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After a Strong Start That Prevented Ruination, the Cardinals’ Rotation Is Showing Cracks

Starting pitching has been the Cardinals’ primary strength in 2017. The rotation’s overall body of work is impressive. But look closely at the foundation and you’ll see cracks and some crumbling.

Even with a recent downturn, the St. Louis rotation ranks 4th in the majors in ERA (3.61). And the unit’s 35 quality starts are way up there, tied for 3rd in the bigs. The starting arms aren’t to blame for the team’s 30-34 record of mediocrity. The Cardinals have lost 11 times this season when the rotation delivers a quality start. There was a particularly frustrating stretch in May when the Cardinals somehow manage to come out on the losing end in six of eight quality starts. That included a skid of losing four consecutive games despite getting a QS from the rotation.

I don’t know if this is just the inevitable regression, or maybe a severe fluctuation, but the Cardinals’ rotation is in a rut right now.

In the more immediate time frame, the starters have a 5.60 ERA in the last 13 games, with the team going 4-9. The rotation supplied only two quality starts during the 13 contests.

Let’s look at a slightly larger sample size. Here are the rotation’s digits for the first 43 games of the season, followed by the numbers from the last 21 games:

First 43 games:  3.00 ERA, best in MLB. Last 21 games: 4.96 ERA, 17th over that time.

First 43 : 29 quality starts, a rate of 67.4 percent. Last 21: Only six quality starts, 28.5. percent.

First 43:  More than 6 IP in 39.5 percent of the starts. Last 21: more than 6 IP in 28 percent of the starts.

First 43: Lasted less than 6 innings 12 times, or 28 percent of the starts. Last 21: lasted less than 6 innings 11 times, or 52.3 percent of the starts.

First 43: Team record, 23-21. Last 21: Team record, 7-14.

The Cards’ current series with Milwaukee is a good example of the ominous trend. Over the first three games, STL starters supplied only 14.1 innings, and had a 6.91 ERA. The innings shortage put extra work on the bullpen, which covered 12.2 innings. To be fair, Lance Lynn didn’t allow a run in his five-inning start in the first game of Tuesday’s doubleheader — a 6-0 win for the Cardinals. And the second game of the doubleheader was handed to young starter Marco Gonzales, who was promoted from Memphis for the assignment. He was rocked for three homers and five runs in his 3.1 innings.

No one expected Gonzales to go into that game and shut the Brewers down for six or seven innings, but he got blasted for five extra base hits and got only 13 outs. Gonzales has to be better than that. He clearly wasn’t ready. Maybe the organization should have promoted Luke Weaver instead. But here’s my takeaway: if the Cards’ starting-pitching depth is this thin, that’s alarming.

As for Lynn, he hasn’t lasted more than 5.1 innings in his last five starts. Sure, in at least one of those starts, maybe two, you can make the case that manager Mike Matheny yanked Lynn too early. But Lynn has to cut down on the walks, be more efficient, and take on a larger share of innings.

As of late, short outings have been an issue for every Cardinals’ starter except Carlos Martinez.

In Wednesday’s 7-6 defeat, Mike Leake put the Cardinals into an early 6-0 deficit. He did recover eto last six innings to preserve the bullpen. But this was another poor start for Leake, who has given up 17 earned runs, and five homers, in his 24.2 innings  of work over his last four starts. The Cardinals have lost all four games. Leake’s ERA over his four-game slide is 6.20.

Martinez has been money, overcoming some April turbulence to pitch to a 2.11 ERA in eight starts since May 2. Martinez has seven quality starts in the eight games. He’s worked into the seventh inning (at least) in seven of the eight.

Beginning in mid-May, Wainwright presented a hopeful turnaround stretch, nicked for only one run over four starts and 26 innings. But he was beaten up by the Reds in Cincinnati last week, and labored through five innings (two earned runs) against Philadelphia. Bottom line Waino has a 4.73 ERA this season, with only four quality starts. Waino is reinventing himself as a pitcher and has made progress. And then … only 8.2 innings with an 11.42 in his next two starts.

Much is being asked of a Cardinals rotation that has done a lot of excellent work to keep this team from sinking. But if the rotation is the bulwark that prevented a Cardinals’ collapse … then what will become of the Cardinals’ season if the rotation collapses?

You know the answer.

It can be found in the depths that are way below .500.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Miklasz – Part II: With Top Of Their Lineup Set, Cardinals Need More Muscle In The Middle