ST. LOUIS — When ranking your concerns over the Cardinals’ disappointing 19-20 start, don’t leave out the rotation.
Despite all of its promise and early-season excellence, it is showing cracks, too.
Look at it this way: If the five starters are the pillars that shoulder the success of the season, only the one at the top has proven to be ironclad solid so far.
While the other four have not come close to cracking, they have shown some signs of distress. Because of their youth, this should not be a surprise. But given the expectations, it’s at least a little alarming. Remember, coming into spring training, the main issue regarding the rotation was which future All-Stars would be left out. Three months later, eight legitimate candidates might not be enough.
No worries over No. 1. Adam Wainwright has carried his load and then some. At this point, his biggest worry is how he might have to clear space not only for a Cy Young Award, but also a Silver Slugger.
Michael Wacha (No. 2). Any concern over Wacha depends in large part on how much you value a pitcher’s wins and losses. The Cardinals have lost all of his past five starts, but that’s been about bad luck more than poor pitching. There was the bizarre wind game in New York and the wild pitch that got away in Washington that not one, but two Nationals scored on.
Against the Pirates on Sunday night, Wacha was one strike away from escaping a bases-loaded jam but didn’t get the call and promptly gave up a two-run double. Still, he ended up being charged with only three runs in five innings — and that equaled the most runs he’s allowed in a start all season. With a 2.85 ERA and six quality starts in eight times out, Wacha has pitched much better than his 2-3 record.
Lance Lynn (No. 3). There might be more unrest than is necessary when checking out Lynn. He has been pretty much the same pitcher he was in his first two seasons in the rotation. Rarely does he make it easy, but somehow he still wins.
Lynn’s biggest problem has been one bad inning; in half of his eight starts, he’s given up at least three runs in a single inning. His "stuff is right there," manager Mike Matheny said Monday, but "he just has that one inning we can’t corral."
They have been able to overcome it most of the time. The Cardinals are 5-3 when Lynn starts, and while his ERA is a mediocre 3.83, he’s averaging more than a strikeout per inning and giving up an average of less than one homer per nine innings.
Shelby Miller (No. 4). Splinters start to show at No. 4, though you wouldn’t know that looking at Miller’s 5-2 record and 3.22 ERA. Miller, though, has been fighting his mechanics since spring training and, at 23, hasn’t learned how to fix them on the fly.
"That’s part of the growing pains," Matheny said. "A lot of that is different things mechanically that he thinks he’s doing and can’t feel it."
"I feel like I’m trying to hit the corners a little too much," Miller said. "It’s just getting back on the plate, focusing on every pitch, locking it in, delivering the pitch, every pitch at a time. Don’t take it through the inning. Take it pitch by pitch.
"I feel like I’m close."
Miller’s numbers indicate he might not be quite as close to finding top form as he thinks. Though his goal this season was to work deeper into games, he has yet to record an out in the seventh and is averaging fewer than six innings a start.
In 44 2/3 innings, he’s already walked 27 with only 33 strikeouts. He averaged better than a strikeout per inning for the first half of last season and for his rookie season, less than three walks per nine innings. He’s almost doubled his walk per nine this season while his strikeouts have dropped. Miller also has served up eight home runs, though five of those came in his first three starts.
He says he has watched film of his delivery from last season and knows what he needs to do. But whether he can figure it out seems to become a bigger question with each start.
No. 5. Getting Miller right is the rotation’s biggest challenge, but figuring out No. 5 is right behind. Joe Kelly, who grabbed the job in spring training, was off to a strong start until he injured his left hamstring trying to beat out an infield hit.
Almost a month later, he’s not close to returning. Kelly did not throw at all last week and does not know when he will be cleared to run. Under such circumstances, he likely won’t be ready for another month. He admitted Monday he has no idea when he might pitch again.
"It’s something you don’t want to reinjure and be out for the rest of the year because they’re really painful and nagging," Kelly said. "I’ve never had this problem, so I don’t know how to deal with it."
Tyler Lyons had done a solid job of filling in for Kelly until Monday night, when he served up three-run homers in the first and second innings and left after four innings with a 6.12 ERA.
"Tyler had a rough night, no question about it," Matheny said bluntly, unable to point out a positive as he typically does when assessing his players’ performances.
When Lyons might get another start now is up in the air after he was placed on the disabled list Tuesday afternoon with a shoulder strain. His absence creates an immediate need to find another starter.
One possibility is lefty Jaime Garcia, who is in the final stages of rehabbing from last year’s shoulder surgery. Garcia gave up three hits in a 74-pitch, five-inning start for Class AAA Memphis on Monday night and appears close to being ready for his season debut.
If Garcia can return and pitch as he did for the first month of last season, he would go a long way in stabilizing the pillars. But that is less than certain when you consider the misfortune he has encountered over the past two years.
There’s always a chance that Carlos Martinez could be called on to start. With Jason Motte nearing a return, the emergence of Pat Neshek as a reliable option and some encouraging signs of a Seth Maness bounce-back, the club could change course and decide that Martinez is needed more in the rotation.
The way it has been trending, a lift of some sort for the starters soon could be needed.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.