Wainwright, Miller, and the rise of a great rotation in St. Louis

Dilip Vishwanat

Back-to-back shutouts of the Colorado Rockies showcase the National League's most dominant starting rotation.

On Friday night, St. Louis Cardinals rookie right-hander Shelby Miller pitched a one-hit shutout against the visiting Colorado Rockies, allowing a single to leadoff hitter Eric Young, Jr., then retiring the next 27 batters. On Saturday afternoon, teammate Adam Wainwright did his best to top the kid, allowing no baserunners before issuing a walk to Todd Helton with one out in the fifth, and not allowing a hit until there was one out in the top of the eighth. He allowed one more hit in the ninth, but completed the shutout as the Cardinals won, 3-0.

It was the first Rockies hit in 51 batters, spread over the two games.

The Cardinals' starting pitching has been extraordinary this season. Entering Saturday's game, their rotation had a 2.20 ERA, a figure which leads the second-place Washington Nationals' rotation by 1.20 runs and beats the National League starting-pitcher average by 1.71. Chris Carpenter's career over? Kyle Lohse allowed to depart? No problem -- not when you have Wainwright, Miller, Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia, and Jake Westbrook. The record is all the more extraordinary when you note that the Cardinals have yet to play a single game against the Miami Marlins, whose offense is so poor that it can be fairly described in terms of its place in history. (As measured by Baseball Prospectus's True Average, the Fish have the worst offense in at least 60 years.)

The work by the Cardinals' rotation is almost as historic, or would be if the Tigers' 3.22 ERA in the DH league wasn't at least as impressive when judged in context. Still, both staffs are doing the kind of work that hasn't been seen in the majors in quite a while -- perhaps since the "Year of the Pitcher" staffs of 1968, or the dominant Mets rotation of 1988, which posted a 2.97 ERA on the arms of Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, David Cone, Bobby Ojeda, and Sid Fernandez.

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This is wonderful to see -- the hyper-inflationary offensive period of the post-strike years deprived us the possibility of seeing this kind of pitching -- but it seems unlikely to last. Those aforementioned Mets were only about half a run below the league average, so it's asking a lot of any staff to be this good for a full season. We know that as good as the Cardinals' starters can be, they're unlikely to have two starters keep their ERAs below 2.00 for a full season, or have all five starters maintain ERAs below 3.00. Lynn goes through funks in which he's a different pitcher than when he's at his best, and the 35-year-old Westbrook has a career 4.24 ERA.

Just two pitchers have had ERAs below 2.00 in a season of 180 or more innings since 1999: Pedro Martinez in 2000 (1.74 in 217 innings) and Roger Clemens in 2005 (1.87 in 211.1).

Still, it's great to see a well-run organization reap the rewards of its carefully cultivated depth; even without Carpenter (who may yet come back), the Cardinals have such a strong supply of starting pitchers that two hard-throwing arms capable of starting, Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez, have been remanded to the bullpen.

None of these pitchers, some of whom are veterans of the 2006 or 2011 World Series winners (in a couple of cases, both), are likely Hall of Famers. But that's also part of the Cardinal way -- even dedicated baseball fans would be hard-pressed to name many Cardinals starting pitchers between Dizzy Dean and Bob Gibson, but nevertheless, arms like Mort Cooper, Max Lanier, Harry Brecheen, and Johnny Beazley brought the organization four pennants and three World Series titles. That was a long time ago, but -- and please pardon the invocation of a cliché -- the spirit of St. Louis is alive and well with Wainwright, Miller, and their fellow pitchers.

A note of update: On Sunday, the Cardinals placed Westbrook on the disabled list with inflammation in his right elbow. Lefty soft-tosser John Gast, 24, was called up and will start Tuesday.

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