a team, that we know we can do better, and we're working every day to work that out. The bullpen is one of those, and the consistency in our offense is another. And that's why the guys come out every day and do the work that they do."
Westbrook won his 100th game here, fulfilling what he said was a longterm goal of his. His game has not changed much. He's still throwing the sinker, getting outs on the ground, being modest about it.
"One of the luxuries I have is that my ball still moves," Westbrook said. "Lot of times, whether it goes where I want it to or not, it still runs down in the zone. It still can be good, and I can have some success."
Will the Cardinals iron out these other issues and support this exemplary starting pitching in the manner it deserves? The bullpen is still in flux, although Trevor Rosenthal seems to be putting a lock on the eighth-inning role, and Edward Mujica, a Plan C closer for the Cardinals, has converted all seven of his save opportunities.
The St. Louis offense should present a question of when rather than if. The lineup is stocked with batters who have demonstrated the ability to hit Major League pitching. Individually, and collectively, improvement can fairly be expected.
"You look at our lineup," Matheny said. "Just listen to the way the other teams talk about our lineup. They believe it to be a formidable lineup. When you say that you expect a lot of production, and that's what these guys expect, and that's why you see frustration sometimes. They know they can be better, and that's why they're working to be better."
And in fact, the opposition in this case was saying just what the Cardinals manager believed the opposition was saying.
"They're not swinging as well as we know they can," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said of the St. Louis lineup. "We're not taking that offense for granted, just because they're not swinging well."
On this night, the Cardinals' starting pitching was fine, as usual. Middle relief opened the door for the Brewers to get back into the game. The Cardinals' offense did not dent the scoreboard in eight out of nine innings, but in the third, it scored six runs with two out.
"There is a lot to be said about it; I don't think that's the team we'll have to be all season where it's just the timely hits," Matheny said. "I think there's more there; everybody knows that. Right now, I absolutely commend them for putting runs on the board when they don't feel their best."
With starting pitching like this, the rest of the group can settle in at capable, competent and all right, and the Cardinals will be just fine.