Staff continues to be Cards' strong suit

Club leads Majors with 2.71 team ERA

Staff continues to be Cards' strong suit

ST. LOUIS -- The date was June 3 and the Cardinals were minutes removed from a 7-4 win over the Brewers at Busch Stadium that included yet another lengthy outing from 36-year-old starting pitcher John Lackey. As clubhouse attendants packed the bags of players who were preparing to head west for a seven-game road trip, the Cardinals sat at 35-18 and boasted a 2.65 ERA, the best in baseball.

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With series at Colorado, where the altitude wreaks havoc on good pitching, and at the National League West-leading Dodgers next on the schedule, it was a reasonable time to wonder about the feasibility of the St. Louis rotation -- working without anchor Adam Wainwright -- continuing its torrent pace.

After all, the last time a Major League team posted a season ERA under 3.00 was 1989, which was two years before emerging Cardinals ace Michael Wacha was born.

But, manager Mike Matheny surmised, pay no mind to the statistics.

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"They've done it this far," he said of his pitching staff. "Why can't it be sustainable? I get it that there's a lot of numbers that say it would be hard to, but I don't want them even glimpsing at that."

If the Cardinals have done any stat-glancing since Matheny spoke those words, it has served them in a positive way. Following Sunday's series finale against Philadelphia (a 9-2 loss), their team ERA was 2.71.

History indicates that maintaining such mastery over the course of a season will be a challenge, but not impossible. Last year's team ERA leaders, the Washington Nationals, actually finished with a 3.03 ERA, slightly lower than the 3.07 figure they had on June 21.

Similarly, the 2013 Atlanta Braves closed the season with a 3.18 team ERA after having a 3.21 ERA at this point.

The last team to finish the season below 3.00 was the 1989 Dodgers, and they experienced a notable slip over the latter portion of the season, falling from a 2.63 ERA after 70 games to a final total of 2.95.

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Though operating without Wainwright, who was lost for the season with a torn Achilles in April, St. Louis seems to have settled on a potent five-man rotation featuring three pitchers who qualified as questions marks at the beginning of the season, all of whom have settled in to consistently provide solid outings.

Lackey posted a 4.30 ERA in 10 starts with the Cardinals last season after the club acquired him from Boston. He is working with a 3.41 ERA in 14 starts this season.

Electric 23-year-old right-hander Carlos Martinez has a 2.80 ERA in 14 appearances (13 starts) this year, including a 0.89 ERA over his last six starts. Martinez fought for the fifth slot in the rotation during Spring Training, but since Wainwright's injury, that designation has fallen to embattled lefty Jaime Garcia, an injury-prone 28-year-old, who has rehabbed from a preseason injury to flash dominant stuff in six starts.

After going on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to June 8 and missing two starts, Lance Lynn is expected to join the Cardinals this week. He boasts a 3.07 ERA through 12 starts.

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"It's not like we're pulling numbers out of the sky and saying, 'If you could only do this'," Matheny said. "They're doing it, and they've just got to keep believing in themselves and sticking with the process. We're on a long journey here and we're just getting going."

The bullpen has been similarly consistent, posting a 15-7 record with closer Trevor Rosenthal 21-for-22 on save opportunities.

"I think that's part of a pitching staff, is the bullpen has to be ready to take extra slack sometimes that the starters leave them with," Matheny said. "It's vice versa, too. When the bullpen is really beat up, starters have to be able to find a way to get it done, and I think they've done a really nice job complimenting each other and picking each other up.

"It's a good start with that and we've got a long way to go."

David Cobb is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.