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It's all about the pitching

Yuck! Boy, the Cards couldn’t catch a break last night. Parisi goes out there and is positively awful on a dreary, rainy night in the Lou. The umpiring crew watched it sprinkle for hours during the first 3-4 innings w/o a stoppage in play. Couldn’t that drizzle turn into a downpour and we could wipe this abomination from the scorecard? Sadly, no!

Even as the game entered the 6th inning and Kelvim Jimenez was on the mound taking one of the beatings for which he’s become renowned, we STILL couldn’t get the umps to halt play, thus keeping us from being forced to use 3 more relievers. How about a 10-run mercy rule, blue? Alas, it was not to be.

The recent debates about Duncan vs. Mather and, to a lesser degree, Duncan vs. Skip and how long do we continue giving Adam Kennedy a roster spot have prevented us from talking about the most important concern w/ the club right now. It’s true, these other questions are important but the reality is that they won’t have, in all likelihood, a material impact on the team’s performance as it attempts to hang in the race. If Duncan doesn’t hit, Mather or Skip will. Kennedy’s already been relegated to part-time detail and it’s going to be very difficult to make a significant improvement over Miles at the keystone. The are of our roster that will be most important down the stretch is one area that has served us surprisingly well over the first 2 months – the starting rotation.

Joel Pineiro wasn’t exactly having a career season but his injury has already had a pronounced impact on the team. For one thing, it meant (for some reason) giving Jimenez a roster spot again which, in turn, meant using McClellan last night in a 12 run game. It meant moving Parisi temporarily to the starting rotation which didn’t work out so well last night. That’s not to say he won’t be fine for another couple of starts, but his debut was inauspicious, to say the least.

Pineiro’s injury comes at a fairly difficult time for the Cards. It’s true that Wainwright and Wellemeyer have been, for the most part, particularly strong over the 1st 3rd of the season, and Lohse has been OK but the last 2 spots are shaky. Additionally, the bullpen’s been sufficiently inconsistent that we can’t afford too many 2 2/3 inning starts. So Pineiro’s injury comes at a time when, of course, Carpenter, Mulder, and Clement are also on the DL and Reyes has been demoted to Memphis. Parisi was asked to step in, and likely will be for at least 1 more start, and dug a hole that became impossible to climb out of.

Parisi ran into all kinds of problems last night. First of all, he was behind too many hitters – throwing 1st pitch strikes to only 8 of 19 batters. Overall, only 45 of his 80 pitches were strikes. That’s not particularly lower than his percentage coming into the game but it’s not either conducive to a successful outing. There was nothing wrong with his velocity, as he was routinely in the 92-93 range with his fastball – even hitting 94 a couple of times and 95 once (on the gamecast gun). Still, 6 of the 8 hits he gave up were on fastballs, including Nady’s 1st pitch bases-loaded double that told us all that we were in for a long night. I assume that Parisi will take his next start at Washington Thursday night. When he does, he’s going to have to throw strikes, get ahead of hitters, and keep the ball down. If he continues to get behind hitters and elevate the ball, he won’t be long for the rotation.

That brings us to today’s starter, Braden Looper. I’d like to say that this is another guy who may not be long for the rotation but I just don’t think that’s true. He’s been awful of late and is simply mediocre at best but, at present, we really have no better options. What’s struck me about Looper’s season so far is that it has seemed to mirror last season’s. Last year, we were all pretty amazed at the way he began his career as a starter. Through May 12 of last year, Looper was 5-2 w/ a 2.29 ERA. He had had only 1 bad start to that point and he had given up only 58 baserunners in 51 IP. His K/9 was a respectable 5.82. Then, Looper hit a wall. In his next 6 starts, he gave up 59 baserunners in 32 innings. He walked 14 while striking out an unbelievable 8 batters in those 32 IP. He gave up almost as many homers (6) as K’s and, finally, went on the DL w/ what the team called a "dead arm." It was unsurprising as he had already thrown 83 innings, plus those he threw in the spring. By early June he had thrown almost as many innings as he had in his busiest entire season.

Fast-forward to 2008. Looper, again, begins the season with a bang. In his first 3 starts, he gives up just 5 ER in almost 17 IP. In his 5th start, he goes 7 IP w/ 2 H and 1 BB against the Astros. April ends with Looper sporting a 3.86 ERA, having yielded just 10 BB and 2 HR in 32 IP. His K/9 during the first month was 5.06. It’s not quite as good as he began 2007 but it gave us all reason to hope, didn’t it? And then things began to go south once again.

