SweetSpot: Adam Wainwright

We have a good one tonight: Felix Hernandez versus Yu Darvish in Texas. With that matchup in mind, Eric and myself discuss the pitching matchups we'd most like to see.

Hernandez and Darvish have met just twice, both in 2012, and King Felix dominated both times. On May 21, he allowed one run in eight innings while Darvish exited early after walking six batters in four innings. On July 14, Hernandez shut out the Rangers 7-0 with a three-hit, 12-strikeout performance. That's the second-highest Game Score of Hernandez's career, behind only his perfect game against Tampa Bay later that season.

Considering the way both pitchers are going right now -- Hernandez has allowed six runs in three starts and owns a 30-2 strikeout/walk ratio and Darvish hasn't allowed a run in two starts -- and the fact that the Mariners have been shut out three times in their past six games and the Rangers have scored one run in three of their past five, we should expect a low-scoring game.

Which means, of course, we'll probably have an 8-7 final.

The first rule of Opening Day: Don't overreact to Opening Day. So these are merely observations from flipping around watching a bunch of different games.

1. At one point during the Cardinals-Reds opener, Adam Wainwright looked a little perturbed, presumably at the strike zone of plate umpire Gary Cederstrom. After all, Wainwright walked three guys unintentionally in his seven innings (plus another intentional walk). This was a guy who walked just 35 batters in 34 starts last year, just once walking three guys in a game. So he may have been unhappy with the balls and strikes … and yet still threw seven scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and just three hits allowed in the Cards’ 1-0 victory. Whenever the Reds threatened, Wainwright got the big outs -- a Joey Votto double play on a 2-2 fastball in the third and Zack Cozart on a tapper in front of the plate with two runners on to end the sixth. He threw 105 pitches, including 22 of his famous curveball -- the Reds went 0-for-6 with a walk against the curve, including Cozart’s out. Here’s the thing about the Cardinals: While I (and others) have spent a lot of time discussing their depth and versatility, they also have two of the best players in the game: Wainwright and Yadier Molina. Their lone run off Johnny Cueto: Molina’s home run in the seventh off a 0-0 cutter that didn’t cut.

2. I don’t know if Billy Hamilton will hit, but I know he can’t hit Wainwright. The Reds’ rookie went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts against Wainwright to register the dreaded golden sombrero -- the 17th player since 1914 to go 0-for-4 with four strikeouts on Opening Day. The potential bigger picture: If Hamilton and Brandon Phillips don’t get on base enough -- a distinct possibility -- Votto is going to draw 100-plus walks no matter if he has Jay Bruce, Johnny Bench or Frank Robinson hitting behind him. Which will lead to the haters complaining about Votto’s RBI total.

3. The Tigers beat the Royals 4-3 thanks to a big day from emergency shortstop acquisition Alex Gonzalez, who tripled in the tying run in the seventh and singled in the winning run in the ninth. Justin Verlander scuffled through his six innings, giving up six hits and three walks with just two strikeouts, but that’s not my initial concern. The concern is that Opening Day roster, which includes Gonzalez, Andrew Romine, Bryan Holaday, Tyler Collins, Don Kelly, Ian Krol and Evan Reed. Besides Krol and Reed, the bullpen includes Phil Coke (1.6 WHIP over the past two seasons), Joba Chamberlain, Al Alburquerque and Luke Putkonen. In other words: The final 10 spots on the roster could be a disaster. It could work out -- Chamberlain and Alburquerque will probably be OK if they stay healthy, for example -- but the lack of depth on this team could be an issue. Detroit's star players -- Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer -- have been very durable, but a lengthy injury to any of those three or Anibal Sanchez, Austin Jackson or Ian Kinsler could be crushing.

4. The Pirates picked up with the kind of game they won last year, beating the Cubs 1-0 on Neil Walker’s walk-off home run in the 10th inning. The Pirates won five 1-0 games last year (there were only 48 such games in the majors last season, so the Pirates had over 10 percent of all 1-0 victories). The major league average when scoring one run, two runs or three runs was a .270 winning percentage; the Pirates were 25-39 (.390) when scoring one to three runs, so they won a lot of low-scoring games. The big positive besides the bullpen throwing four scoreless innings was the six dominant innings from Francisco Liriano, who tied a Pirates club record with 10 strikeouts on Opening Day. With the loss of A.J. Burnett, the pressure is on Liriano to repeat his 2013 performance.

5. Showing early confidence in B.J. Upton, who hit .184 last year while striking out in 34 percent of his plate appearances, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez hit his center fielder second while moving Justin Upton down to fifth (Chris Johnson hit cleanup). I can’t say that’s the lineup I’d go with -- Justin Upton seems the logical choice to bat second behind leadoff hitter Jason Heyward -- but no matter what order Gonzalez chooses there are going to be some OBP issues if B.J. Upton, Dan Uggla and Evan Gattis don’t get on base more often. Yovani Gallardo kept the Braves in check with six shutout innings -- a good sign for the Brewers considering Gallardo’s inconsistency and drop in velocity last year -- while Francisco Rodriguez was called on for the save in the Brewers’ 2-0 victory.

6. One reason I’m a little wary about the Orioles is new closer Tommy Hunter’s struggles against left-handed batters -- he gave up 12 home runs last year, which is way too many for a reliever to begin with, and all 12 were against lefties. He scraped through the save in the O’s 2-1 win over the Red Sox, hitting Will Middlebrooks with a pitch and giving up a one-out single to Dustin Pedroia, but he got ahead of David Ortiz 0-2 before getting him to fly out to medium-deep left center, and then struck out Jackie Bradley looking on a fastball at the belt. (Bradley was hitting after pinch running for Mike Napoli in the eighth).

7. I was dubious about Tanner Scheppers as a starter and his performance in the Rangers’ 14-10 loss to the Phillies didn’t alleviate any of those concerns. His fastball averaged 96.3 mph last year as a reliever but 93.3 on Monday as a starter. His strikeout rate as a reliever didn’t scream “try this guy as a starter” and he fanned just two in his four innings, which required 93 pitches to get through. It's just one start and considering it was his first in the major leagues and on Opening Day -- a strange choice by Ron Washington -- let’s give him a pass and keep an eye on his next outing.

8. Tough loss for the Mets, blowing leads in the seventh and ninth innings and then losing in 10 to the Nationals. As Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen said after Anthony Rendon hit a three-run homer off John Lannan in the 10th, “What an atrocious day by the Mets' bullpen.” Something Mets fans have witnessed all too often in recent seasons.

