CHICAGO • When ace Chris Carpenter's uncertain health forced Cardinals manager Mike Matheny to relocate Lance Lynn from the bullpen to the rotation this spring, he sat the young righty down to outline the situation. Matheny needed a way to explain to Lynn that while he was taking Carpenter's spot the Cardinals weren't expecting him to fill Carpenter's role.
It's a good thing Matheny had an example handy: himself.
"It's like my situation, we're not asking him to fill those big shoes," said first-year manager Matheny, who succeeded the club's leader in wins, Tony La Russa. "We're asking him to just pitch. That's what I told him, 'Just pitch.'"
Lynn has "just pitched" his way to being the team's leader in wins through four turns of the rotation and has a 1.33 ERA. By guiding the Cardinals to a 5-1 victory against the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday at Wrigley Field, Lynn became the first four-game winner in the majors and the first Cards starter to complete eight innings this season. It's a long way from starting spring as a second-year reliever aiming for a setup role.
David Freese backed Lynn with a home run and three RBIs, while Carlos Beltran stirred with a key double and two stolen bases. Beltran, playing right field, did not touch the ball on defense. The first batter of the game flew out to left field, and Lynn's next 23 outs did not leave the infield.
He retired the final 11 batters he faced, two on strikeouts and six on ground balls to shortstop Rafael Furcal.
Matheny had talked to him about staying grounded.
"He wanted me to know that I was his guy, the guy he wanted there to help the team win some games while Carp was out," Lynn said, recalling Matheny's message. "Carp's a Cy Young Award winner. You can't try and do that. All I could do was stay myself."
Said Matheny: "What Lance did was set the tone for everything."
Lynn's gem, in his first appearance at Wrigley, came at a crossroads for the first-place Cardinals. In the two previous days, they had taken a lead into the ninth inning and watched it evaporate in eventual losses. The offense had gone largely AWOL on this six-game trip.
The Cardinals' four hits with runners in scoring position Wednesday matched their total for the previous five games. They return to Busch Stadium having gone eight for 52 (.154) with runners in scoring position on the trip.
In the middle of it was Beltran.
Thrust into the cleanup role with Lance Berkman resting a calf strain, Beltran had been hitless in 16 at-bats, a swoon that included seven strikeouts. Matheny had scheduled Beltran for a day off Wednesday so he could rest and 'shut his mind down." Beltran walked into Matheny's office that morning and made his case to get in the lineup.
"I just personally feel that it's not appropriate on my part (feeling) good and taking a day off when we need to go out there and win a ballgame," Beltran said. "If we (already) would have won the series, I would have taken the day. But (with two losses) it didn't seem the right thing for me to do."
Beltran defied his funk against Cubs starter Chris Volstad with the pivotal RBI double off the ivy, which scored Furcal and snapped a 1-1 tie. Beltran then stole third base and scored on Freese's fourth homer of the season, a two-run bolt to the left-center bleachers.
In the eighth, Beltran walked, stole second base and scored on Freese's double to give the third baseman 18 RBIs in the team's first 19 games.
"We'd still like to put it on opponents a little more, but we started off the season so strong (offensively) that this game will even it out real quick," Freese said. "We lose the emotional games like we did the past two nights and it's nice to come in here with a win."
Lynn gave the Cardinals that calm.
The 24-year-old righthander has yet to allow more than an earned run in any of his starts this season. Wednesday's came on a solo homer by Bryan LaHair, the Cubs first baseman's third homer this season against the Cardinals. Lynn allowed one more hit after that, a leadoff double in the fifth, and then retired 12 of the next 13 batters. Lynn said, in pitcher-speak, he made "adjustments" to find a rhythm.
Asked if those "adjustments" were mechanical or pitch selection, Lynn shook his head: "Just not to hang anything again."
There are many ways to describe what Lynn has done in his first month as a regular in the big-league rotation. As Carpenter remains on a strengthening program with no clear return date to the mound, Lynn has been a worthy understudy. He played stopper Wednesday, halting a losing streak. Throughout his development in the minors, he was considered durable and called a grinder. After Lynn's win Wednesday, Matheny used a label he reserves for complimenting the pitchers at the top of a rotation.
"He's a workhorse," Matheny said. "I think 'workhorse' is one of the best."