ST. LOUIS — Lance Lynn figured to be a key late-inning reliever for the defending champion St. Louis Cardinals this year. Instead he just might make the All-Star team as a starter.
Continuing a remarkable run as a fill-in for the injured Chris Carpenter, Lynn went 7 1/3 scoreless innings Wednesday night and tied the Mets R.A. Dickey for the National League lead with 10 wins in a dramatic 1-0 victory over the Chicago White Sox.
With the Cardinals struggling just to stay above .500, Lynn has 10 of their 32 wins and has a 2.42 ERA in 13 starts. Safe to say they’d be in big trouble without him.
“That’s a great question and I’m glad we don’t have to answer it,” said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. “We go into spring training and (Lynn starting) wasn’t even part of the equation. He comes in here and you know he has good stuff. We knew he could come in here and start, but to be that guy that’s been a real boost to our starting staff and our team as a whole, you just never know who that’s going to be.
“You find out when most teams have a successful season, they have some young guys that step in and just ‘Wow’ you. Lance is doing that right now.”
Lynn took a two-hit shutout into the eighth inning before a one-out hit by Orlando Hudson and a pitch count of 112 pitches ended his night. But with Lynn and the Cardinals clinging to a 1-0 lead, lefty Marc Rzepczynski got pinch-hitter Adam Dunn to hit into an inning-ending double play to preserve the lead.
Things got dicey again in the ninth when closer Jason Motte allowed the leadoff hitter to reach base as the tying run. But after a sacrifice bunt moved the runner to second, shortstop Rafael Furcal made a game-saving diving stab to keep him at third.
Motte then got the American League’s leading hitter, Paul Konerko, to bounce into a 5-4-3 double play to end the game and strand the tying run on third.
“I knew they had it,” Lynn joked. “It was a little interesting but it was fun.”
Fun was also how Lynn described his whirlwind season to date. After becoming a key reliever down the stretch last season, Lynn figured to be the main eighth-inning setup man for Motte this year.
But when Carpenter went down in mid-March with a nerve issue in his shoulder, the Cardinals elected to stretch out Lynn and give him the first crack at filling that spot.
And he hasn’t made them second-guess their decision. He started the year 6-0 and improved to 10-2 with Wednesday’s win. He’s allowed two earned runs or less in 10 of his 13 starts and has allowed one run or less in six of them.
Simply put, he’s given the Cardinals a jolt they didn’t expect to get.
“I’m just going out there and doing what I’m capable of,” Lynn said. “I’ve been able to do that so far so hopefully I can keep it rolling.
“Every time I go out I try to think like it’s 0-0, no matter what inning or who is up. You never want to give up a hit or a run, so tonight I was able to execute when I needed to and keep them off the board.”
After setting a career high with 11 strikeouts in his previous start in Houston, Lynn wasted little time reaching a new number by recording 12 strikeouts Wednesday night.
According to research done by FOX Sports Midwest producer Tim Trokey, Lynn is the first Cardinals pitcher since Alan Benes in June 1997 to have at least 11 strikeouts in back-to-back games.
And the strikeouts came in big spots. After a leadoff triple by Alex Rios in the fifth, Lynn struck out A.J. Pierzynski and Alexei Ramirez with powerful fastballs to help escape trouble.
Lynn struck out the side in the third and the fifth innings and had at least one strikeout in seven of his eight innings.
“That’s the kind of pitcher he is and that’s why he can get out of a jam like he did in the fifth with a leadoff triple and gets a couple tough batters to strike out that don’t strike out a lot,” Matheny said. “You either have that or you don’t. You either have that kind of horsepower and movement and location and a lot of that is just your makeup, just to dig down deeper.
“We’ve said that about Waino in the past and we’ve seen it from Carp many, many times that when a situation gets tough, you get tougher. He showed that today.”
He’s also the first Cardinal since Todd Stottlemyre in May 1996 to have at least 23 strikeouts in a two-start span and he became just the eighth Cardinals pitcher since 2000 to have 12 strikeouts in a game.
It was just the 10th time since 1970 that a Cardinals pitcher had at least 12 strikeouts and one or fewer walks, achieved last by Adam Wainwright on May 25, 2010.
With the Cardinals searching for a spark to get them going, Lynn has given them exactly what they’ve needed. Whether they expected him to do it or not.
“He did a great job,” said outfielder Carlos Beltran, who provided the only run of the game with a solo shot in the third inning. “He’s been pitching great for us. He’s been a machine for us this year. I’m happy to watch him to have such a good season so far. Hopefully he can continue to do the same thing he’s doing.”
With a star-studded National League pitching staff, spots on the All-Star pitching staff will be tough. But Lynn is one of just two 10-game winners and with the way he’s thrown, it would seem tough to leave him off the team should his success continue.
But Lynn hasn’t broached that possibility yet and doesn’t plan to any time soon.
“That’s something I’m not worried about,” Lynn said. “There are a lot of good pitchers out there. If I get that opportunity it would be great, but right now I’m just worried about my next start.”
The way he’s been pitching, his next start can’t get here soon enough.