9. While flipping through the various games, it’s pretty clear we're going to see even more defensive shifting. According to Baseball Info Solutions, the number of shifts has increased from 2,358 in 2011 to 4,577 in 2012 to 8,134 in 2013.

10. Jose Fernandez. He looked brilliant in his six innings, throwing 73 of his 94 pitches for strikes, and smiling when Carlos Gonzalez homered in the sixth off his one mistake. I think I may watch 33 Marlins games this year.
As expected, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer easily won the Cy Young Awards on Wednesday, with Kershaw capturing 29 of 30 first-place to win his second Cy Young Award, and Scherzer collecting 28 of 30 first-place votes to win his first.

Kershaw, with his 16-9 record and 1.83 ERA, was the clear choice in the National League. Jose Fernandez had a similar dominance over hitters -- Kershaw allowed a .195/.244/.277 batting line, Fernandez .182/.257/.265 -- but Kershaw pitched 63 more innings, making that comparison moot. Adam Wainwright was terrific, going 19-9 with a 2.94 ERA, walking just 35 batters in 34 starts while leading the majors in innings pitched, but he allowed 28 more runs while pitching just 5.2 more innings.

The American League race arguably had a little more flavor to it if you looked past Scherzer's shiny 21-3 record. Over at FanGraphs, Dave Cameron outlined the specifics of the debate when it came to using advanced metrics to evaluate the candidates:

We have two different models of pitcher WAR: one based on FIP, and one based on runs allowed. These represent the extreme opposite ends of the viewpoints on how much credit or blame a pitcher should receive for events in which his teammates have some significant influence. If you go with strictly a FIP-based model, a pitcher is only judged on his walks, strikeouts, and home runs, and the events of hits on balls in play and the sequencing of when events happen are not considered as part of the evaluation.

If you go with the RA9-based model, then everything that happens while the pitcher is on the mound -- and in some cases, what happens after they are removed for a relief pitcher -- is considered the pitcher's responsibility, and he's given full credit or blame for what his teammates do while he's pitching.

Scherzer fared best in the Fielding Independent Pitching version of WAR, with his terrific strikeout and walk rates; Yu Darvish and Hisashi Iwakuma, because they allowed slightly fewer runs in a similar number of innings, fared best in the runs-based model. Iwakuma, for example, led the AL in Baseball-Reference WAR, which focuses more on runs (while considering other factors like team defense and quality of opposition). But as Cameron pointed out, Scherzer rates high in both models. Scherzer likely won so easily because of his 21-3 record, but he's a deserving winner even if he'd gone 17-7.

Did either pitcher have a historic season? Scherzer did have the fifth-highest winning percentage for a pitcher who won 20 games:

Ron Guidry, 1978 Yankees: .893 (25-3)
Lefty Grove, 1931 A's, .886 (31-4)
Cliff Lee, 2008 Indians: .880 (22-3)
Preacher Roe, 1951 Dodgers: .880 (22-3)
Scherzer, 2013 Tigers: .875 (21-3)

But Scherzer's 2.90 ERA wasn't historical, and teammate Anibal Sanchez had an even lower ERA. Scherzer was hard to hit and had a high strikeout rate, but his .583 OPS allowed ranks just 31st during the wild-card era. I'm not trying to diminish Scherzer's season, just suggesting the win-loss record overstates his dominance a bit. He took a huge leap forward, however, and is now correctly labeled as one of the best in the majors.

It's easier to make the case for Kershaw. Since 1950, we've had just 33 seasons where a starter allowed an ERA under 2.00, with 21 of those coming in the 10-year span between 1963 and 1972, when pitching dominated. Going back to 1994 and the wild-card era, just seven times has a pitcher finished with an ERA under 2.00: Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez twice, Kevin Brown, Roger Clemens and now Kershaw. Kershaw's .521 OPS allowed is third-best in that era, behind Martinez in 2000 and Maddux in 1995. I would rate Kershaw's season behind those two since they pitched in much higher-scoring leagues.

In fact, Baseball-Reference isn't all that impressed with Kershaw's season, valuing it at 7.9 WAR -- just 38th since 1990. Consider the other factors in play: He pitched in a good pitcher's park, offense across the majors was at its lowest point since 1992 and he didn't face a particularly tough slate of opponents.

Not that 7.9 WAR isn't anything but awesome. It is awesome. Kershaw is clearly the best starter in the majors right now, having finished first, second and first in the past three Cy Young votes while leading the majors in ERA all three seasons. He doesn't turn 26 until next March. I don't think he's going to stop at two Cy Young Awards.

SweetSpot TV: Cy Young preview

November, 13, 2013

Eric and myself preview the Cy Young Award races. It seems pretty clear who will win but should it be so obvious?

Wainwright misses another WS opportunity

October, 29, 2013

ST. LOUIS -- A World Series matchup between historic teams brings with it the chance to make some history. Game 5 was Adam Wainwright’s big opportunity to redeem himself for his Game 1 loss and make some. He embraced his opportunity, he was ready for it, but in the end, he lost it when the Boston Red Sox broke through to score twice in the seventh.

Afterward, the St. Louis Cardinals' ace was diplomatic: “That was a tough loss obviously, [score tied] 1-1 there in the seventh; that’s obviously the game there. Tip your hat to [Red Sox catcher David Ross], he hit a double to take the lead, and [Red Sox starter Jon Lester] did a great job. So you tip your cap to both of them.”
[+] EnlargeAdam Wainwright
Elsa/Getty ImagesAdam Wainwright struck out 10 batters in seven innings, but the bottom of the Red Sox order was his undoing in the seventh.

You have to feel for the guy. Wainwright had to miss the 2011 season recovering from surgery and could only watch as teammate Chris Carpenter helped deal the Cards to a title with his 4-0 October run, highlighted by his Game 5 shutout of the Phillies in the National League Division Series. While Game 1’s sloppy loss was another missed opportunity, Monday night’s Game 5 against the Red Sox was Wainwright’s latest and last big chance this year to add his name to the annals of Cardinals postseason greatness as a starting pitcher, to finally have a “Carpenter game” of his own.

He felt ready for it, readying himself for it the way an ace is supposed to. “After the first game, I knew I could pitch much better than that. My delivery was horrible, and I made some great adjustments going into [Game 5],” Wainwright said. “I was very confident I was going to go out and pitch a good game.”

From the outset, this wasn’t going to be a shutout. After Dustin Pedroia’s one-out double in the first, Wainwright did the one thing Cardinals fans were afraid of: He pitched to David Ortiz instead of walking him, giving up an RBI double to Papi.

