ST. LOUIS — Before Cardinals fans become too spoiled, a reminder is in order: Appreciate what you are witnessing because it does not happen every often.
It’s not every year, or every decade, that a team can lean so heavily on rookies that it can call on five — count ‘em, five — to pitch in one game during a pennant race. But manager Mike Matheny did just that Wednesday afternoon against the Washington Nationals at Busch Stadium.
As they have done pretty much all season, all five did their jobs without any missteps as they led the way in a 4-1 victory that pushed the Cardinals oh so close to their first NL Central title since 2009.
After clinching a tie for the division crown, the Cardinals need one victory in this weekend’s series against the Cubs or one loss by the Pirates in their series at Cincinnati.
Twenty-two-year-old Shelby Miller started the impressive display of youth with a six-inning-plus outing that earned him his 15th victory, most in the majors among rookies, and lowered his ERA to 3.06. After three of the first four Nationals reached base, resulting in Washington’s lone run, Miller did not allow more than one base runner in any other inning.
Twenty-four-year-old Seth Maness came in after a leadoff walk in the seventh and did what he has done better than any NL reliever, rookie or not. On his second pitch, he induced his 15th double-play grounder, a routine 5-4-3 off the bat of Wilson Ramos.
Hard-throwing lefty Kevin Siegrist, harder-throwing right-hander Carlos Martinez and hardest-throwing Trevor Rosenthal then took care of the eighth and ninth innings.
Rosenthal worked a three-up, three-down ninth that included strikeouts of Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche to earn his third save in three days since Edward Mujica was removed from the closer’s role.
Do the rookies even realize what they are accomplishing?
“I was watching on TV and heard them talking about (five rookies),” Maness said shortly after the game. “It’s pretty crazy.”
Yes it is. Hardly is this what anyone in spring training could have seen coming. But make no mistake, you can count on seeing plenty more of the young arms as long as the Cardinals continue their quest for October.
“Did we expect that to happen? No,” said Matheny. “I don’t think anybody really does. But you give them opportunities and then you can’t deny the talent. We saw some young guys with very good talent, and they’re letting it shine.”
The Cardinals have gotten 36 wins from their rookies, more than any team in the majors and the most in St. Louis in more than 62 years. Cardinals rookies have combined to work 546 2/3 innings with a more-than respectable 3.21 ERA.
While Miller has led the rookie train, he doesn’t own the best numbers. They would belong to Rosenthal, who has struck out 106 in 74 1/3 innings and recorded a 2.66 ERA, or Siegrist, who owns a 0.47 ERA in 43 appearances.
As for stuff, Martinez might be the best. The 21-year-old right-hander features a fastball that reaches 100 mph and a knee-buckling curve that the Nationals’ best hitter, Jayson Werth, did not touch in a strikeout that ended the top of the eighth.
Lest we forget, a sixth Redbirds rookie, 22-year-old Michael Wacha, outshined all of them Tuesday night when he came within one out of no-hitting the Nationals. A day later, Wacha admitted phone calls and texting had kept him up all night but he wasn’t complaining.
“Thinking back on it, it was an incredible night,” he said.
Did he think about what might have happened if he had not nicked Ryan Zimmerman’s bouncer? “I try not to think about that,” he said.
His manager also had trouble falling asleep after the performance. “I think everybody was pretty amped up watching that,” Matheny said.
As impressive as was Wacha’s performance, especially coming in a pennant race, it might not been the best outing by a Cardinals rookie this season. In early May against the Rockies, Miller allowed a broken-bat single to the leadoff hitter and then retired the next 27 batters.
“They were both very good,” Matheny said when asked to rate the games. “Take any of them any night.”
He said this with a big grin, the kind he surely gets every time he thinks about the future of the Cardinals’ pitching.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.