LOS ANGELES – Marco Gonzales pitched five innings in Colorado on Wednesday and it went about the way things can go in Colorado. That is, long periods of composure and precision followed by five runs followed by whatever may be left of one’s composure and precision.
Given the emotional (and possibly physical) whiplash that comes with such an outing, this could be mildly traumatic, or at least unsettling or, as Gonzales himself framed it, “The best day of my life.” Or that.
The St. Louis Cardinals had themselves a day recently, a gentle way of saying they lost 40 percent of their starting rotation – Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia – in a single press release. There are no good times for injuries, and these come at a particularly delicate period for the Cardinals, who aren’t hitting much (three days in Colorado excepted) and are finding the Milwaukee Brewers might actually be legit. The Cardinals have won more lately. They were 31-31 on June 6 and are 12-6 since. It’s netted them zero games on the Brewers. Adam Wainwright threw eight ridiculously capable innings here on Thursday night, and the Cardinals lost a game in the standings to the Brewers anyway.
Eighty games into the defense of their NL pennant, an event that reintroduced us to the impossibly deep and refined pitching factory that is the Cardinals, they have gone through nine starting pitchers, and that’s with Wainwright, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller and Wacha covering 63 of the 80. Joe Kelly has been on the disabled list since mid-April. Miller came out of his last start because of back spasms. Wainwright had a sore elbow and skipped a start. Wacha and Garcia have shoulder issues. These are the trials of a season, this season at least as much as any, and these are the reasons the Cardinals show up anyway, and pitch themselves close, or pitch themselves into deep October.
Even then, it’s dangerous. Gonzales is 22. Thursday’s start was his first above the Texas League. He’ll get his second Tuesday night in San Francisco. Carlos Martinez is 22. His fourth big-league start is scheduled for Friday night against the Dodgers. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny is pretty sure Miller will be sufficiently recovered from his back ailment to start here Sunday. But as of Thursday afternoon the Cardinals’ starters for the weekend had to be updated from TBA, followed by TBA.
And yet before Wainwright did everything Thursday night but win – a couple stray and hittable cutters in the eighth inning accounted for the Dodgers’ lone run – Cardinals’ starters led the league in ERA and complete games and batting average against and a lot of other categories that say there is no better rotation.
So, with some confidence, they summon from Double-A a young man such as Marco Gonzales, a smart and secure left-hander they drafted a year ago, and they watch him hold up, stagger and then recover in the wringer that is Coors Field. And they nod and give him another start. They drag a finger over a list of other prospects perhaps as deserving. They take Martinez from the bullpen and he makes two starts and posts a 3.00 ERA in them. Kelly is in the rehabilitation assignment stage of his recovery and could return soon.
And in the end, it seems, if the Cardinals cannot stay with the Brewers and therefore do not repeat in the Central, they will fail in spite of the organizational advantage they’ve created and nurtured with their pitching.
Other teams get thin and get panicky. The Cardinals get thin and report to work the next day and assume the next guy will give their offense, even such as it is, a handful of at-bats that could win a ballgame.
“I say that all the time,” Wainwright said. “These guys have incredible stuff, incredible arms. They’re 21, 22 and making a big difference. It’s very impressive.”
Asked why the Cardinals and so few others, Mark Ellis, new to the organization this season, said, “I think it’s expected of them. They’re told it’s their job to go up and perform. Two, they’re throwing to the best catcher in the game in Yadier Molina. He takes all the thinking out of it for them.
“You feel bad for the injured guys, but you gotta keep going. Every team has huge injuries. We’re not going to make excuses and it’s what sets us apart.”
They’d not intended for Gonzales to be here, among them, in June of his first full professional season. They’d not planned for his debut to come in the finest hitters’ park ever constructed. Nor was it supposed to be in front of his family, so many friends, an easy drive from his hometown, Fort Collins.
“I don’t think we could have constructed a tougher test, all things considered,” Matheny said. “But it was, ‘We need help. He’s the right guy right now.’”
It’s how the best day of Gonzales’ life – so far – was constructed. Yeah, it came with a five-spot in the fourth inning. It also came with at least five more days in the big leagues, one of them spent leaning on a dugout rail watching Wainwright and Josh Beckett take a nothing-nothing game into the eighth inning, and with the assurance that whatever the Cardinals do down there in the minor leagues, it works. Gonzales was spending his summer working on his changeup command and curveball consistency. He was working on one single pitch, that being his next one, whatever it was.
“Just knowing,” he said, “it’s going to be your best pitch at that moment.”
So he took that to Coors Field. Next, to AT&T Park. And with him, Gonzales – and the rest – will take whatever will come of the Cardinals. This is the moment that will try the very heart of the organization, that being men such as Wainwright and Lynn and Miller, and Kelly and Wacha again, and a system that already is producing the next generation of them.
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