When St. Louis Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter surprisingly returned to the mound Friday to make his first meaningful pitches since Game 7 of last year’s World Series, the Cardinals chances to win playoff games jumped substantially – if they get there.
With #29 healthy, the Cardinals could throw a rotation of Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Kyle Lohse in the playoffs. On paper, that is a better rotation than the Cardinals had even last year when they won the World Series.
Carpenter is coming off of surgery to fix thoracic outlet syndrome that people expected to prevent him from pitching at all this season. But Carpenter threw five innings and gave up two runs on five hits Friday against the Chicago Cubs before the Cardinals blew the lead and lost 5-4 in 11 innings. But if that’s how Carpenter throws the first time out, he could be back to a strong seven innings by the time the playoffs begin.
Since Carpenter is returning from injury, the Cardinals might use him third in the rotation, but that could be a bonus. The team could throw Wainwright or Lohse in any combination of the Wild Card game Oct. 5 against the Atlanta Braves and then the start of the Division Series. Those two pitchers have a combined record of 28-16 with a 3.37 ERA, and Lohse is in Cy Young award contention with his 15-3 record and 2.71 ERA.
All of a sudden the Cardinals could match-up well against teams they might face in the Division Series. The problem is games such as Friday in Chicago when the team can’t score enough runs and can’t protect leads when it has them.
The Cardinals are 20-26 in one-run games this season, and much of that record has come from the bullpen’s inability to hold a lead, as it failed to do again Friday.
That has perhaps been the most frustrating part of the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals. The starting pitching has been superb for the most part and has kept the team in most every game this season. There have been very few games when the Cardinals got crushed because the starting pitcher was terrible. However, the team has not been able to lock down games at the end, and while the bullpen deserves plenty of blame, the rest of the team isn’t helping.
For example, the Cardinals left the bases loaded in the second inning after scoring one run in Saturday’s 5-4 10-inning win over the Cubs. They also left men on first and third in the sixth and eighth innings without scoring a run. In total, they left 13 runners on base.
That lack of the big hit to take control of a game has been a problem all season. Even though the Cardinals ended April with a 14-8 record, they could have had a much better month.
“We could have had an epic month, and it turned out to be a decent month,” Lance Berkman told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “With the potential that this team has, this is a nice month but it’s certainly not our best.”
Unfortunately, that potential never showed up. The Cardinals are still stumbling each time they start to get on a roll. This is the point in the season when opportunities can no longer be wasted because one mistake could allow the Milwaukee Brewers to jump in and steal the second wild-card spot.
But if the Cardinals do make the playoffs, optimism and dreams of another World Series will return when people look at a starting rotation with Carpenter, Wainwright and Lohse. Hopefully the rest of the team can keep up.