Some casual Cardinal fans were taken aback by the ninth inning of Monday’s playoff game.
Who was this Trevor Rosenthal fellow and how was he throwing the ball 100 miles per hour?
That was an eye-opening power pitching display for fans unfamiliar with the depth of this staff.
Starter Jaime Garcia departed after just two innings with recurring shoulder soreness and this was not a big problem for manager Mike Matheny. His spare starter was Lance Lynn, a National League all-star and an 18-game winner.
As fallbacks go, that is pretty good.
With Lynn tagging in for Garcia — for this game and for future starts, should the Cardinals advance — rookie Joe Kelly stepped up into a key middle relief role. He prepared for this role by handling the sixth inning Monday without incident.
Kelly’s graduation into the relief mix moved the rookie Rosenthal up a notch. He warmed up for this task by closing out the game as Monday’s mop-up guy.
Since 13-game winner Jake Westbrook is still sidelined by an oblique muscle strain, the Cardinal braintrust got to pick between two rookies to fill Garcia’s void for the rest of this series.
Did they want Sam Freeman, a raw-but-promising lefty with a lively arm? Or did they want rookie Shelby Miller, their top starting pitching prospect?
Miller got the call when Garcia formally was placed on the disabled list because of a rotator cuff strain.
The Cardinals have pitching stacked on top of pitching and still more pitching. This gave them a distinct advantage during September, when major league teams are allowed to operate with expanded rosters.
This depth gives them a fighting chance to advance in the playoffs despite suffering key casualties. They have 2011 playoff hero Chris Carpenter pitching Game 3, play-in game winner Kyle Lohse set for Game 4 and Adam Wainwright available for Game 5.
The pitching match-ups for the rest of this series look favorable, especially with Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg relegated to a spectator role.
Perhaps the Edward Mujica-Mitchell Boggs-Jason Motte late-inning alignment doesn’t look quite as sturdy right now. Perhaps Marc Rzepczynski makes everybody nervous too.
This is where Kelly and Rosenthal come in. Both overpowered the Nationals Monday and both bring more than just lively fastballs to the party.
Should the Cardinals get beyond the Nationals, they will have a sturdy rotation despite the absence of both Garcia and Westbrook. Their bullpen would be loaded as well.
It wouldn’t the most experienced group, on balance, but remember how starting pitcher Anthony Reyes and relievers Josh Kinney and Tyler Johnson helped the Cardinals win a World Championship in 2006?
It could happen again, as long as the Cardinals hit well enough to make their pitching stand up.
Moving beyond this season, imagine how the Cardinals will benefit from exposing Lynn, Boggs, Kelly and Rosenthal to postseason play.
Lynn figures to join Wainwright, Carpenter and Westbrook in the Cardinal rotation next season. If Garcia still is shelved by shoulder trouble, Kelly, Rosenthal and Miller would each be viable candidates to step in.
(Many frustrated fans are ready to throw in the towel on Garcia. But the man is an asset. He helped the team win it all last year. He eschewed surgical repairs this summer and delivered some key performances down the stretch this season. Like Carpenter, Wainwright and Lohse, he has had to fight through some major physical challenges. Not everybody handles that the same way.)
Whichever power pitchers aren’t needed for the rotation would become bullpen options. This is stacking pitching on top of pitching and more pitching.
While the bidding for Lohse figures to get out of control this winter, the Cardinals should at least consider investing in Our Town’s Kyle McClellan and his comeback from shoulder surgery.
The team knows all about his mental make-up. If he comes back from repairs with a live arm, he could fill one of the bullpen roles and allow one of the power pitchers to polish his skills in the Memphis rotation.
Even with a lot of young pitching in development, the Cardinals should prepare a top-dollar offer to extend Wainwright's contract. Maintaining strong leadership at the top of the rotation would help ensure future success.
So what if the team develops an unwieldy pitching surplus? A team can never have too many arms, as we’re seeing again this autumn.
One man goes down, the next steps up.