It was a decision Wainwright owned and authored, saying afterward, “I don’t like walking anybody. You got a guy on second already, it’s the first inning, and [Ortiz] hit a good pitch. He’s out-of-his-mind hot, but that was my call before the game. I said I’m not going to pitch around Ortiz, I’m going to get him out. And he hit a good pitch, and made a good swing.”

Nevertheless, through six innings Wainwright was delivering a great game, striking out the side twice and notching nine K’s, and taking a tie into the seventh, when he’d face the bottom of Boston’s order. Given how badly the bottom third of the Red Sox's lineup has hit -- with Stephen Drew struggling all postseason and opposing starter Jon Lester carrying a career-long oh-fer -- it seemed as if Wainwright would match Lester frame for frame even later into the game.
[+] EnlargeStephen Drew
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesWith the count 1-2, slumping Stephen Drew was able to work Wainwright for a walk that set the stage for Ross' double.

Except that he didn’t. “To be honest with you, I went out there and executed my plan all night long,” Wainwright said. “I wanted to attack them today, get them into my pitcher’s counts, keep them out of those deep counts, where they get your pitch count up early. They do a good job of that. I wanted to put them on the defensive early. I pitched them at 1-and-2 until the seventh inning.”

That’s because the seventh inning is when the narrow margin between perfect execution and success and lone mistakes leading to losses snakebit Wainwright, just as it did in Game 1. After striking out Daniel Nava, Wainwright gave up a single to rookie Xander Bogaerts and walked the stone-cold Drew, forcing him to face eighth-slot hitter David Ross instead of putting him aboard for Lester’s brand of desperation batsmanship.

What went wrong? Turning again and again to a curveball he started to miss his spots with, Wainwright struggled to execute against the weakest part of the Red Sox's order, and showed why any mistakes get punished by professional hitters.

About the curve, Wainwright observed, “It’s one of my best pitches. I had good confidence in it, and was executing it all night. Bogaerts hit a good pitch up the middle. Usually I catch that ball. I’m a little disappointed I didn’t catch that ball. But he put a good swing on it.”
[+] EnlargeDavid Ross
Elsa/Getty ImagesRed Sox catcher David Ross touched Wainwright for two hits, including his tiebreaking ground-rule double in the seventh.

But Drew’s walk proved deadly. “More than anything, walking Drew there, that really hurt. That set the inning up for them. I would have liked to have attacked better there, but just didn’t make it happen,” Wainwright said. But Wainwright offered no excuses for putting Drew on first, stating, “I spun out of my delivery a couple of times, on 2-2 and 3-2, but [the ball on] 1-2 it was a good call.”

That forced Wainwright to pitch to Ross with one out and two on with the pitcher on deck, and no chance Lester would be pulled back for a pinch-hitter. Wainwright thought he had the veteran catcher set up, but even this well-laid plan went wrong for Waino.

“The pitch that Ross hit, it was the first curveball I’d thrown him in three at-bats. It’s a pitch I thought I had him set up for,” Wainwright said. “I was surprised, because I thought I had him set up for it.

"Sometimes, as painful as it is, you gotta say he did a great job. The first game I pitched against them, he hit a very good curveball with a 1-2 count over the second baseman’s head. … That down-and-in curveball is a pitch that I’ve thrown all year. After you’ve thrown some hard stuff, get them to look, maybe even after a hard-ball fastball in. That bounce curveball inside looks like a heater inside and they can’t hit it.”

Instead, Ross was ready for it, belting it down the left-field line and into the stands for a ground-rule double. “This was a game of inches tonight,” Wainwright noted ruefully. “Ross’ ball was a couple inches fair, also a couple inches from staying in on the [foul] popup the pitch before. There was a lot of different things that could have happened, but didn’t.”

Just as Wainwright prepared himself to make history, he had to settle for making the wrong kind of history. It isn’t like Wainwright hasn’t been a great postseason performer this year. He beat the Pirates twice, and took a tough loss against the Dodgers. But in a World Series that has already seen players as different as Jonny Gomes and even Pete Kozma redeem themselves with their own second chances, Wainwright did not. Wainwright got his second chance to make history -- and lost it.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

It was a pitchers' duel in Game 5 of the World Series until the maligned bottom of the Boston Red Sox order came through late in the game. The Red Sox beat the St. Louis Cardinals 3-1, and the World Series returns to Fenway, where the Red Sox have a chance to clinch on their home field for the first time since 1918.

Hero: Jon Lester was brilliant again, with 7.2 innings of dominant baseball, blemished only by Matt Holliday's home run in the fourth inning off a 1-0 fastball. Most importantly, Lester threw an efficient 91 pitches and pitched deep enough to hand the ball directly to Koji Uehara. With Craig Breslow struggling to throw strikes in Game 4, John Farrell probably didn't have a lot of confidence in him. And with Felix Doubront probably unavailable after throwing 57 pitches the previous two games, the Boston bullpen wasn't comfortable going beyond Uehara and Junichi Tazawa.

[+] EnlargeAdam Wainwright
David Durochik/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesAdam Wainwright pitched better than he did in Game 1, but it wasn't good enough against Jon Lester and the Red Sox once again.
Goat: Adam Wainwright's curveball. We all know his curveball is a thing of beauty to see and a terror for batters, who hit .171 against it in the regular season. In the postseason entering Game 5, batters were 8-for-43 (.186) with one double, two walks and 17 strikeouts against it. They know the curveball is coming and still have trouble hitting it. But his go-to pitch failed him on three occasions. In the first inning, he hung an 0-2 curve to Dustin Pedroia, who doubled and scored on David Ortiz's double. In the fateful seventh inning, he got ahead of Stephen Drew -- 4-for-49 in the postseason at that point -- but then three straight curveballs went wide of the plate. That brought up David Ross, who hooked a 1-2 curveball into the left-field corner for an RBI ground-rule double. If you had "David Ross hits two-strike curveball" in the go-ahead hit pool, congrats.

Wainwright became just the fourth pitcher to lose a World Series game despite recording 10-plus strikeouts and one walk or none, joining Jack Sanford (1942), Don Newcombe (1949) and Denny Galehouse (1944).

