By Joe Strauss, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –
MIAMI — The St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday night open a season, a stadium and their defense of a world championship. They also go without co-ace Chris Carpenter and with the new coaching tandem of Derek Lilliquist and Dyar Miller.
All but exiled last September, Kyle Lohse takes the ball in the first regular-season game played at the gargantuan and garish Marlins Park, with its lime green walls and movable art deco monument to longball in center field.
The Cardinals are without longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan and the pitching monster who contributed more than 273 innings last year.
The relief roles fronting closer Jason Motte have yet to congeal, partly because the bullpen contributed an arm to a reshaped starting rotation.
Yet where some may find consternation, the Cardinals perceive strength.
“I like what I see. I’ve liked it most of camp,” said Lilliquist, who served as bullpen coach last season before advancing to pitching coach in January. “Guys have gotten their work in, and it’s been quality work.”
The connection between spring statistics and the regular season is tenuous at best, but the Cardinals’ rotation enters tonight’s opener as easily the most impressive in either Florida or Arizona.
Despite Carpenter’s absence, the starters compiled a 0.97 ratio of walks and hits to innings pitched while holding opponents to 34 runs and a .198 average in 27 games. The projected turn of Lohse, Jaime Garcia, Adam Wainwright, Jake Westbrook and Lance Lynn amassed a 2.06 ERA that suggested a consistently high level of efficiency.
Only four rotations held opponents to a .250 average or better this spring while the Seattle Mariners’ 1.15 WHIP was closest to the Cardinals’ quintet. Thirteen rotations allowed more than twice the 34 runs surrendered by Cardinals starters.
The collective performance allowed general manager John Mozeliak to avoid panic after Carpenter was diagnosed last month with a nerve problem resulting in right rotator cuff weakness and decreased sensation in the shoulder. Carpenter will open the season on the disabled list along with utility player Skip Schumaker and outfielder Allen Craig.
The club retains an optimistic projection for Carpenter’s return sometime in May. Meanwhile, Lynn has offered a calming, albeit inexperienced presence.
“It’s hard not to be excited about it,” manager Mike Matheny said. “I know we’ve intentionally decided not to focus on what we don’t have. Carp and Schu have been on both sides of it and would be the first to tell you it’s time to go. All in all, I’m very excited about how this staff has performed.”
Lynn, 24, owns only two major-league starts but was tested in 10 postseason relief appearances that included a win in the National League Championship Series and World Series Game 3. Righthanded hitters reached him for only a .187 average last regular season before an oblique strain sidelined him for seven weeks.
Duncan’s leave from the Cardinals fed concerns that a first-year manager may become overwhelmed without Tony La Russa’s long-time lieutenant. The absence of Duncan’s encyclopedic recall and records is obvious; however, the low-key Lilliquist espouses much the same emphasis — pitch efficiency and working down in the strike zone — while drawing from 10 years’ experience in the organization.
Miller has worked 19 years in the organization, including four as the system’s pitching coordinator.
Lilliquist and Miller have made some tweaks. Pitchers now may be encouraged more to pursue a strikeout by working up in the strike zone with two strikes. Wainwright, barely 13 months removed from elbow ligament replacement, leads more with his left hip, a device that may save stress on his shoulder while helping him keep the ball down.
Lohse takes the ball tonight after ending last regular season in a kind of pitching limbo. He and Garcia appeared on irregular rest during the Cardinals’ September push as La Russa did everything necessary to keep Carpenter, Edwin Jackson and Westbrook on their regular turn.
Lohse threw 201 innings between the regular season and postseason. He had worked a combined 209 2/3 innings the previous two years because of a muscle compression issue that finally required surgery in May 2010.
A return to health by Lohse and Garcia’s continued maturation offer potential to a rotation that led the NL in ERA while working 991 innings in 2010 before ranking eighth in ERA while working 999 innings last season.
“If we go deep into games like I know we can it makes the rest of the staff so much better,” Wainwright said. “A good bullpen is typically the result of a great starting staff. Our bullpen was great last year and I think this year they’ll be even better because we’ll carry them deeper into games.”
The need for innings may be greater because of the bullpen’s heavy wear late last season. Fernando Salas made 82 appearances; Motte made 90. Kyle McClellan, who struggled for form for much of camp, carries a vague role after shouldering 141 2/3 innings, most of them in 17 starts before his return to relief in late July.
“It’s a good point in terms of how much usage they had. But I think it’s a two-way street. They were used a lot but they also performed well,” Mozeliak noted about a group whose improvement explained much of the team’s late surge. “Perhaps this year one of the challenges will be creating an environment where we don’t have to go to the same person every time in the same situation.”
Last season’s final answer to a nagging riddle within the closer role, Motte was the only Cardinals pitcher last year to remain in the bullpen from start to finish. Salas led the club with 24 saves while holding opponents to a .186 average. This year’s team can also find support from Eduardo Sanchez and Victor Marte at Class AAA Memphis. Carpenter’s return also would allow for Lynn sliding into a late-inning role.
“We have depth there now. That was something that wasn’t always obvious last season,” said Mozeliak, who acquired relievers Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski in a season-altering three-team July trade.
Salas currently projects as the primary set-up man for Motte. Mitchell Boggs, who rarely appeared in high leverage situations late last season, impressed enough this spring to merit the seventh inning.
Veteran Scott Linebrink made the club as a non-roster invitee and will be used as a match-up righthander. McClellan, one of the league’s most effective middle relievers in 2009-10, hopes to realize a more defined role. Rzepczynski, the only remaining link to the trade of center fielder Colby Rasmus to the Toronto Blue Jays, should expect plenty of work as the club’s primary lefthanded reliever. J.C. Romero is likely to assume responsibilities as a match-up specialist.
“I think one big reason we became a very good team last season was because we became a very good bullpen,” McClellan reflected. “Last year we were relatively young and inexperienced. We’re still fairly young, but the experience we had last September and October meant so much. The bullpen was called on to do a lot and it responded.”