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Despite losing co-ace Carpenter, Cardinals’ rotation largely responsible for team’s first place

By Derrick Goold, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –

ST. LOUIS — Much to his bemusement so far this season, a lot of attention has been given to Cardinals sinkerballer Jake Westbrook’s slimmed-down physique and the 20 pounds he lost during the winter.

Less obvious is the real weight he carried through the offseason.

The veteran righthander had an erratic 2011, which featured consecutive quality starts only four different times, didn’t include his standard 200 innings and finished with him being left out of the postseason rotation. Whatever he lost during the offseason the irritation from such an inconsistent performance stayed with him.

“The season didn’t sit well with me,” Westbrook said. “It was just a frustrating year for me. “¦ I want to show myself and the Cardinals and baseball that I’m still able and capable of being a lot better than I was last year. It didn’t feel like I held up my side of the deal. That was another motivation.”

Westbrook takes a 2-1 record and a 1.31 ERA into his start tonight at Busch Stadium against Milwaukee as the Cardinals open a six-game home stand. His start is good, but it isn’t enough to lead his own rotation in wins or ERA. Youngster Lance Lynn woke up Thursday after his victory at Wrigley Field as the only starter in the majors with four wins, and opening-day starter Kyle Lohse is second in the National League with a 0.99 ERA.

The Cardinals return from a 3-3 trip searching for offense and leaning on what has been the backbone of a first-place start: the rotation.

With a 1.49 ERA on the recent trip, the starters have six consecutive quality starts and nine in the past 10 games. Since 1918, only four Cardinals pitchers have opened the year with a four-start streak of at least five innings and no more than one earned run. Dizzy Dean did it in 1937. Mort Cooper did in 1943. Lohse and Lynn both have done so this month. The Cardinals’ pitching is off to its stingiest start since 1981, and it’s happened without a win from Adam Wainwright or a pitch from Chris Carpenter, the club’s co-aces.

“I don’t think if you subtract a guy like Carp from a normal team there isn’t this huge cause and effect, and there may be down the road,” Wainwright said. “What we’ve had going is five guys who have shown they’re capable of not just filling a void but being great starters. It’s not like we’re hanging on until Carp gets back.

“We can win with the five guys we have right now.”

Manager Mike Matheny recalls a decade or so ago when Darryl Kile and Pat Hentgen drew together the rotation as a five-man inseparable unit. That practice passed to Matt Morris, Woody Williams, and onto Carpenter, who has brought it to what has become tight-knit group. With the exception of Lynn, the rotation is in its third season together.

Carpenter once called this rotation “a team within a team.”

Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said that cohesiveness creates “the competition within the competition.”

“They go out there and they do compete to be one better than the others,” Lilliquist said. “For guys like (Lohse and Westbrook), they want to perform every time they get the ball, but looking beyond that they want to show people, ‘Hey, I’m still what I was signed to be — — and I might even be better.’”

This internal competition isn’t isolated to the mound. It can be found at the plate and on the iPhone. Lynn holds bragging rights now with three hits to lead the rotation. Lohse rules at Words with Friends, a Scrabble-like word game. Westbrook gave his power ranks for Scramble with Friends, another word game: Lohse, himself and Wainwright. (“Write that down,” he insisted.)

The one-upmanship has been apparent in their pitching lines. In three games at Wrigley this past week, not one of the Cardinals starters allowed more than one run. Jaime Garcia pitched 7 2/3 innings, Wainwright followed with his best start of the season (six innings) and Lynn trumped them all with eight strong innings.

“You’re going to feed off each other,” Lohse said.

Each of the five seems to have that guiding motivation. Lohse, in a contract year, “was a huge part of last year’s run and yet gets talked about very little,” manager Mike Matheny said. Westbrook had his erratic year. Wainwright is coming back from surgery. Garcia has the stuff of a front-line starter and is gaining the maturity. Lynn is getting his first turn as a big-league regular.

“From the outside it looks like we came into this season with a chip on our shoulder,” Lohse said. “I’ve heard that. But speaking for myself, I don’t need any more motivation than I have. I don’t need outside fuel to do this.”

Westbrook echoed that sentiment.

His “frustrating” season ended with a contrast. He was the winning pitcher in Game 6 of the World Series, the last dramatic pivot of the Cardinals’ championship. But he was only in position to get that memorable win because his forgettable regular season had recast him as the long reliever. But by the time spring training started he said he “passed that point, last year was kind of over.” He, like his peers, was quick to start on 2012.

Matheny and Lilliquist mentioned throughout spring how ahead the starters seemed. While Wainwright has been searching for his rhythm, the other four hit April with their strengths sharpened, Lilliquist said. The first month is usually a time “when some don’t firmly have their spikes in the ground,” Lilliquist said. “It’s later when all of sudden it clicks.”

The rotation has clicked with 11 wins, tied with Texas for the most in the majors. The starters’ 2.48 ERA ranks second in the league. Only Philadelphia’s rotation has as many quality starts as the Cardinals’ 14. And that has been Westbrook’s point, both personal and pitching. What he lost got a lot of attention. What the Cardinals lost in Carpenter has garnered headlines.

What matters, Westbrook stressed, is what they have.

“We don’t so much think about what we don’t have or who we don’t have or what we’re not getting,” Westbrook said. “That’s all we concentrate on — doing what we can on our day. Not putting any more added pressure on ourselves. You’re not consumed by things you don’t have, you’re consumed by the things that you can do.”

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