Where was the lefty? After the Ross double, Wainwright retired Lester on a comebacker for the second out. Jacoby Ellsbury hit .328 against right-handers, .246 against lefties. Wainwright was at 105 pitches and was facing Ellsbury for the fourth time. Not only that, but two batters away was Mr. Ortiz. I understand the desire to stick with your ace here, but bringing in Kevin Siegrist seemed like the necessary move. You have a batter with a notable platoon split, a starter deep into the game and Ortiz looming, even if it meant the next inning. Mike Matheny stuck with Wainwright, and Ellsbury lined a soft single into center to make it 3-1 (Shane Robinson threw out Ross at home plate).

Is it possible that Ortiz's home run off Siegrist in Game 1 has affected Matheny's usage of Siegrist? He seems reluctant to use him, despite his great numbers from the regular season.

Statheads get worked up! When Lester came up in the seventh with runners at second and third, there were calls to hit for him. For one thing, he's never had a major league hit (0-for-35 at that point) and you couldn't ask for a better high-leverage situation to use Mike Napoli. But Lester had thrown only 69 pitches and, as mentioned, it seemed like a pretty thin Boston bullpen on this night. Obviously, the chance to add two runs with a base hit there made it a sabermetrically attractive move. But this is where sabermetrics conflict with managing people and not just numbers. Did Farrell trust Breslow, even with a three-run lead? Do you pull a pitcher who is throwing well? Is Napoli versus Wainwright likely to result in a hit? Can you look Lester in the eyes and tell him he's coming out of the game?

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonDavid Ortiz is having a Series for the ages, going 11-for-15 in five games.
Where have you gone, Shane Robinson? Allen Craig was back in the lineup for Matt Adams, but with his foot injury making him about as mobile as the fourth Molina brother, Matheny batted him sixth in the lineup. That led to some questionable lineup shuffling, with the light-hitting Robinson hitting second and Carlos Beltran moving down to fourth in the order. Matheny did say he was hoping to get some table-setters (i.e., speed) on base in front of the big guys, but it seemed strange not to keep Beltran hitting second and just moving Yadier Molina to the cleanup role.

The move didn't work as Robinson went 0-for-3 and Jon Jay, pinch hitting in the ninth, grounded out. Holliday, the No. 3 hitter, made the final out, which meant Beltran received one fewer plate appearance than the Robinson/Jay duo.

Big Papi: He went 3-for-4, the one out being a screaming liner to center field that ended a streak of nine straight times reaching base. He's hitting .733/.750/1.267 in this World Series.
In a World Series already replete with craziness, we get a little bit more of it for Game 5:

1. Shane Robinson will start and bat second for the Cardinals.
2. Jonny Gomes will hit cleanup for the Red Sox.

The biggest move, however, the one that isn't so strange, is that Allen Craig is back in the starting lineup for the Cardinals and playing first base, bad foot and all. That move makes sense since Matt Adams hasn't been hitting and with Jon Lester starting you get the right-handed Craig back in there instead of Adams. He'll bat sixth, presumably because he can barely run. Still, you can argue that if he can play, why not put him higher in the lineup?

"We ended up kind of holding back on him, making sure he's going to be ready to DH those games [in Boston]," Mike Matheny said before the game of Craig. "But yeah, he felt better yesterday, much better than what he thought he was going to feel, and even better today. So that's continued to move forward."

Matheny's choice to not hit Craig cleanup has a ripple effect: With no Adams and Craig well below 100 percent, he needed a cleanup hitter, so he moved Carlos Beltran down from the No. 2 slot to the No. 4 slot, and moved Robinson into the starting lineup and batting second.

Playing Robinson makes some sense. Again, it gets another right-handed bat in there against Lester instead of Jon Jay. Robinson, in limited duty as a reserve this season, did post a .345 on-base percentage, although just .319 against left-handers. He has next to no power, his home run against the Dodgers more of a fluke than a sign of real ability. Hitting Robinson second is something Matheny rarely did during the season, however; Robinson started 30 games and hit second just nine times (and leadoff twice). When he started, he normally hit seventh because he's a No. 7 or 8 type of hitter.

Fine, Craig can't run. Why not keep Beltran second and simply move Yadier Molina up to the cleanup spot, hit Craig fifth and David Freese sixth? Molina hit .333/.374/.509 against left-handers. No, he can't run either. But ask yourself this: Ninth inning, down a run, you have your 2-3-4 hitters up. Would you rather want Beltran and/or Molina to be assured an at-bat that inning ... or Shane Robinson? Team speed isn't really in the St. Louis playbook, but it appears Matheny became overly fixated on that with this lineup.

As for Gomes hitting cleanup, he's in there because Shane Victorino is again unable to play. And because he hit a terrible pitch from Seth Maness over the fence in left field in Game 4. But Gomes versus Wainwright is a poor matchup, the strikeout-prone Gomes against a good strikeout pitcher in Wainwright. Gomes hit .167 against curveballs from right-handed batters this season, but that's only 18 at-bats; over the past three seasons, he's hit .145 against curveballs, with 33 strikeouts in 58 plate appearances. Good luck.

I do like that John Farrell was willing to move David Ortiz up to the third spot. He clearly wanted to alternate his left- and right-handed hitters to make Matheny's late-game relief substitutions more difficult, going Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Ortiz, Gomes and Daniel Nava (a switch-hitter, but much more potent from the left side). As with the Cardinals, I would have stacked my best hitters together. You could have gone Ellsbury, Nava, Ortiz, Pedroia (if you wanted a right-hander to protect Ortiz), or just stayed with the Game 4 order -- Ellsbury, Nava, Pedroia, Ortiz, Gomes. At this point, it doesn't really matter who hits behind Ortiz: If there's an open base, the Cardinals are likely to pitch around him.

The bigger problem with the Red Sox's lineup is Stephen Drew, David Ross and Lester in the 7-8-9 slots. Drew is 4-for-49 in the postseason with 17 strikeouts and one walk and looks helpless (or is it hopeless?) at the plate. But he's understandably in there for his defense. So is Ross, who has become Lester's personal catcher. But Ross hit .216 and struck out in 37 percent of his plate appearances. It's difficult to imagine the bottom of this lineup doing any damage against Wainwright.

So everything is pointing to a low-scoring game.

Which means the final score will probably be 8-7.
Thoughts on a Game 1 of the World Series that was over early and ended up 8-1, Red Sox over Cardinals ...

Hero: Jon Lester. The line score says it all: 7 2/3 innings, five hits, no extra-base hits, no runs, one walk, eight strikeouts. He tied his season high with five strikeouts on his cutter. Get this: Lester is the third southpaw to start Game 1 of a World Series for Boston. Babe Ruth pitched a shutout in 1918. Bruce Hurst pitched eight scoreless innings in a 1-0 win in 1986. And now Lester.

