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Lynn's return to form could pay major dividends

Cardinals right-hander comes up big, shows he can solidify, deepen starting rotation

The chances of the St. Louis Cardinals winning the National League Central, even in a tough, three-way race, were already good.

But it could be argued that those chances increased by roughly 20 percent Wednesday night. That is the portion of the St. Louis starting rotation occupied by Lance Lynn.

Lynn had lost five straight decisions and had been knocked around in the process. On the other side of it, there was no question about his ability. Lynn was an 18-game winner last season. In his first 12 starts of this season he was 8-1 with a 2.76 ERA.

"We haven't made it a secret all season how valuable our starting pitching is and how quality pitching translates to us in the win-loss column," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We understand that. Lance is one of our guys. We need him right, just like we need the rest of them right."

Wednesday night, Lynn was "right" once more. Over six innings against the Milwaukee Brewers, he gave up one unearned run, allowing two walks and five hits. He struck out 10. It is true that he left the game trailing 1-0, but neither the one nor the zero was his fault.

The Cardinals eventually prevailed, 5-1, recording their fifth straight victory and keeping a one-game lead over the Pirates in the Central.

Generalizing out of one performance can be a dicey proposition. But in Lynn's case, there is a body of work that offers evidence that his real level should be closer to Wednesday night's performance than to the level of the five straight defeats.

If he is back to his better form, then there is nothing resembling a question mark in the St. Louis rotation. You can raise objections to having two rookie starters on a contending team, but when those rookies -- Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha -- are as good as they are and pitching with so much maturity, the argument against them becomes arbitrary.

When the Cardinals were rolling earlier in the season, their starting pitching was good enough to fairly be described as dominant. It is not unreasonable to expect that over the last 2 1/2 weeks of the season, the St. Louis rotation can be very, very good again.

Over the first four days of the current homestand, the Cardinals starters produced another demonstration of outstanding individual and collective performance. The four starters -- in order, Joe Kelly, Adam Wainwright, Wacha and Miller -- gave up one earned run in 26 2/3 innings.

That stretch included the three-game sweep over the Pirates that vaulted the Redbirds back into first place. But one question remained.

That was Lynn. The coaching staff wanted to give him one more shot. Last weekend, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak acknowledged that, but added:

"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different outcome. So at some point something has to give."

That put the situation and the start into clear focus. Lynn was going to be out of second chances to hang onto his role in the rotation.

With that at stake, not to mention the lead in the NL Central, Lynn went out and pitched the way the Cardinals hoped he would have pitched throughout the season. Now the five starters have given up one earned run over their past 32 2/3 innings.

After the Cardinals had gone 2-5 on a recent road trip, Matheny said this:

"Team performance is tied to the quality of starting pitching that it gets. We understood that at the beginning and we understand that now. We're trying to work out the kinks and each guy is going through his own set of challenges. ... But you can't ignore what this group has done from a starting pitching perspective. To say 'That was then and this is now,' it's the same group of guys. The ability is there. The desire is there. It's just a matter of getting back to where we know it can be."

Five games later, the St. Louis starting rotation is back to where the Cardinals "know it can be." And based on Wednesday night's performance, there is reason to believe that Lance Lynn can function again at that same high level.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for

St. Louis Cardinals, Lance Lynn