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Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

Cards’ sixth starters are delivering

As spring training 2009 ended, the Cardinals last pitching cut had been a camp surprise to some, P.J. Walters. As such, the rookie had stepped to the front of the line – the line of starters vying to crack the five-man rotation.

Of the youngsters getting starts last season, left-hander Jaime Garcia is out for most or all of 2009, rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Right-hander Mitchell Boggs came into camp as the number six starter favorite, but was slowed by shoulder discomfort.

Oh yes, and then there is Brad Thompson. The veteran is now in his fifth major league season and was the club’s Rookie of the Year in 2005, yet the 27-year-old has yet to seize a role. In fact, the right-hander has not spent an entire season from start to finish in St. Louis and that record remains intact here in 2009.

In 2005, Thompson made his MLB debut on May 5 and picked up his first save. He was the first member of the Cards’ 2002 draft class to reach the bigs. That season, he made 40 appearances, all in relief. During the World Championship season, Brad pitched from the bullpen in 42 games and made his first major league start, on May 24. He also finished a career-high 16 games.

The instability of the 2007 rotation meant Thompson would be called upon to make a career-high 17 starts along with 27 more pen appearances. As his ERA climbed each season, Brad spent more of 2008 in Memphis. His career-low 26 St. Louis outings included six starts.

Prior to Tuesday, Thompson had not appeared in a game since May 17. This is due to several factors, including little need for a long man with the starters in the midst of a very productive period as well as the odd decision to carry an extra reliever even though the offense has been scuffling.

Yet when Joel Pineiro’s back kept him from making his start against Cincinnati at Busch Stadium on June 2, it was Thompson who received the call to replace him. It was to be Brad’s first start of 2009 and 25th of his major league career.

Thompson pitched decently, going five innings and allowing two runs. He received a no-decision, narrowly avoiding being on the hook for a potential loss when Albert Pujols doubled in a fifth-inning run to tie the contest at two each. The offense would break through for three runs in the seventh to distance themselves from the visitors and the club improved its record to 18-7 when Brad starts.

In taking the hill to begin the game, Thompson became the eighth starter used by the club this season, on the heels of them deploying 11 in 2008. It was the sixth start made by one of the “sixth” starters this season. Of the other sixth starters, Boggs has four and Walters has one.

In terms of timing, though Walters may have had the unofficial designation as camp ended, Thompson was the one that made the club when the Cardinals came north. Yet, on April 17, when the team needed a starter in Chicago, Walters was called up to make his MLB debut on the national stage.

His starting tryout lasted just one game as he allowed three runs in four innings. Though he fanned seven, Walters was frequently in trouble. He moved to the pen until being dispatched to Memphis on May 4, replaced on the active major league roster by Thompson, recalled from the Redbirds.

Thompson had gone down on April 15 when Boggs was brought up to St. Louis for the first time this season. Mitchell pitched in relief behind Walters on the 17th and was given four consecutive starts from April 25th through May 14. He was returned to Memphis on May 15.

Of the three sixth starters, Boggs has the best outing and the only decision to date. He collected a win in his first start against Chicago at home on April 25. That day, Boggs allowed a single unearned run in 5 2/3 innings as the Cards went on to defeat the Cubs, 8-2.

Following is the log of the six sixth starter outings this season. Though the three are a collective 1-0 in the role, the club is a solid 5-1 in the games during which they started. In the role, the group has a collective 3.64 ERA compared to 3.69 for all of the Cardinals starters this season.

It is significant when your fill-in starters can deliver an ERA comparable to the top five. Now, I am not saying they can go as deeply into games or have as solid of a strikeout to walk ratio. But when called upon, these three have all performed admirably this season.

After Tuesday’s game, manager Tony La Russa said he is “optimistic” about Pineiro’s return on Sunday. That means the Cardinals’ number six starters may have to wait for awhile for start number seven. Whenever it occurs, they should be ready.

Sixth starter Starts Opponent Score Dec IP H R ER HR BB K K:BB ERA
4/4 – 4/17 Apr 17 @ CHC L 7-8 4 6 3 3 0 2 7
Boggs Apr 25 CHC W 8-2 W 5.2 6 1 0 0 1 3
4/18 – 5/6 Apr 30 @ WAS W 9-4 6 6 4 4 1 2 9
May 14 @ PIT W 5-1 4.1 9 1 1 0 2 1
May 6 PIT W 4-2 4.1 5 2 2 0 5 4
5/7-6/2 Jun 2 CIN W 5-2 5 5 2 2 0 1 0
Total sixths 2009 29.1 37 13 12 1 13 24 1.85 3.64
All StL starters 2009 312.1 315 141 128 19 97 213 2.20 3.69

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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