Goat: Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma made two costly errors, arguably leading to five runs (although only two of the five were charged as unearned). He dropped the relay throw on what should have been an easy inning-ending double play on David Ortiz's grounder in the first and then booted Shane Victorino's grounder in the hole in the second. Really, though, you can blame the entire Cardinals defense. Shane Robinson bobbled Mike Napoli's double that followed Kozma's error in the first, removing any shot of throwing out Ortiz at home. Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina miscommunicated on Stephen Drew's popup leading off the second. And David Freese showcased his limited range when Dustin Pedroia's RBI single scooted under his glove later in that inning. Wainwright wasn't sharp but he could have easily escaped with no runs allowed.

Turning point: Second-base umpire Dana DeMuth originally and inexplicably missed the call on Kozma's first-inning error, even though Kozma clearly never caught the ball. Red Sox manager John Farrell went out to argue the call, the umpires gathered and correctly changed the call. Napoli followed with a bases-clearing double, lining a 2-0 cutter into left-center.

At-bat of the night: Has to be Napoli's double. How often does Wainwright fall behind 2-0? Including the playoffs, he'd thrown only 103 pitches with a 2-0 count, so that means just 103 batters out of 1039 batters faced -- just under 10 percent of the time. Even though Wainwright has that great curveball, he only threw it nine times out of those 103, usually throwing his fastball or cutter. Napoli was sitting on something hard, Wainwright caught too much of the plate and it was 3-0 in the first inning.

Revealing statistic: The first Boston batter to swing at the first pitch was leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury -- his second time up, the 10th Boston batter of the game. No team works the count like the Red Sox and Wainwright threw 31 pitches in the first (just the third start this season he threw 30-plus pitches in the first inning) and 60 through two innings. He had just four outs after 52 pitches.

Injury of the night: Carlos Beltran, playing in his first World Series game, robbed Ortiz of a grand slam but slammed into the low right-field fence in the process, exiting the game with a rib contusion and departing to the hospital for X-rays. Needless to say, if he can't go in Game 2 or beyond it's a devastating injury for the Cardinals.

Debate of the night: There was some debate on Twitter on whether Mike Matheny should have removed Wainwright after two innings, either to save him for a possible Game 4 start or just to get him out of there considering he's thrown more innings than any pitcher in baseball. The Cardinals have 12 pitches on their roster, including starter Shelby Miller available in relief, so Matheny has more pitchers than he can use. Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher -- and smart guy -- Brandon McCarthy argued for leaving in Wainwright, that his pitch count was high enough that Matheny would be unlikely to start him in Game 4 anyway and he's your ace, so leave him in and give your team a chance to come back. Another argument for taking him out, however: In postseason history, the team that led by five-plus runs after two innings was 45-0. A comeback was extremely unlikely regardless (not that Matheny would have known that data, of course).

One swing and the Cardinals could have been back in it: They loaded the bases in the fourth with one out and Freese up. Lester induced a 1-2-3 double play. Since hitting .397 in the 2011 postseason, Freese is hitting .239 with two home runs in 25 games. So ... maybe he's not clutch and just happened to have a postseason for the ages?

Keep this one in your back pocket: Ortiz crushed a two-run homer (off a first-pitch fastball) in the seventh off rookie lefty Kevin Siegrist, who hadn't allowed a home run to any of the 84 left-handed batters he'd faced. This is a matchup we could see again, in a more crucial situation.

It's just one game, but ... The team that won Game 1 has won 21 of the past 25 World Series.
This probably isn't the World Series you wanted, assuming you don't root for the Red Sox or Cardinals. After all, both franchises have been to the World Series multiple times in the past decade and both have won twice. So maybe you wanted some new blood. Instead you'll get beards. Lots of them.

But you also get two great teams, with no shortage of reasons to watch. Here are 10:

1. Adam Wainwright. He was a rookie closer when the Cardinals won the World Series in 2006 but was injured when they won again in 2011. In a season where much of the attention for pitchers went to Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Matt Harvey and Mariano Rivera, Wainwright quietly went 19-9 with a 2.94 ERA while leading the majors in innings pitched. This is his chance to make his October mark in Cardinals history alongside the likes of Bob Gibson and his mentor Chris Carpenter, who won two games in the 2011 World Series. He has that big curveball -- maybe the best since Bert Blyleven was spinning his own -- that he'll throw on any count but is especially deadly with two strikes, when opponents hit .118 with 130 strikeouts in 238 plate appearances.

2. David Ortiz versus Carlos Beltran. They're not facing each other, but you sort of get the feeling they are. Few hitters have delivered in their playoff careers like these two, although Ortiz did go just 2-for-22 in the American League Championship Series. Beltran had six RBIs in each of the Cardinals' first two series and now gets the opportunity to play in his first World Series … and perhaps make a Hall of Fame statement.

3. John Lackey's redemption. Two years ago he was the most hated man in Boston after posting a 6.41 ERA in 28 starts and ordering lots of fried chicken between starts. Now, after beating Justin Verlander 1-0 in the ALCS, he's going to start Game 2 of the World Series. Remember, he's familiar with the pressures of a big game: As a rookie with the Angels in the 2002 World Series, he was the winning pitcher in Game 7.

4. Yadier Molina. One of the memories of the 2011 World Series that stuck with me was the ovations Molina received from his home fans -- louder than those given Albert Pujols. Perhaps Cardinals fans anticipated Pujols' departure, or maybe they just appreciated everything Molina does for the team, from his hitting to his defense to the confidence he instills in his pitchers. Few players ever perfect their jobs on a baseball field, but you get the idea Molina has perfected playing catcher. Appreciate and enjoy. And then see if the Red Sox -- who set the all-time record for stolen-base percentage (123 for 142) -- attempt to run on him.

5. Power versus RISP. Each team led its league in runs scored, just the fourth time since 1976 that's happened (1976, Reds-Yankees; 2004, Cardinals-Red Sox; 2009, Phillies-Yankees), but did so in different ways. The Red Sox, while not as powerful as some Red Sox teams of the past, hit 178 home runs (sixth in the majors), but also pounded out 363 doubles (first) and drew 581 walks (third). The Cardinals ranked 27th in the majors in home runs and don't steal many bases (just 45), but they put the ball in play, an attribute that allowed them to hit .330 with runners in scoring position, the highest figure in the majors since that stat has been recorded beginning in 1961. The Red Sox beat the Tigers largely because of three key home runs -- the grand slams from Ortiz and Shane Victorino plus Mike Napoli's solo shot in the 1-0 victory in Game 3 -- and while the Cardinals have hit just .210 in the postseason they've hit .286 with RISP.

