The back end of the St. Louis bullpen is an uncertain commodity. There are at least five members of the usual St. Louis starting lineup who are hitting under their career standards. And yet, 20 games into the season, these Cardinals are playing .600 baseball.
This team isn't close to playing at its best level, and yet it is playing at a 97-victory pace. Did we mention that 14 of these first 20 games have been on the road for the Redbirds?
Look at the way these people won the NL Division Series in 2012, coming off the deck, against these same Nationals. The determination, the will, the resilience; all of that is still on this roster. When the Dodgers made their great big trade with Boston, landing all sorts of expensive talent, there was a big push among many prognosticators to concede the Dodgers at least an NL Wild Card spot. That spot, of course, eventually went to the Cardinals.
In addition to all those terrific and tested intangibles, the Cardinals also have the best single commodity a baseball team can have -- extremely good starting pitching.
That was on display Monday night in the opener with 22-year-old Shelby Miller keeping the Nationals in check. It was even more evident Tuesday night, when the Cardinals' ace of aces, Adam Wainwright, delivered a pitching clinic and a victory.
This was a magnificent early-season pitching matchup with Ross Detwiler going for the Nats. Detwiler came in leading the NL in ERA at 0.90.
And the Cardinals didn't exactly push Detwiler around. He gave up two runs in six innings.
That was very good, but Wainwright was closer to great. He gave up one hit over the first five innings. Only in the sixth was there significant difficulty. Washington loaded the bases with two outs when Bryce Harper drew a walk. This was news not because Harper is still only 20 years old, but because to that point in five starts this season, Wainwright hadn't walked anyone.
Wainwright then struck out Adam LaRoche with an elevated four-seam fastball at 94 mph. This was a pitch Wainwright had not displayed in this game until this spot. In fact, Wainwright said, he had not thrown the four-seamer more than three or four times in his entire career prior to this season.
He is utilizing this pitch because it will approach the plate at the same level as his splendid curveball, leaving the hitter to make an either/or difficult choice. The great ones are always looking for the next edge, and they're often finding it, as well.
Wainwright went 8 1/3 innings before Cardinals manager Mike Matheny went to closer-of-the-moment Edward Mujica, who got the final two outs with three pitches. Wainwright had superb command here, not only of his pitches, but of his entire craft. In the 2-0 St. Louis victory, Wainwright gave up five hits, that one walk and struck out nine. His ERA is now 1.93.
The entire St. Louis rotation has been pitching exceptionally well; Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, Jake Westbrook and Miller have all made substantial contributions. Matheny says the starters have a highly competitive situation, and not only with the opposition.
"There is a healthy competition, and that goes back to a run of consecutive scoreless innings from our starters, that actually Jake started," Matheny said. "And you could tell the next guy up wanted to follow suit.
"The best staffs, you see that competition inside the rotation. And they talk a lot of smack and they talk a lot of garbage, trying to top each other all the time, whether it's at bat or on the mound. But these guys work hard together. And it's fun to watch them compete out there, but also among themselves."
The Cardinals put together three straight shutouts and 39 consecutive scoreless innings, 34 of which were pitched by starters. These scoreless innings came against two division rivals with substantial offenses, Cincinnati and Milwaukee.
Wainwright said that the entire rotation had been pitching so well that his performance was not a matter of setting a standard for his colleagues.
"I don't know what kind of standard I need to set," Wainwright said. "These guys have been throwing the heck out of the ball. They've been doing great.
"I take the mound with the utmost confidence every time. And I think our other guys do, too."
That "utmost confidence" thing? That's a feeling you can also get while contemplating the work of the St. Louis rotation. This team has some problems that require solutions. But it is very strong where it needs to be strong.