ST. LOUIS — Randy Choate has pitched for seven teams in his 13-year career. The 37-year-old reliever is the oldest player on the St. Louis Cardinals’ active roster, which means he’s got a lot of wisdom to share with newcomers. But this season, on this team, few have needed it.
“I think you have to tell them more when they look like they start to get overwhelmed,” Choate said in an empty Cardinals clubhouse Wednesday afternoon. “These guys haven’t really looked overwhelmed. You just want them to keep doing what they’re doing.”
As the MLB season rounds first base, something noteworthy is taking place in St. Louis. Rookies are excelling on the mound. Whether they start or relieve, they almost always deliver. And their tendency to do so has been vital to the Cardinals (26-13) leading the National League and being on pace to surpass a franchise-best 106 wins.
In all of the years Choate has been in professional baseball, he hasn’t witnessed anything quite like the performance of the youngsters who occupy the lockers down the row from his.
The group includes Shelby Miller, the sensation who debuted late last season; starter John Gast, who threw for the first time Tuesday as a result of Jake Westbrook’s sore elbow; hard-throwing (both can hit 100 mph) relievers Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez; along with Maddux-like reliever Seth Maness.
“The success they’ve had is definitely not really anything I can remember seeing,” Choate said. “At least not off the top of my head, anyway.”
On Wednesday, Miller — who entered the game leading all MLB rookies in wins, strikeouts and ERA — surrendered four hits and struck out six in 5.2 innings, bumping his number of scoreless innings up to 14.2. His ERA dropped to 1.40, tying Los Angeles Dodger Clayton Kershaw for best in the MLB. He also notched a longer-lasting statistic. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Miller is the third pitcher in the last 100 years to surrender eight earned runs or fewer in his first nine starts.
All this, and he still missed out on clinching his sixth win of the season.
“I feel terrible giving up those runs and blemishing his great outing,” Maness said.
For this group, a win that nearly got away is about all there has been to feel terrible about. Maness served up a two-run homer to Mets outfielder Rick Ankiel in the seventh inning, which erased Miller’s opportunity for the win. But Maness recovered to end the inning, and the Cardinals scored before Rosenthal served as the trusty bridge to the team’s closer, Edward Mujica. The result was a 4-2 Cardinals win, their 12th in 14 games and their third in three days against the Mets.
The night before, Gast had debuted in a 10-4 win. The 24-year-old churned through five scoreless innings with 50 pitches — the best of which was a change up he threw 16 times for nine outs. After the Mets tagged him for four runs in the sixth, the Cardinals went to Maness, then Martinez. Neither surrendered a run before Joe Kelly handled the ninth.
“It shows me the Cardinals are willing to put young guys out there,” Gast said after that game. “I think I was probably the oldest guy to pitch tonight. It just shows you they’re willing to trust us.”
He wasn’t quite the oldest (Maness turned 24 four months before Gast), but the message was clear enough. It’s that the Cardinals are going with their young guns and reaping the rewards.
Miller (5), Maness (3) and Gast (1) have compiled nine wins — two more than Cardinals’ rookies totaled all of last year. Rosenthal has eight holds in 12 appearances and an 0.82 ERA since he surrendered two runs on April 17. And Martinez, who gave up three earned runs in one inning during a May 12 loss to the Colorado Rockies, has held opponents scoreless in the other three innings he has pitched.
“It has been a huge help,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said of his young pitchers this week. “It’s a great compliment to our development system. These guys, they have the stuff. But they just look ready when they get here … It’s not any kind of shell-shock. You don’t see guys overwhelmed. They’re ready.”
If something changes, he will be the veteran who tries to help.
It’s just that the role hasn’t been necessary yet.
“So far so good,” he said. “Hopefully, they can continue to do it all year. Because it’s just going to make everybody, in September, that much better.”