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Looking Ahead and Looking to Clinch

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The Cardinals send Chris Carpenter to the mound tonight. Regardless of the outcome, they're set up to send many more starters to postseason mounds in coming years.

Pablo Sandoval proved less huggable for Pete Kozma than teammate David Freese.
Pablo Sandoval proved less huggable for Pete Kozma than teammate David Freese.
Kevin C. Cox

I have no idea how tonight's game will end up. As I've said before, there's something about the playoffs that is intellectually relaxing. Concerns over whether Pete Kozma can hit for a .952 OPS in the long term simply aren't relevant. The grueling process of the 162 game regular season is reduced to a few hours of angst regarding in game tactics. There's no need to concern yourself with Kyle Lohse's qualifying offer for 2013; focus on when Mike Matheny should pull him from the game that day.

During the regular season, the questions are more frequently about how to win the next (162 - X) games because those are always more numerous than winning game X. Planning in the regular season and forward looking player evaluation are critical. In the playoffs, crazy is king.

If there's one takeaway for fans this year from the playoffs, it might be that the Cardinals are showing not just how good they are now but how good they're going to be in the future. Take for instance Joe Kelly. Kelly has pitched in six separate post-season games as a reliever after spending most of the regular season accumulating innings in the wake of rotation injuries. Kelly, who maintained relatively modest strikeout numbers throughout the year, has shown his calling card in the playoffs: groundballs for 57.1% of his balls in play.

Clearly the biggest coming out party this post season has been Trevor Rosenthal, who has pitched 6.2 innings and struck out 11 batters while walking just one. Trevor Rosenthal has a 0.24 post season FIP at the moment. And, to the delight of velocity whores everywhere, he's lit up the radar gun with a few triple digit fastballs.

What's scary about the Cardinals right now is that their window of opportunity to make the playoffs isn't limited to a year or two but looks much longer. Of the 25 players on the active roster right now, seven are beyond their arbitration eligible years: Yadier Molina, Skip Schumaker, Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright, Kyle Lohse and Chris Carpenter. Many of the remaining aren't even arbitration eligible yet.

That's part of what makes it hard to get overly worked up about an injury like Jaime Garcia. I'm not a doctor but I play one on the blog. A 2-3 week rehab plan seems goofy as hell to me but, again, the Cardinals have put themselves in a position where Jaime Garcia wasn't critical to their post season run. They've put themselves in a position where he wasn't critical to 2013. Garcia has surgery; Joe Kelly pitches a full season in the rotation. If Chris Carpenter gets hurt, Shelby Miller or Trevor Rosenthal can step in.

The volume of home grown players over the last three years has been steadily increasing. With players like Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter coming into their own as significant offensive players, the Cardinals have built a team very different from what they had previously. They are no longer 'Albert Pujols and the Eight Dwarves' dependent on the offensive prowess of one player to carry the lineup. Matt Holliday can have an 'off' offseason or Carlos Beltran can miss a game due to an injure knee and the Cardinals can still cope. The breadth and depth of the team is staggering relative to what we've witnessed in past seasons.

Is the team perfect? Goodness no. It remains thin on middle infielders. This will, of course, lead to many the offseason rumor but even with merely adequate players at those positions, the Cardinals are structured to endure.

* * *

The Cardinals send Chris Carpenter to the mound tonight. It's incredibly difficult to know what to expect from a player that missed most of the season, beat out what seemed an aggressive time table for return and will now pitch in his second post-season game of 2012. His previous outing left much to be desired but Carpenter has shown a penchant for big games. Matthew Leach of captures some of his teammates' thoughts headed into game 6:

"I think with Carp, it's kind of the same thing with Adam [Wainwright]. They want that next chance to dominate," said third baseman David Freese.

"Any time you have the luxury of sending Chris Carpenter out there, it's a nice weapon to have," said second baseman Daniel Descalso. "I know he wants to pitch better than he did last time, and I'm sure he's going to come out ready to go."

Hopefully, we aren't so spoiled as to forget the masterful performance Carpenter put on last season in game 5 of the NLDS. In a duel with Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter pitched a complete game. He threw 110 pitches over those 9 innings with the benefit of just a single run in support when Skip Schumaker doubled Rafael Furcal home in the first inning. The Cardinals would go onto a fairy tale ending but that performance went a long way to cementing Carpenter's status with the Cardinals.

Opposing him will be Ryan Vogelsong. A tight strikezone likely favors the Cardinals as Carpenter has, arguably, better swing and miss stuff. If the game becomes 'who can hit the black', the Cardinals may be in for a long night. The Cardinals would be well advised to win tonight (duh!) and avoid a game seven elimination match against Matt Cain in his home ballpark. Tune in at 6:30 CDT to see if they can.