6. Michael Wacha. In the span of 16 months he's gone from Texas A&M to ... well, almost unhittable. In his past four starts, going back to his final outing of the regular season, he's allowed an .093 batting average -- 9 for 97. In his three postseason starts, he's allowed one run for a tidy 0.43 ERA. He has a chance to become just the sixth pitcher to have four starts in one postseason where he allowed one run or less, joining Blue Moon Odom (1972), Burt Hooton (1981), John Smoltz (1996), Ryan Vogelsong (2012) and Curt Schilling (2001, the only one with five). I can't wait to see what the rookie does.

7. Xander Bogaerts. He just turned 21 and had just 18 games of big-league experience before the playoffs began. Now he may be starting at third base, like he did the final two games of the ALCS. He's going to be a big star down the road so this is kind of like a sneak preview. He's had 11 plate appearances in the playoffs and drawn five walks while going 3-for-6. How can a kid have such a mature approach at the plate?

8. Cardinals relievers. Speaking of kids, the Cardinals' top four relievers right now -- Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness -- are all rookies. Teams have won before with rookie closers -- Bobby Jenks of the White Sox in 2005, Wainwright in 2006 -- and the Cardinals had some inexperienced relievers in 2011. But four rookie relievers in key roles? (Five if you include starter Shelby Miller working out of the bullpen.) How can you not be pumped watching Rosenthal and Martinez throwing 100 mph in the eighth and ninth innings?

9. Koji Uehara's splitter. It's the most dominant 81 mph pitch in baseball history, a force of nature that breaks the natural laws of baseball, a pitcher who turns skilled batsmen into helpless amateurs. Including the postseason, batters are hitting .134 off Uehara. Against the splitter, they're hitting .096. Since the All-Star break, they're hitting .074 against the splitter, just 6-for-81 with 37 strikeouts and no walks. He's 38 years old and basically the opposite of the gas-throwing Rosenthal and Martinez. The contrast in styles should make for some exciting late-game drama. One more thing: In what other sport could a 38-year-old guy, who while a good pitcher was never to be confused with Mariano Rivera, suddenly have a year better than any season Rivera ever had?

10. The best against the best. For the time since 1999, the teams with the best records in the majors will face off in the World Series. For the time since 2004, the teams with the best run differentials will face off. The rejuvenated, bearded Red Sox against the youthful, talented Cardinals. Players trying to create postseason legacies, others trying to add to existing ones. Big stars and future stars on the rise. To me, it's a World Series that has the elements for a classic duel. I think we're going to get one.

Pirates-Cardinals. Game 5. Sounds like a good time for our first running diary of the postseason.

Two key stats heading into the game: (1) Adam Wainwright has that great curveball -- batters hit just .171 against it in the regular season -- and the Pirates were 27th in the majors in the regular season in batting average against curveballs; (2) Gerrit Cole has allowed one hit against off-speed pitches since the beginning of September. I’m expecting a low-scoring game, with maybe a bloop and a blast being the difference.

First inning: The talk in Pittsburgh was whether Clint Hurdle should move around his lineup since Starling Marte and Neil Walker, the first two players in the lineup, are a combined 1-for-32 in the series. Hurdle’s rationale to keep things as is: “They’re due.” I see this one both ways, but for me the biggest reason to shuffle the lineup would be that Pedro Alvarez and Russell Martin, hitting sixth and seventh, have been having good at-bats all postseason. Why not move them up in the order to try to get them an extra at-bat? Cleanup hitter Justin Morneau hasn’t homered since joining the Pirates (although with a .363 OBP, maybe it would be wise to move him into Walker’s spot). You could hit Morneau second, move Alvarez to the cleanup spot, keep Marlon Byrd in the five-hole and move Martin up to sixth, sliding Walker down to seventh.
[+] EnlargeAdam Wainwright
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsGame 5 would wind up being Adam Wainwright's to win … and he did.

Anyway, Wainwright throws two bad curves to Walker (who walks on a 3-2 pitch), but recovers to strike out Andrew McCutchen on a lovely hammer and get Morneau to ground out.

There were reports out there that the Cardinals were licking their chops to get at Cole again, who allowed just two hits and one run (a Yadier Molina home run) in six innings in his Game 2 effort. The Cards didn’t face Cole in the regular season, so maybe having seen him they will have a better approach. Good luck. In his past nine starts, Cole has allowed more than two runs just once.

An easy one-two-three inning for Cole. He gets Carlos Beltran, Mr. October, with a 96 mph called strike at the knees and then what I think was a 90 mph changeup that Beltran pops to short (MLB.com lists the pitch as a cutter, but Cole doesn’t throw one).

Yes, I said 90 mph changeup.

Second inning: Byrd gets a leadoff single but Alvarez stings a line drive right to second baseman Matt Carpenter, with Byrd doubled off after he broke for second on contact. The Cardinals don’t shift a lot but Carpenter was shaded way over toward first, even with a double-play situation.

With two outs, Cole walks Jon Jay on a 3-2 fastball. He gets David Freese to 1-2, throws a slider, low but middle-in, and Freese lines it over the wall in left, drawing a curtain call, and then drawing complaints from angry Pirates fans on Twitter about receiving a curtain call.

Not a terrible pitch, not a great one, but Freese must have been sitting on the slider there. Of course, Freese had that monster postseason for the Cards in 2011 -- 21 RBIs in 18 games – but he’d been 2-for-23 in the playoffs going back to last year before that home run.

I said a bloop and blast, but maybe a walk and a blast. I won’t be surprised if those two runs hold up.

Third inning: Wainwright cruises through Clint Barmes, Cole and Marte, and then Marte makes a spectacular diving catch near the left-field line to rob Matt Carpenter. One thought: Hurdle has pinch hit for the weak-hitting Barmes early in games a couple times in this series. Too early in the third? You’re already behind in the game; you need offense now, not defense. Earl Weaver used to subscribe to that philosophy: Start your good defensive team and then go for offense if you need it. Using Jordy Mercer wouldn’t have been the worst idea, although I can understand not wanting to burn a position player so early in the game.

Fourth inning: Pete Kozma turns into Ozzie Smith and makes two outstanding defensive plays, a diving catch on Walker’s soft liner and then throwing out Morneau, who granted doesn’t exactly run like Usain Bolt. Not looking like the Pirates’ night.

