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Riding the Cardinals horses versus saving bullets

During Sunday’s Cardinals broadcast on Channel 5, Frank Cusamano conducted a live, in-game interview with St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak. Cusamano asked Mo about the club readying itself for the post-season.

Mo noted that it was all about getting the team to peak at the right time. He expressed confidence that the hitting would come together between now and then while hoping the pitching can continue its recent success, including the return of closer Ryan Franklin to his earlier dominance.

Nothing out of the ordinary there, but the comments remained with me.

With all due respect to Joel Pineiro, who is having his best full-season ever with a 3.21 ERA to date, from a pitching perspective, I believe the Cardinals’ October chances depend most on the arms of co-aces Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.

Over on’s message board on Sunday, I posted a thought that Carpenter be removed after his third-inning flameout, during which the Atlanta Braves had scored six runs. I didn’t expect it to actually happen, but that didn’t keep me from wishing it had.

Instead, Carp remained in the game to pitch scoreless frames in the fourth and fifth. KSDK’s Ricky Horton applauded the move, saying it was important for Carp to exit the game on a high note.

That was not to be.

With Brad Thompson warming up in the fifth, Horton and broadcast partner Jay Randolph, Sr. speculated that Carp was done. Instead, he was sent out to pitch the sixth, during which he hit the leadoff man and eventually yielded another score on an RBI single, his seventh earned run of the day.

Only after that inning was Carp’s day finished, the Cards mired deep in a 7-0 hole. I am sorry, but for a veteran, especially a 34-year-old former Cy Young Award winner, I do not buy for one second the “leave on a high note” sentiment.

There is absolutely no way Carpenter was going to feel good about his Sunday any time after the third inning, nor should he. I don’t care if he went on to pitch six perfect innings afterward. The damage on that day was done and could not be reversed.

I have personally heard Tony La Russa speak many times about saving bullets – not using pitchers more than needed to preserve them for more important games later. More often that not, the subject was relievers rather than starters, but why wouldn’t it apply to both?

I am not going to recount the extent of Carpenter’s past physical ailments, but instead will simply remind readers of his five-week stay on the disabled list earlier this season and the fact that there is a good reason he is the leader for the National League Comeback Player of the Year award – having missed pretty much the entire 2007 and 2008 seasons.

Some people point to pitch counts per game as an indicator of wear and tear, noting that Carpenter threw just 95 pitches on Sunday. OK, but what good did it do for him to stay in for his final three innings – 42 pitches more?

Wainwright is leading the National League in pitches thrown in 2009 with 3188 and has averaged right at 600 pitches per month all season long. Carpenter does not rank in the league’s top 20, which is not surprising given his time out.

Looking at pitches thrown since June 1 helps put this into perspective. Wainwright, over six years younger than Carpenter at 28 years of age, is at 2029. Carp is just 44 pitches behind him at 1985.

While I don’t have Wainwright’s pitch totals for past seasons, at 205 innings pitched to date here in mid-September, he has already eclipsed his previous career high, set in 2007. Three weeks remain on the regular-season schedule.

Now, I am not saying that Carpenter and Wainwright should be babied. It is only natural that pitchers of their caliber are going to want the ball every fifth day with the mindset to toss a complete game shutout. Extra days off are good, but the pitches continue to mount.

The Cardinals have other hurlers available with starting experience that can eat September innings – innings that are much less important than the ones coming ahead in October.

Some of these other pitchers won’t make the playoff roster anyway, so there is less need to conserve them. Additional reserves could be called upon from Memphis, perhaps as soon as this coming weekend.

Since September 1, Brad Thompson has pitched just 3 2/3 innings, with three of them having come on Sunday in relief of Carpenter. Blake Hawksworth has 4 2/3; Mitchell Boggs nine. Having both come off the DL recently, Saturday’s starter Kyle Lohse has 4 1/3 and Monday’s starter Todd Wellemeyer has just one.

Carpenter alone has thrown just 1 2/3 fewer innings than the five of them in total this month.

I may be in the minority, but I would like to see more of those other pitchers now in hopes of seeing more vintage results from Carpenter and Wainwright next month – despite the likelihood this may mean fewer wins in the regular season for the individuals and their team.

The offense could also help reduce the workload on the two by giving them more runs earlier in games with which to work. Theoretically, this would minimize the temptation to keep the starters in the game to either chase a win for them or because the game’s outcome was still in doubt. Of course, this can neither be predicted nor controlled.

Sure, throwing fewer pitches may hurt their individual campaigns for Cy Young Award votes, and the race for home field advantage is still undecided, but there is no doubt that an 11th world championship is the primary goal of everyone involved.

The $64,000 question is finding the best way to get there. It is clearly a delicate balancing act for which no one will know the optimal formula until it is probably too late to adjust – assuming the current recipe leads to the wrong conclusion, that is.

I keep coming back to Mo’s comment about peaking at the right time, I fear the twin aces are at risk of having reached that point too soon. If that happens, the Cardinals hopes to play deep into October may be dealt a fatal blow.

Time will tell.

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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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