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Young starters buoying Cards in tight race

Miller, Kelly and Wacha helping fill in for veteran St. Louis starters

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. Not to mention, 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 25 or younger have started 53 of St. Louis' 138 games. Two of the kids -- Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly -- have been very solid, while rookie Michael Wacha threw six shutout innings against the Reds in his fifth Major League start on Tuesday.

If there's a moral victory for the Cardinals, this is it. Unfortunately for them, it was the only kind of victory they got. The Reds won the real contest, 1-0, and the three top teams are separated by 3 1/2 games in a National League Central race that has fans in every city in nail-biting mode.

The Cardinals, who led the division by four games in late June, are now two behind the first-place Pirates. The Reds, who were 6 1/2 games out on August 5, have closed the gap.

At the moment, St. Louis appears to have the most to worry about. If a close race is settled by the starting rotations, it has reason to.

In April and May, the Redbirds had the NL's best rotation (2.58 ERA). In August, they had the worst (4.71 ERA).

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.

Problem is, every single pitch is magnified in the heat of a close race, and with Adam Wainwright and Lance 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 than that. Before the All-Star Break, Lynn was 11-3 with a 3.67 ERA. Since then, he's 2-6 with a 5.46 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 Pirates and Reds.

Of course, it hasn't been smooth sailing for those teams. The Reds lost their ace, Johnny Cueto, after nine starts, but they 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, 7.72 in his past six.

Likewise, the Pirates lost Wandy Rodriguez after 12 games and James McDonald after six. And then, one of their All-Stars, Jeff Locke, pitched so poorly in the second half that he was sent to the Minor Leagues.

Still, they 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 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, he took 33 starts and 217 innings out of their rotation. But Latos, Bailey, Arroyo and Leake may all pitch 200 innings.

Rookie Tony Cingrani stepped in for Cueto and won six games and had a 2.75 ERA before going 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 Redbirds 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, Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright, Jake Westbrook