With twenty-three games left on the schedule and a three-game division lead over the Brewers and a five-game lead over the recently swept Pirates, the Cardinals find themselves in a very good position with just three weeks to go. The pitching rotation, once the Cardinals' strength, sputtered in recent months, but encouraging starts from Adam Wainwright and Shelby Miller along with today's return of Michael Wacha provide hope. However, given the questions surrounding Wacha's return, Wainwright's form in recent months, and Miller's form all season, the Cardinals should go to their bullpen early and often as the season comes to a close.
Michael Wacha heads into today's start with a pitch count of around 60 (more from Joe Schwarz at 10), with Marco Gonzales expected to come in and provide innings for the team. Wacha likely will not be up to full strength for several starts, and given the mysterious nature of his injury, it is reasonable to question if he will be able to build up enough stamina to start before the season is out.
Throughout the season, getting innings from starters is a huge benefit to the team. Going deeper into games limits innings from relievers who are generally less effective than the late-inning high-leverage pitchers. Innings from starters helps to prevent back to back outings that decrease effectiveness as seen by Trevor Rosenthal's use this season. The Cardinals should still try to limit appearances whenever possible for guys who have racked up a ton of innings like Trevor Rosenthal and Pat Neshek, but expanded September rosters have bulked up the Cardinals bullpen.
Before September, a typical bullpen will have seven pitchers. The Cardinals' bullpen has done a solid, but not spectacular job on the season. Trevor Rosenthal has been shaky with his command, but striking out more than 11 batters per nine innings can mask some inconsistencies. Pat Neshek has been incredible. Carlos Martinez, Seth Maness, Randy Choate, and Sam Freeman have all done a decent job. The Cardinals' bullpen ERA of 3.70 and FIP of 3.60 both rank in the middle of the pack in the National League. The Cardinals' typical bullpen has done its job heading into September. The Cardinals no longer have a typical bullpen.
The Cardinals now have 12 major league quality relievers in their bullpen. In addition to Rosenthal, Neshek, Maness, Choate, and Freeman, the Cardinals have elevated Carlos Martinez to high-leverage, late-inning roles. El Gallo was warming up in the eighth inning Tuesday against the Pirates and came on Wednesday in the eighth and struck out Andrew McCutchen in a key ten-pitch at bat to keep the Cardinals in the game. He should be able to lighten the load for Rosenthal and Neshek in the late innings to help prepare the team for the playoffs and be an asset once again in October. Counting Martinez, the Cardinals have four pitchers in the bullpen who have made starts for the Cardinals this season.
Marco Gonzales, expected to pitch today, can provide quality innings for the Cardinals. Tyler Lyons recently gave one of the best relief performances of the season, striking out eight, walking none, and giving up just one hit to the Cubs on August 30th. Justin Masterson struggled as a starter all season long, but could provide the bullpen with a righty specialist. Even with his struggles, he has struck out 25.8% of right-handers he has faced in 2014 (10.47 K/9).
Jason Motte and Kevin Siegrist are familiar with pitching important innings. Although they have yet to find their form this season, they can also come in to games if needed. Nick Greenwood can still come on to provide innings. With twelve pitchers, including a solid balance of six righties and six lefties, the Cardinals no longer have any reason to leave any starter in to get innings. Mike Matheny should have a quick hook any time a game looks to be getting out of hand.
Tony La Russa employed this method in 2011 postseason when the starters averaged roughly five innings per start throughout the postseason and the bullpen pitched 28 2/3 of the 53 innings in the National League Championship Series against Milwaukee. Over the next month, the Cardinals should not need to be that extreme, but they do have the arms if it becomes necessary. Doubling the size of a bullpen and playing by different rules in September might not be entirely fair, but the Cardinals have the organizational pitching depth to exploit the rules that all teams play with. The Cardinals have put themselves in great position to win the division, and just like at the end of games, it could be the bullpen that closes the door.