In the month of May (5 starts), Looper’s ERA is 6.37. He’s walked 8 and given up a ghastly 44 hits and 5 homers in 29.2 IP. He’s only struck out 9 batters in those 29.2 IP. Clearly, he’s having trouble (once again) throwing the ball past hitters. He’s obviously not fooling anybody either. So he enters today’s game w/ the Pirates with an ERA of 5.05. His FIP is 4.67 so maybe he’s pitching a little better than the numbers appear but when you’re striking out 2.7 batters per 9 innings, you’re going to have trouble getting people out.

So what can we expect from Looper from here on out? Last year he finished w/ an ERA of 4.94 – an ERA+ of 89. Now, he’s at 5.05 and 83, respectively. That’s probably what we can expect. He’ll throw some good games every now and then and give us hope and then there will be some like this one or this one or this one or this one. A lot of those games look like last night’s – that is, w/ Kelvim Jimenez getting some extended face time on FSN MW. It’s not a pretty sight. It becomes an even bigger problem the longer Pineiro is out, assuming that Parisi cannot perform capably in his absence.

While Pineiro’s out and Looper’s pitching like Mr. Hyde, rather than Dr. Jekyll, Matt Clement (did you know he was a Cardinal?) is set to "start the clock" on his rehab to get him ready to pitch in St. Louis within a month. Yippee! Actually, I was one who thought the Clement signing was a pretty good risk this offseason but was underwhelmed (as was the Cardinal brass, apparently) by his performance this spring. According to Mozeliak and, apparently, Clement, he’s physically and mentally ready to pitch in the big leagues. The Cards plan to move him through his rehab "aggressively." I’m not sure if they’re that sanguine about Clement’s health or that concerned about Pineiro and Looper (or both) but I’m a little skeptical now that Clement can come in and steady the rotation. I’m hoping Pineiro returns relatively quickly. (I think I just threw up a little in my mouth.)

It’s interesting that the news about Clement comes the same day that we hear that Carp and Izzy threw in a simulated game as they work toward their return to the big club. This was Izzy’s first time to throw since falling apart and beating up his hand punching a water fountain or some damned thing in the dugout. Needless to say, Carp’s not anywhere near returning.

How about Mark Mulder? Well, a couple of days ago we found out that no one knows what the hell is wrong w/ him. What we know is that he doesn’t need any more surgery, which is good (I suppose) b/c it was reported that he would rather retire than have another arm surgery. I know next to nothing about arm injuries but I do know that it ain’t good when you’re not pitching and you’re still requiring cortisone shots. It’s not exactly a sign that his return is imminent. Indeed, even LaRussa acknowledged that Mulder probably won’t pitch until after the All-Star break. Anybody want to bet whether Mulder or I take more starts from the mound for the Cards this year? My money’s on a tie!

So, help is on the way (maybe) from Clement but not from Mulder. What about the minors? There is actually a lot to like at Memphis but they need more time before they’re ready – although Boggs is probably getting pretty close. Mitch Boggs has a 3.17 ERA and 21 BB and 43 K and just 3 HR’s in 65.1 IP. A 2-1 K/BB ratio is solid and he’s given up only 52 H in those 65 IP. Still, this is just his first season at AAA. He’s not quite there yet.

Since being called up from Springfield, Jaime Garcia’s been pretty good as well. In 29 IP, he has a 3.72 ERA and has struck out 23 against just 7 BB’s. He’s given up just 2 HR’s in those 29 IP. Garcia and Boggs are the closest the Cards have to being ready though they have also promoted P.J. Walters to Memphis and 2007 draftees Clayton Mortensen and Jess Todd are pitching well at Springfield. In 5 starts, Todd is absolutely tearing up the Texas League. Nevertheless, there isn’t a lot of help readily available at the minor-league level. This time next year there probably will be quite a bit but not just yet.

Thus, we’ve got to hope that Looper can hold it together and Parisi can rebound at least until Pineiro’s ready to return. Their struggles will become the ‘pen’s struggles and will put increasing pressure on Wainwright, Wellemeyer, and Lohse to keep up w/ the surging Cubs. With the strain put on the pen last night, the Cards need a good outing from Looper today.