ST. LOUIS -- It's been a rough year for the idea of postseason pitching experience, thanks to the St. Louis Cardinals.
We've seen Michael Wacha, less than two years removed from college, win the NLCS MVP. Carlos Martinez, with 28 1/3 regular season innings to his name, has become a key cog in the Cardinals bullpen. Trevor Rosenthal, the shutdown closer, has scarcely pitched more than that.
So is there any advantage to employing pitchers with a track record of success in October? If so, how does that advantage manifest itself? And if not, should this baseball truism be retired forever?
The answer seems to be mixed, depending on both who you ask and what the situation. And both Lance Lynn, Sunday night's Game 4 starter for the Cardinals, along with reliever Seth Maness, provided as uncertain an answer to the question as everybody else I spoke to on Sunday, before and after the Cardinals' 4-2 loss to the Red Sox.
The Cardinals obviously weren't very worried about it, putting Wacha ahead of Joe Kelly, who pitched in last season's playoffs, and Lynn, who also pitched in 2011. In fact, Lynn can actually hold something over the acknowledged veteran on the staff, Adam Wainwright.
"In the postseason, Lance has been a monster," Wainwright said prior to Game 4 on Sunday afternoon. "He jokes with me all the time, 'cause he's got more postseason wins than I do. He's like third all-time on the Cardinals list."
So as Wainwright sees it, postseason experience is what you make of it, psychologically.
"I think it can matter," Wainwright explained. "I think if you look at postseason experience as an advantage, then it will be. And I think if you look at it as, 'I don't have it, so I'm at a disadvantage,' you will be at a disadvantage.
"There's certainly moments in the postseason where you can draw off of, find strength there, there's no question about that. But in a case like Michael, or Carlos Martinez, these guys are so talented that any amount of playoff experience really doesn't matter."
Mike Matheny, the man in charge of deploying these pitchers of varying experience, echoed the latter thought, which makes sense, given how happy he's been to utilize some of the least experienced on his roster, whether it's October or any other month.
"I think it can be, to an extent," Matheny said Sunday afternoon, referring to the experience factor. "I don't think it's the end-all, be-all. You have to go out and compete against guys who are [either] one, trying to prove, if they haven't had the experience, that they can perform at this stage, or two, guys who already have experience here.
"So we love getting our young guys out there like we have, and they've been doing a great job here for us. But we don't deny the fact that once a guy has been out there before, in a big pressure situation, that he can go out there and do it again. And Lance has been able to perform for us, and we know that he can do it again."
Ah, so there is the advantage of knowing what a guy has already done. But that can be problematic, too, according to Lynn himself.
"The guys that are just now getting here, no one knows about, they're gonna have to learn how to evolve, too," Lynn said on Saturday afternoon, prior to Game 3. "That's just part of the game."
Maybe. But then there's a guy like Jon Lester, who succeeded as a 23-year-old without a full season to his name in the 2007 playoffs for the Red Sox, and has never really looked back. Now, he's got the experience, with his dominant Game 1 win over the Cardinals making it 10 career starts and 69 total innings in October. He was at a loss to explain why, however.
"I don't know," Lester said when asked to explain his success. "I really don't know how to answer that. I feel like I've pitched pretty good throughout most of my seasons. And that's just carried over into the postseason. I like the stage... so I think that maybe that gives you a little bit extra focus."
And yet, Lester is sure having done it before has made him a better postseason pitcher now. I asked Lester if, like Wainwright said, he drew on specific moments from earlier playoff games he'd pitched to help him through later ones. He thinks it's worked for him, but that it isn't necessarily an advantage.
"Yeah, absolutely," Lester said. "I think there's benefits to both... I think there's benefits to being naïve to the situation, especially when you're young. You put too much stock into it, and that's when you think you have to do more."
It reminded me of what Rosenthal said Saturday night, after he'd pitched yet again for the Cardinals during the biggest moments of the Game 3 win.
"It's been something that's been talked about all year with these guys, coming up and really performing in big situations, and especially now in these opportunities and coming through," Rosenthal said. "I think we're all just such great competitors, and obviously the talent is there. And I'm starting to believe, maybe, that we're just young and don't realize the stage that we're on. And hopefully we can stay that way, stay locked in and just come every day ready to win."
So what, then of the experience-aware Lynn? The experienced Cardinals starter threw fastballs 46 of his first 50 pitches, then pitched through a difficult fifth inning, navigating a bases-loaded, none-out situation by allowing a single run. Surely, if playoff experience mattered, Lynn drew on some of it here, either with his initial approach, or when facing his biggest challenge of the evening, right?
"That's pretty much been my strategy all year when I've been successful," Lynn said in the Cardinals clubhouse Sunday night, when I asked him how his playoff experience informed his evening. "You know, go after hitters, make them beat me with my best pitch. When I'm doing that, I'm usually pretty successful."
But in the sixth, with runners on first and second, Matheny lifted Lynn for Seth Maness, another rookie out of that Cardinals bullpen in his first postseason. And Maness promptly gave up a home run to Jonny Gomes, a rarity for a guy who allowed four home runs in 66 appearances all season.
So I asked Maness: did anything look or feel different to him in that spot? Anything inherent in a World Series game that changed his approach?
"No, [it's] the same thing," Maness said, calmly approaching the group interview done by relievers precisely the way they handle the exact questions in May. "Sometimes, you get away with those. I've had times where I'll miss up, and you know, someone might pop it up, you know, swing through it. But a good hitter, more times than not, you're not gonna get away with that."
But a more reasonable answer to how Maness allowed the home run came in response to another question, about whether he pays for mistakes high in a way his teammates Rosenthal and Martinez, living in the upper 90s with their fastballs, don't.
"Oh right, yeah. A guy like me, I've gotta hit my spots, and it didn't happen tonight."
Of course, that has nothing to do with postseason experience.
As for Lynn, he didn't use anything from his October starts on Sunday night, nor did he believe anything that happened tonight would inform his future World Series appearances, when I asked him.
"No," Lynn said, decisively. "I mean, the way it is, I felt comfortable. And that's a good feeling to have, this time of year."
How to arrive at that comfort, though, for players or managers, is still as mysterious as ever.