Pitching keeps Cardinals contenders

Pitching continues to keep Cards contenders

Set the wayback machine for a moment to 2003. The Florida Marlins were world champions. The Chicago Cubs won the National League Central and came within five outs of the World Series. And the St. Louis Cardinals missed the playoffs.

That season is a distant memory for the Cardinals for a wide range of reasons. No Cardinals starting pitcher remembers it, because no current Redbirds starter pitched for that team.

Albert Pujols, the 2005 National League MVP, was there, and in fact, he won the batting title. Jim Edmonds cranked 39 homers for the '03 Redbirds and won a Gold Glove. Scott Rolen started the All-Star Game, drove in 104 runs and, like Edmonds, picked up a Gold Glove.

The guys considered the face of the franchise were all there in '03, the only season in the past six when the Cardinals missed the playoffs. But of the current starting rotation, nobody was there in '03. Perhaps more telling, nine men started games for the Cards in '03 -- and all nine are out of the organization at this point.

By contrast, seven pitchers started games for the 2005 Cardinals -- and the Opening Day starting five got 160 of the 162 calls. Cardinals starters led the Majors in wins, finished second in innings pitched and second in ERA.

The greatest difference between the Redbirds Renaissance of the past two years and the remainder of the Tony La Russa-Walt Jocketty era is starting pitching. Depth, talent and consistency have been the hallmarks of the rotation, and there's no lack of any of those traits in the 2006 unit.

Reigning Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter returns for his third season, as do Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis. Mark Mulder is back for a second year, while Sidney Ponson takes the place of Matt Morris.

"It eases the attitude of the team when you know the whole staff can grind out nine innings and they're going to give us a chance to win," said Edmonds. "That improves our team. It improves the attitude of our team and it improves the effort of our team."

The Astros may have a better front of the rotation, especially if Roger Clemens comes back. But nobody in the National League will go deeper from 1 to 5. And that's a big part of why nobody in the National League is clearly favored over St. Louis.

Mulder has been a part of some of those rotations that had muscle up front and issues in the back. Given the choice, he's delighted to be in a group that goes five deep.

"You're able to prepare better," he said. "I'd love to get 34 or 35 starts, but you have five guys going out there and you know your spot. You know you can prepare yourself, you know when you need to be ready."

The effects are felt everywhere. When you avoid disastrous starts, you avoid overtaxing your bullpen. St. Louis' relief corps has benefited the past two years not only from having quality pitchers, but also from lighter workloads than before.

Cardinals relievers were asked to pitch 484 1/3 innings in 2003, the last time the team didn't make the postseason. By 2005, the number had dropped to below 400. That's a difference of more than 1 1/2 outs per game.

"There's no question that the way that we go out and throw makes their [bullpen] job easier," said Carpenter. "The way it's supposed to go, we get through six or seven and those guys come in and get their outs. That's the way it's supposed to work. It's designed to be that way."

Each starter, meanwhile, makes the job easier for his rotation-mates. For two years running, the Cardinals have not had a designated fifth starter. Though Carpenter emerged as the clear No. 1 in 2005, there hasn't been a pitcher who gets skipped.

The converse of that is that they're rarely pushed. Carpenter racked up 241 2/3 innings, but he did it by going seven or eight every time out, rather than racking up enormous pitch counts. According to Baseball Prospectus' Pitcher Abuse Points metric, fully 38 pitchers were pushed harder than Carpenter in 2005 -- even though only one pitched more innings.

When you know the guy going tomorrow gives you just as much chance to win as the guy going today, you don't need to push the guy going today.

"Back when I was in Toronto, I was the guy that you didn't know if you were going to get a win or not that night," Carpenter said. "We had Roger [Clemens] and Pat [Hentgen] going eight, nine innings every time, being consistent, and we had me and [Roy] Halladay and [Kelvim] Escobar.

"I don't think they put more pressure on themselves, but I think as a team, it was, 'We've got to win tonight and tomorrow night because Pat and Roger are going, and Carp's going the next day and we don't know if he's going to go eight and dominate or go four and get [hammered].'"

That's not the case with the Cardinals. Sometimes one of the starters will get hammered -- even Carpenter, once in a long while. But the expectation, start to start, is that all five pitchers will stay in the game and pitch effectively.

It's been two years since St. Louis featured even one question mark in its rotation, never mind two or three. Every pitcher who takes the mound gives his team a realistic opportunity to win a ballgame. Rare -- if ever -- comes the day when the club looks at the pitching matchup and says a collective, "Oh no." Bad matchups are hard to find for the Redbirds.

"When you face the other team's ace, you know you're going to have a tough day," said Edmonds. "But you know if you score two or three, you've got a chance to win. And some days we play that way. We play for a run here and there."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.