Although ... After Matt Adams singles and Alvarez throws away Molina’s swinging bunt, Cole works out of the second-and-third jam by getting Jay to ground into a fielder’s choice where Adams was thrown out and then striking out Freese looking on 98 mph gas. (Maybe should have thrown that pitch in the second.)

Fifth inning: This game is moving along. Just over an hour. This is not American League East baseball.

The one thing that makes Wainwright’s curve so tough is that he can throw it on any count. While most still prescribe to the basic theory of getting ahead with the fastball and putting hitters away with your off-speed stuff, Wainwright will throw the curve at any time, which allows him to pitch "backwards" at times. And he throws that curve a lot -- the only pitchers who threw more curveballs this season were A.J. Burnett and Bronson Arroyo. But he backs that up with great command of both his fastball and cutter, which is why he walked one batter or none in 24 of his 34 regular-season starts.

Consider this sequence to strike out Alvarez: curveball called strike, cutter for a ball, swing and miss on a curve, 94 mph four-seam fastball fouled off, curve low, swing and miss on another curve. All four of Wainwright’s strikeouts have come on the curve. He’s at 60 pitches through five and the only question may be if it’s still 2-0 in the ninth if Mike Matheny goes to Trevor Rosenthal (my prediction: no).

Sixth inning: Barmes lines a 2-2 high fastball to left for a leadoff single. Easily the worst pitch of the night for Wainwright. Garrett Jones hitting for Cole, which I think is the right call here, even with Cole at only 75 pitches. You need runs and you’re barely getting baserunners and Jones could get lucky and pop one. You have to trust a bullpen that’s been terrific all season.

Jones swings at the first pitch and flies out to center. Marte grounds into a double play. Like I said, should have let Cole hit there.

Well, Hurdle’s strategy backfires. Matt Holliday singles, Molina walks and then Justin Wilson falls behind 2-0 to Jon Jay (the 1-0 pitch a borderline strike) and Jay grounds an RBI single up the middle. I don’t want to say this game is over, but ...
Seventh inning: A breath of life for the Pirates. Morneau reaches on an infield single with two outs when Carpenter slips making the play. Byrd then hits a grounder up the middle but instead of flipping to second baseman Carpenter, Kozma lazily lobs the ball to first and Byrd beats it out.

Pretty much all the Pirates could now ask for at this point: NL home run leader Alvarez up with two runners on. You get the feeling this could be the ballgame.

Curveball and Alvarez can’t hold up.
Curveball in the dirt that Alvarez lays off.
Curveball outside.
92 mph fastball, foul tip. Freese hit the one mistake Cole made. Alvarez just missed launching this into the right-field seats.
Curve way outside. Full count. Drama.
Curveball. Routine grounder to first base ... and hits the bag! Bounces over Adams and scores Morneau. Three straight routine grounders, three infield hits, one run.

Russell Martin, having produced tough at-bats all season, grounds out to Kozma on a first-pitch cutter. Tough six-out inning for Wainwright. Really, the only hard-hit balls off him have been Alvarez’s lineout double play back in the second inning and Barmes’ liner to left.

Eighth inning: It’s 3-1, so the Pirates are at least a bloop and a blast from tying it up. Wainwright is at 88 pitches but this is a guy who led the majors in innings pitched. The Pirates have five hits, only one hit hard. Matheny did get Seth Maness warming up last inning, but I have a feeling this will be Wainwright’s game to win or lose.

The Pirates get their bloop from Jordy Mercer, bringing up Marte with one out. Lines it to Carpenter, Mercer freezes a few steps off first base, Carpenter throws to Adams ... Mercer is called out by first-base ump Paul Nauert. Bang-bang. Let's go to the booth! Oh, wait ...

Initial replays make it appear Mercer was safe. After the commercial break, a frame-by-frame look makes it appear he was out. Either way, Mercer cannot get caught off base there. The split-second hesitation cost him. Second baserunning error of the game for the Pirates.

Then: Game over. Adams annihilates a Mark Melancon pitch for a two-run shot to right. Adams, playing for the injured Allen Craig, a kid from Slippery Rock, Pa., who grew up rooting for the Pirates, just crushed the little bit of hope remaining for Pirates fans.

Ninth inning: The TV broadcast flashes to Pirates fans watching the game on a big screen in Pittsburgh. Makes me a bit sad, but it was a great season, Pittsburgh. You'll be back.

Wainwright finishes it off, striking out Alvarez, a dominant 107-pitch effort. Not a bad trade years ago for St. Louis: The Braves traded away the local kid from Georgia for one year of J.D. Drew. Wainwright was a 22-year-old minor leaguer then who had recorded a 3.37 ERA in Double-A. Now he's one of the best pitchers in baseball, a guy who can carry his team all the way, riding that big, beautiful curveball of his that dances in the night.

Good question, Matthew, as we watch Wainwright mow down the Pirates in Game 1 of their series.

Of course, no pitch works all by itself. Wainwright has a cutter and a fastball that he uses in conjunction with the curve. But, yes, his curveball is pretty awesome. Let's look at some of the best pitches of this postseason, by looking at the numbers in plate appearances ending against that specific pitch.

Adam Wainwright's curve: 268 PAs, .171 average, 3 HR, 9 XBH, 115 SO, 9 BB

A reader named Chet Lemonade (real name?) asked about Max Scherzer's slider. The numbers: 143 PAs, .130 average, 2 HR, 4 XBH, 53 SO, 5 BB.

As good as Wainwright's curve is, it pales next to these numbers:

Clayton Kershaw's curve: 146 PAs, .096 average, 0 HR, 0 XBH, 80 SO, 0 BB.

Wow ... I mean, that's not fair. No extra-base hits, no walks, only 14 singles in 146 at-bats. Incredible. Can that be topped?

Craig Kimbrel's slider: 82 PAs, .100 average, 0 HR, 0 XBH, 53 SO, 1 BB, 1 HBP.

Even more impressive: Kimbrel hasn't allowed an extra-base hit off his slider in the past two seasons.

Here's another reliever with a knockout breaking ball:

Mark Melancon's curveball: 69 PAs, .147 average, 0 HR, 0 XBH, 40 SO, 0 BB.

Batters are hitting just .089 off Koji Uehara's splitter, but if he leaves it up, they can do some damage and have five doubles and two home runs.

OK, we could dig deeper, but we're not going to beat Kershaw's curveball or Kimbrel's slider, undoubtedly two of the most unhittable pitches of all time.

