The St. Louis Cardinals have established the best record in Major League Baseball through nearly one-third of the regular season and have thrived despite a series of injury obstacles that forced the team to mix and match its pitching staff together.
But the steady stream of players headed back and forth to the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds should soon subside when right-handed starter Jake Westbrook makes his return to the team Friday against the Miami Marlins.
Westbrook was one of the players who helped start a wild month of roster movement when he went on the disabled list May 12 with right elbow inflammation. He was 2-1 with a 1.62 earned-run average at the time and part of the best starting rotation in the game.
His injury created an opening for rookie left-handed pitcher John Gast to make his big-league debut, and the left-handed starter Jaime Garcia suffered a shoulder injury later that week, which created a spot for another left-handed rookie, Tyler Lyons.
Gast and Lyons were part of a large group of minor-league pitchers the Cardinals called up in May and early June as the team tried to fill in a bunch of spots just to have a full set of pitchers on its roster.
The Cardinals sent Mitchell Boggs and Marc Rzepczynski to the minors at the end of April because they pitched terribly, and Fernando Salas went down with an injury May 22. Those moves created opportunities for Seth Maness and Carlos Martinez to work out of the bullpen.
After various other issues, including an injury to Gast and another failed outing from Boggs, Keith Butler, Michael Wacha, Victor Marte, Mikael Cleto and Kevin Siegrist all found themselves on the Cardinals’ active roster. Michael Blazek even spent a few days in the bullpen but never entered a game before the team sent him back to Memphis.
That’s quite a bit of movement. The Cardinals have already had 21 different pitchers make an appearance this season, including nine rookies. Both numbers are the most in baseball.
The Cardinals have gotten great production from the young pitchers they’ve called up this season, but the team has still been at least one good pitcher short the whole time.
Marte and Cleto combined for a 12.65 ERA in their five appearances, but they had to fill innings because the team didn’t have any other options. Joe Kelly, who has spent the season in the bullpen, also had to make a start June 5 against the Arizona Diamondbacks because the team was out of starters after rain created a doubleheader June 1 against the San Francisco Giants.
So now Westbrook, the man who helped start all of that movement, will return, and that should slow the incredible turnover the pitcher staff has experienced in the first two-and-a-half months of the season.
Westbrook pitched well Sunday for the Single-A Peoria Chiefs. He allowed one run on four hits while inducing 14 groundballs through seven innings.
Now, although there is pressure involved in returning to his spot in the rotation, Westbrook doesn’t have to worry about coming back and trying to lift a team that faltered in his absence. More than anything, he just needs to pitch as he had to begin the season and in Sunday’s rehab start. The other parts of the team will likely take care of the rest.
With the best-hitting lineup in the National League and a defense that has committed the fewest errors in the game, a more complete starting rotation should keep the Cardinals on the incredible pace they’ve set while dealing with all of the pitching issues.
The best team in baseball might soon be even better.