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  • rotation all set for playoff spin

    QUOTE
    Rotation all set for playoff spin
    By Joe Strauss
    ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
    10/03/2005

    In the aftermath of last October's World Series loss to the Boston Red Sox, the Cardinals' rapid response was to dedicate themselves to bolstering a starting rotation that unraveled through injuries and fatigue at the end of 2004.

    A December trade for Mark Mulder, December shoulder surgery for Matt Morris, a winter of recovery for Chris Carpenter, a season of certainty for Jason Marquis and another summer of consistency for Jeff Suppan allowed the Cardinals to do nothing less than remake themselves. A team renowned for its powerful offense emerged as a five-armed monster that consumed innings and churned out quality starts.

    "You can't even compare this starting rotation to last year," pitching coach Dave Duncan insists. "There's so much more depth this year."

    The Cardinals open the first-round playoff series today against the San Diego Padres forced to shoehorn five starters into four - or even three - starting roles.

    Suppan, a 16-game winner for the second consecutive season, and Marquis, whose 4.13 ERA is the rotation's highest while fitting below the league average (4.22), are guaranteed nothing other than consideration for long relief.

    The Cardinals sacrificed Woody Williams to free agency while remaking themselves last winter. Williams will face his former club in Game 3 Saturday in San Diego. Carpenter has returned from a nerve disorder in his right biceps that sidelined him last September to contend for a Cy Young Award.

    Mulder, admittedly slow to find his form in the first half, finished tied for seventh in the league in wins and ranked second only to the Houston Astros' Roger Clemens in night ERA (2.26).

    Morris was announced Monday as the Cardinals' Game 3 starter despite failing to win in his past seven starts. His manager and pitching coach made the decision with little flinch, citing instead Morris' 10-1 start to open the season and his ability to transform himself on stages such as this.

    "The question answers itself," Duncan says. "For there to just be a debate tells you something about the depth of our starting pitching. I think you could start any one of our five guys. But we're only going to use four. Everybody has the right to second-guess. That's part of it. Part of the decision is what you know about the person and the situation. At the same time, you try to maintain as much depth as you can."

    The Cardinals captured their first ERA title since 1969 largely because of a rotation that won a major-league high 81 games - five more than last year's fivesome - and finished with 97 "quality starts." The Cardinals became only the fourth National League rotation since division play began in 1969 to amass at least 80 wins.

    Success has caused some to reject certain milestones. "We put enough pressure on each other that we know that's not a quality start," Mulder said, referring to the definition - at least six innings with three earned runs or fewer allowed.

    "It's a 4.50 ERA. Is it really that good? Well, some teams would take that in a heartbeat. But I wouldn't be satisfied if every start I gave up three runs in six innings. I don't think anybody else on this team would be, either."

    After stringing together 22 consecutive quality starts and a 13-game win streak, Carpenter failed to win any of his last four starts. He still ended the season 21-5 and a strong possibility to become the franchise's first Cy Young Award winner since Bob Gibson in 1970.

    Gibson won the award twice, but Carpenter would become only the second pitcher in franchise history to earn it.

    "This team isn't about who is No. 1 and who's No. 5," Mulder said. "Obviously, Carpenter has stood out head and shoulders over everyone else in baseball. The rest of us don't look at what number we are. If it's my day to pitch, I'm the No. 1 guy. That's real important."

    Tony La Russa attributes his ability to manage for one run to his consistent rotation. Morris, for one, does not see it as a recent phenomenon. The Cardinals produced four 15-game winners last season and came within one out of leading the league in ERA.

    "It's been this way for a while," he said. "There was a lot of excitement last season about the 'MV3' and all the runs. Those guys were great, but we had a strong pitching season then also."

    This rotation sagged in the 14 games after the club clinched the National League Central Sept. 5 through a tiebreaker edge. The starters are 3-4 with a 6.00 ERA while allowing 125 baserunners in 72 innings. Carpenter has started every fifth day through September and seen his numbers swell. Scouts detected a loss of edge to his cut fastball and a corresponding dip in velocity. The Cardinals point to the standings as an explanation.

    The Cardinals' rotation threw more innings (1,054) than any other in the league, averaging nearly 6 2/3 innings per game.

    "You can say whatever you want," Carpenter said evenly Monday. "The results weren't there but ... we've pitched well all year and we've got five veteran guys ready to go out and compete. I don't see any difference when we start the series. I think we've got guys who are going to be prepared to come out and pitch. You get to a certain point in the season with 2 1/2 weeks left. Granted, as a competitor the games mean a lot to you. You want to go out and win and do well. But we clinched and there was nothing on the line anymore."

    Carpenter remains 36-10 in 61 starts with the Cardinals. There are still those within the organization who wonder if his presence in Game 1 of last year's World Series against the Red Sox would have swung what became an 11-9 loss and, perhaps, the course of the Series.

    La Russa and Duncan contemplated taking Morris off the Game 3 start before meeting with him Monday morning. Assured that his three-homer third inning Sunday had nothing to do with a physical problem, they remain committed to Morris taking the ball Saturday at Petco Park.

    "I think if you look at virtually every starter, we've had some rough starts in the last two weeks," La Russa said. "I just think they're not selfish enough. They're pitching to help us win. We clinched it. We lost an edge. Physically, we're in real good shape.

    "The big key is to get back on it mentally and understand that if we don't pitch, we don't win. Against the pitching we're going to face in the postseason, you're not going to outscore people."

    Duncan has heard references to his starters as suddenly vulnerable. He also has publicly expressed concern for Morris and hope that Carpenter's recent skid is more mental than physical or mechanical.

    "If I was watching this club I would probably say that it's vulnerable, but knowing this club I wouldn't say that," Duncan said. "It's only natural that there is going to be a loss of intensity under the circumstances we've been playing. You can't do anything about it."

    Marquis pitched alongside John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux before the Atlanta Braves dealt him to the Cardinals in December 2003. He considers his current surroundings the best rotation of them all.

    "You send any one of us out there against anybody and I like our chances," Marquis said. "It's not just the guys at the so-called top of the rotation. It's everybody."

    Duncan echoed Marquis, saying: "I'm not saying we have the advantage. But we certainly have the ability to match up with whoever we're sending out there."

    Mulder teamed at various times with Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, Cory Lidle and Ted Lilly to give the Oakland A's an imposing rotation for much of his five seasons before being dealt to St. Louis. He finds no comparison.

    "Suppan's been very good for a while. He's just been with some bad teams. Marquis hasn't been starting very long. Obviously we had good rotations in Oakland. But the consistency from the five of us is amazing to watch. It's fun to watch. Our offensive guys know no matter who's pitching we have a chance to win. It's fun to be part of that. Everyone knows his role in a way. There is no question mark."

    Added Mulder: "Nobody gets skipped here. Our fifth guy in Oakland had it tough. He didn't know when he was pitching. He didn't know how to go about things. It's great how we've had it going this year."

    Mulder's 16 wins left room for an enigma. He is 2-5 with a 6.86 ERA and 10 home runs allowed in 61 2/3 daytime innings. He is 14-3 with a 2.83 ERA and nine home runs allowed in 139 1/3 innings. Mulder was 30-10 in day starts with the A's. Scheduled to start Thursday afternoon's Game 2, he is quick to point out that his last win came Sept. 17, a daytime 5-1 victory over the Chicago Cubs and Greg Maddux.

    "Nobody wrote about that," he said only half-jokingly.


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