ST. LOUIS -- At the moment, Michael Wacha is getting all the attention for the St. Louis Cardinals, and for good reason. The reigning NLCS MVP just outpitched Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers twice in a week, allowing two hits in seven shutout innings on Friday night (after throwing 6 2/3 shutout innings in Game 2), as the Cardinals beat the Dodgers 9-0 to advance to the World Series. Add in the dominant start against the Pirates in the NLDS, and his near no-hitter to cap the regular season, and it would be easy to conclude the Cardinals are going to go as far as Michael Wacha takes them.
But one clue about what makes the Cardinals so tough, not just in 2013 but likely in the years to come, is the skill level of the two pitchers who followed Wacha on Friday night. Carlos Martinez, who pitched the eighth, is by no means limited to a future in the bullpen, with arguably a better repertoire than Wacha. Trevor Rosenthal, who pitched the ninth, spent most of the year in middle relief but would be at the top of most rotations in baseball right now.
Even Shelby Miller, who couldn't crack the postseason rotation or claim a primary bullpen role, was considered one of the brightest young pitchers in baseball this year. The guy who is currently surplus in St. Louis just turned 23 last month, struck out just under a batter per inning, and pitched to a 3.06 ERA in 2013, his first full season.
And we're not even discussing pitchers like Kevin Siegrist, a successful minor league starter who serves as this team's lefty specialist; or Seth Maness, a control artist in middle relief; or Joe Kelly, 26, who throws in the upper 90's. Even their top 2013 draft pick Marco Gonzales could move through the system quickly, the Cardinals say -- and if you doubt that, remember that their top 2012 draft pick was ... Michael Wacha.
So sure, at the moment, Wacha is on top of the world. But what really makes the Cardinals scary is the unlimited ceiling for four elite arms -- Wacha, Miller, Martinez and Rosenthal -- any of whom could be the big star tomorrow as Wacha is today.
"Oh yeah, definitely," Wacha said, acknowledging the competition among the Cardinals' young arms even as he sat next to an NLCS MVP trophy on Friday night. "We have a ton of rookie pitchers up here, and it's fun to watch 'em.
"Whenever I was down in [Cardinals Triple-A affiliate] Memphis, some other rookie pitchers got called up here, started off here, they were performing at a high level. They weren't letting a lot of things affect 'em. So whenever I got called up, I got to hang with these guys. I got to talk with them, how they went about their business, how they handled different situations. And I think it kind of helped me out, quite a bit."
It seems to have helped everybody. Wacha, even before this dominant run, was quite effective for the Cardinals, leading the team to space out his starts this year for the express purpose of keeping him fresh for the postseason. Rosenthal struck out nearly 13 per nine innings out of the bullpen. Martinez has averaged -- averaged! -- 100.1 miles per hour velocity on his four-seam fastball in October, while throwing his two-seamer around 97.5 and his slider at 83 for strikes. That's a starter's arsenal out of the bullpen.
"Well, I see all of them still improving," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said on Friday afternoon, prior to Wacha's latest masterpiece. "I see all of them, obviously, getting very important experience. But they all have a very high ceiling. It's gonna be fun to continue to push them, acknowledge some areas they can still improve their game, and I think it's a good situation for us to be in, to see who really rises up there."
While Martinez's outing Friday came with the game no longer in doubt, what he did in Game 4 helped to turn the series definitively in St. Louis' favor. Brought in to pitch two innings, Martinez did so in just 18 pitches, serving as bridge to a Rosenthal ninth.
"Well, we asked a little bit more of him today," Matheny said back on Tuesday, after that outing. "We got into a position in the game where we were kind of in-between. He's done such a nice job for us in the eighth inning, but today we got to a point where we had a couple right-handers, a tough lefty, were stuck in a spot where we needed to come in with our best. And Carlos has been very good ... Just the way this kid has handled anything we've given him, I think everybody in baseball is starting to notice him."
Matheny is right. As Vin Scully said to me on Friday, just marveling at it, "The Cardinals have some wonderful young players. Especially these pitchers! I don't know where the heck they got them. But they are sensational. But you look at a Wacha, or a Kelly, and you think about a Kershaw and a Grienke, and you think, they'll be pitching against [the Dodgers] for years."
Of course, as Scully knows about young pitchers (ask him about Karl Spooner sometime), so many of them break down. Baseball history is littered with also-ran teams who pinned their hopes on a young starter or two, only to be disappointed when they failed to develop or got hurt. But put together talented young pitchers in large enough numbers, and teams can manage to come out on the other side of that attrition with enough pitching to thrive. That's what allowed the Cardinals to succeed in 2013, despite Miller wearing down at the end of the season, not to mention injuries earlier this season to prospect John Gast and young starter Jaime Garcia.
On Friday night, three of those young pitchers got all 27 outs, in a game that sent the Cardinals to the World Series. Matheny thinks that's going to help these young pitching stars in the years to come.
"I don't think it can do anything but help 'em," the National League's winning manager said when it was all over on Friday night. "Even improve 'em. There's a lot of room for growth with all of them. We haven't seen the ceiling with a lot of these young players. And to be able to have this test, to be on the big stage -- there's a lot of people who go their entire career and always ask themselves, 'How would I perform on that stage?' And they never know.
"So fortunately, these guys know ... They've stepped up. And it's not that they're just here, they're young, but we're putting them in big situations. And they're doing the job ... They've got to keep their head down, not buy into the hype too much. We've still got some work to do. But also, you look at the future. We've got the opportunity to watch some pretty bright stars continue to shine."