Young Cardinals pitching trio overcomes raucous Pittsburgh crowd to force win-or-go-home Game 5

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

PITTSBURGH – In one corner stood the architect, in another the godfather, and in between them roamed the progeny, their fresh faces belying what their fresh arms had just done. This is how you build a baseball team: with a general manager like John Mozeliak, a prototype like Chris Carpenter and young arms like Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal who can throw 100 mph and have the fortitude to match.

The St. Louis Cardinals are not the best organization in baseball by accident. Games like Monday's – a one-hitter spun by three rookies in an elimination game on the road – are not pure luck. The Pittsburgh Pirates walked into PNC Park on Monday with a chance to win their first playoff series in 34 years, and they exited staring at a 2-1 defeat, the prospect of a winner-take-all Game 5 in St. Louis on Wednesday and the reality that they'd been mowed over by arms ages 22, 22 and 23.

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"We just watched the biggest game of the season, and we had three kids in their young 20s shove it in their [expletive]," Carpenter said. "Huge nuts. Not scared at all. It was awesome to watch. Wacha has made 15 starts. Not scared. Carlos comes in. Not scared. Rosey. Not scared."

This was the Cardinals on raw display in the National League Division Series: youth surrounded enough gray hairs to teach right from wrong. Right: Wacha carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning for the second consecutive start with a fastball-changeup-curveball combination that goes together like red, white and blue. Right: Martinez picking him up with an inning-ending strikeout after Pedro Alvarez's solo home run broke up the no-no and halved the lead. Right: Rosenthal shrugging off seven straight balls in the bottom of the ninth to retire MVP-in-waiting Andrew McCutchen on a harmless pop-up to second base and end the game.

Wrong: Not much.

Matt Holliday provided all the offense necessary with a two-run home run, and the Cardinals did like their 2011 counterparts, staring at the end of their season and laughing it away. This is a wildly different team than that bunch, far more reliant on kids who are supposed to know no better. Wacha and Martinez debuted this season, and Rosenthal didn't start closing until late September.

Of course, the Cardinals' development system seems to breed players primed for October. It doesn't matter where you come from. Look at Monday's pitchers. Wacha was a pedigree guy, a first-round pick. (The compensation pick from Albert Pujols' departure, in fact.) Rosenthal was a lottery ticket, a 21st round pick out of junior college.

And Martinez was a gift, signed out of the Dominican Republic thanks to a lie working in the Cardinals' favor.

When Wacha slipped to the 19th pick in the 2012 draft, the Cardinals thanked the 18 teams picking before them. Wacha stood 6-foot-6, and his fastball and changeup both projected as major league pitches. He zoomed through the Cardinals' organization and bounced between Triple-A and the major league team this season and honed the curve that, when weaponized like on Monday, leaves teams helpless. All the better, St. Louis managed his workload such that it would not, Mozeliak said, "preclude him from being used August, September and, of course, October."

That's how the Cardinals think these days: October is a given. It's not cocky if it's true. They could have kept Martinez in a minor league rotation earlier this year, but with their major league bullpen imploding, they fortified it with someone who happens to hit triple digits. Such arm strength has been evident since Martinez made the most profitable mistake of his life. He signed for $160,000 with the Boston Red Sox under the name Carlos Matias. After an investigation into his identity, Major League Baseball voided the contract and suspended him. During his time off, Martinez's arm strength blossomed, and the Cardinals leapt in and signed him for $1.5 million.

Neither he nor Wacha throws quite as hard as Rosenthal. His fastball, according to Brooks Baseball, topped out at 100.1 mph in Game 4. The average velocity of the 88 fastballs thrown by the three Cardinals pitchers: 95.86 mph.

"They're not trying to go out there throwing 120 mph," Cardinals reliever Jason Motte said. "They're doing what they do. And they just happen to throw it 100."

During the Cardinals' march to the 2011 championship, Motte took over as closer during the season's final month, too. He understands how this all works. The Cardinals are a pitching factory. Atlanta produces its fair share of arms, as does Tampa Bay, but nobody can match the Cardinals for the pure amount of homegrown, high-end arms. In Rosenthal's draft class of 2009, they took Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly in Rounds 1 and 2 – and also plucked Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams later. How scary is their draft-and-develop pipeline: The season after the Cardinals won the World Series, they drafted a guy who was on the cusp of a no-hitter in his first postseason game.

"We did a lot of gushing about him before we even got him out there today," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said, "and I think everybody sees why. I don't know if you can put a kid in a tougher spot."

Actually, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle might've done just that: He named 23-year-old Gerrit Cole his Game 5 starter over A.J. Burnett, throwing the kid against Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright under the lights of a packed Busch Stadium. It's a game even richer with subplots than this one, and it makes Carpenter glad he stuck around for one more year.

He is 38 now. He didn't throw a pitch this season and may never again. Still, he wanted to experience the postseason one more time because he knows nothing invigorates quite like the playoffs. This, he said, "was a privilege to be a part of. I haven't been part of a game like this ever." And considering he threw a three-hit shutout and beat Roy Halladay 1-0 in an elimination game two years ago, that says something.

From the beginning of spring training this season, Carpenter has seen all these rookies – Wacha and Rosenthal and Martinez and Miller and Seth Maness and Kevin Siegrist, more than half the staff – and tried to teach them that no matter how good their arms are, success takes more. None is like Carpenter. Nobody is. On the mound, there is no meaner, angrier pitcher. He's got the red ass like a macaque. He wants them to be like him, and so he passes on fresh wisdom.

"If you fear results," Carpenter said, "you're not going to do real well."

They didn't fear anything Monday, not Michael Wacha, not Carlos Martinez, not Trevor Rosenthal. They shoved it. They showed cojones. And because of these kids who know no better, they're going back to St. Louis to play the sort of game nobody plays better than the Cardinals.

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