St. Louis Cardinals starting rotation in natural lull, unless Jake Westbrook is hurt

The St. Louis Cardinals established the best record in Major League Baseball for much of the first half of the season because of their starting pitching rotation.

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They’ve lost that designation and the lead in the National League Central Division for much the same reason.

The Cardinals starters collectively posted a remarkable 2.62 earned-run average through May 25, but that was almost certain not to last.

The rotation’s ERA in June is near 5.00, and it has just 10 quality starts as the team went 11-13 in a recent 24-game stretch to fall two games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates at the beginning of the week.

Adam Wainwright had five of those quality starts and has kept the staff from completely crumbling with his 1.96 ERA in his last five starts.

Lance Lynn has been decent. He earned a win in three of his five starts in June and the team won four of those five, but his ERA also rose from 2.76 to 3.52 as Lynn allowed four or more runs three times.

Shelby Miller has gone through typical rookie struggles. After he began the season 7-3 with a 1.91 ERA, he’s gone 1-3 since and his ERA is up to 2.79.

Several pitchers have shuffled in and out of the fifth spot in the six weeks since Jaime Garcia underwent season-ending shoulder surgery. Joe Kelly now holds the spot and will take his first regular turn Saturday, but he was good in a spot start June 5 against the Arizona Diamondbacks when he allowed one run in 5.2 innings, although the Cardinals ultimately lost 10-3.

Those four pitchers figure to be stable forces for the Cardinals in the second half of the season, so that leaves Jake Westbrook as a major factor how the rotation looks moving forward.

Westbrook was great at the beginning of the season. He threw six or more innings of shutout baseball in three of his four starts in April and had a 1.62 ERA on May 8. But he then spent more than a month on the disabled list with discomfort in his throwing elbow and has been inconsistent since his return.

He made his first post-disabled list start June 14 against the Miami Marlins and gave up three runs and eight hits in five innings. He was stellar in his next start June 19 against the Chicago Cubs, giving up no earned runs through seven innings, but he’s allowed 10 runs in 10 innings combined in his last two starts.

The worst was his last start Sunday against the Oakland A’s. They touched Westbrook for six runs and 10 hits in four innings. Westbrook also didn’t help himself by walking two hitters and often had the look of a pitcher who was not confident he had the ability to get the hitters out. He often threw his hands in the air or hunched on his knees when the A’s put the ball in play.

Perhaps his elbow is hurting again. If that’s the case, the Cardinals could be in for a second half that looks very similar to the past six weeks. The team mixed and matched minor-league pitchers to fill in the holes left by Garcia and Westbrook when they were on the disabled list and had mixed results.

John Gast and Tyler Lyons were terrific in each of their first two starts, but Gast got hurt and Lyons had several bad outings that culminated with a start that lasted 1.2 innings June 21 as he gave up four runs in a 6-4 loss to the Texas Rangers.

Michael Wacha also pitched very well in his first career start May 30 against the Kansas City Royals when he allowed one run and two hits in seven innings, but he was inconsistent in his next two starts, and the team sent him back down to pitch for the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds.

Unfortunately, no matter how talented young pitchers are, they also carry with them the inconsistencies caused by a lack of major-league experience. They could all turn out to be great big-league pitchers, but they are still trying to find their way in 2013.

The Cardinals offense has continued to pound the ball throughout, hitting a National League-leading .282 since June 4, but the team could remain stuck in neutral if Westbrook doesn’t pitch in the second half of the season as the consistent groundball-inducing machine he’s been since the Cardinals acquired him July 31 from the Cleveland Indians in a three-team trade that also sent outfielder Ryan Ludwick to the San Diego Padres.

That’s a lot of pressure on a No. 4 starter, but Westbrook could hold an unusually large key to the Cardinals’ success in the 2013 National League Central Division race.

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