SweetSpot's 2013 NL All-Star team

September, 29, 2013
I did my American League All-Star team yesterday. Here's my National League squad. A few more tougher calls in the NL.

Catcher: Yadier Molina, Cardinals (.319/.359/.477, 12 HR, 80 RBI, 5.8 WAR)
Two questions: Is Molina a legitimate MVP candidate and how will he fare in the voting? Sure, he's a strong candidate, although I have Andrew McCutchen as my clear No. 1 guy. Due to his relatively low runs plus RBIs total (he has 68 runs scored), Molina would certainly be an unconventional MVP candidate. Wins Above Replacement accounts for some of Molina's defense -- such as throwing out runners -- but can't measure some of the intangibles, such as the confidence he gave to the young St. Louis starters. Molina's offense numbers are similar to last year, when he finished fourth in voting, so I wouldn't be surprised if he jumps up to second this season.

First base: Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks (.302/.401/.553, 36 HR, 124 RBI, 7.1 WAR)
Goldschmidt or Joey Votto? It's not quite as simple as Goldschmidt's 51-RBI advantage as both put up similar numbers otherwise, with Votto having the edge in on-base percentage (.436) and Goldschmidt in power (36 home runs to 24). Both were extremely durable -- Goldschmidt has missed two games, Votto zero -- and solid defenders. The one big difference is an advanced metric called Win Probability Added, a category Goldschmidt led all NL position players in, thanks in part to his .350 average in high-leverage situations and nine home runs in late and close situations (second-most in the majors to Chris Davis). I'm confident Goldschmidt is the right choice here.

Second base: Matt Carpenter, Cardinals (.320/.394/.484, 11 HR, 78 RBI, 6.7 WAR)
An easy choice as Carpenter leads the NL in runs, hits and doubles while ranking in the top 10 in numerous other categories. I'm guessing Molina garners more MVP support, but Carpenter is just as worthy to finish in the top five.

Third base: David Wright, Mets (.308/.393/.516, 18 HR, 57 RBI, 5.8 WAR)
Pedro Alvarez leads the NL with 36 home runs and has knocked in 100 but a .233 average and sub-.300 OBP means he created a ton of outs to generate those runs. Ryan Zimmerman waited too long to start hitting. Chris Johnson hit .321 for the Braves. None were above-average defenders. So almost by default I'll go with Wright, who easily has the highest WAR even though he missed 50 games.

Shortstop: Andrelton Simmons, Braves (.244/.292/.390, 17 HR, 58 RBI, 6.5 WAR)
I've been raving about Simmons all season so I can't change now. Troy Tulowitzki was great once again and relatively healthy (125 games), although he hit 61 points higher at home. Hanley Ramirez was the best on a per at-bat basis but played just 86 games. Ian Desmond flew under the radar year for the Nationals. But Simmons is my guy, even with that sub-.300 OBP. His defense was that good.

Left field: Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies (.302/.367/.591, 26 HR, 70 RBI, 5.1 WAR)
Starling Marte had an excellent all-around season (41 steals, great defense) for the Pirates and Matt Holliday was solid for the Cardinals. Gonzalez's season was similar to Wright's -- if he'd remained healthy, he'd be the obvious choice, but he missed 50 games. Unlike Tulo, he actually hit better on the road, so it's not a Coors-inflated season. I'll go with CarGo just barely over Marte.

Center field: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates (.317/.404/.508, 21 HR, 84 RBI, 8.2 WAR)
Carlos Gomez would be an MVP candidate if he had better teammates. Shin-Soo Choo gave the Reds exactly what they needed, a leadoff hitter who got on base. But this was McCutchen's season as he often carried a mediocre Pittburgh offense and hit .339/.441/.561 in the second half, helping keep the Pirates in the division title race. He's the likely MVP winner and not a "weak" MVP, as some have speculated. His WAR is higher than the past three NL MVPs, Buster Posey, Ryan Braun and Votto. He may not drive in 100 runs or score 100 (he's at 97), but it was the best all-around season in the league.

Right field: Jayson Werth, Nationals (.318/.398/.532, 25 HR, 82 RBI, 4.8 WAR)
A loaded position, and that's with Jason Heyward and Giancarlo Stanton missing significant time. Jay Bruce, Yasiel Puig, Hunter Pence and Marlon Byrd all have their supporters (and Gerardo Parra leads in WAR). The knock against Werth, like Wright and Gonzalez, is that he missed significant time (129 games). But Bruce has a .329 OBP. Puig didn't get called up until June and Pence's monster September (11 HR, 29 RBI) came after the Giants had long been eliminated and arguably against dubious September pitching.

Starting pitchers: Clayton Kersaw, Dodgers (16-9, 1.83 ERA, 8.0 WAR); Cliff Lee, Phillies (14-8, 2.87 ERA, 7.2 WAR); Jose Fernandez, Marlins (12-6, 2.19 ERA, 6.3 WAR); Adam Wainwright, Cardinals (19-9, 2.94 ERA, 6.2 WAR); Matt Harvey, Mets (9-5, 2.27 ERA, 5.4 WAR)
Oh, Cliff Lee is still good. There were no shortage of top starters in the NL as 18 qualified starters have posted an ERA of 3.25 or under, the most since 17 did it in 1992 and 10 more than last year.

Left-handed setup guy: Luis Avilan, Braves (5-0, 1.55 ERA)
Part of Atlanta's dominant bullpen, Avilan fanned just 38 in 64 innings but allowed a .173 average and just one home run. He gets great movement on his two-seam sinking fastball, resulting in fewer K's but a lot of groundballs. Honorable mention to Pittsburgh's Justin Wilson.

Right-handed setup guy: Mark Melancon, Pirates (3-2, 1.39 ERA)
He had a couple rough outings in September, but was dominant throughout the season, first setting up Jason Grilli and then earning 16 saves when Grilli was injured.

Closer: Craig Kimbrel, Braves (4-3, 50 saves, 1.23 ERA)
He did blow four save chances and wasn't quite as statistically dominant as last season -- and still finished with 1.23 ERA and 50 saves.

You know how the St. Louis Cardinals acquired Michael Wacha? Yes, with the 19th pick of the first round of the 2012 draft.

But you know how they acquired that pick? The got it from the Los Angeles Angels.

[+] EnlargeMichael Wacha
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsMichael Wacha's delivering an easy answer for whether or not he should start in the postseason.
For losing Albert Pujols as a free agent.

So not only did the organization save $240 million in salary on a player in decline, they acquired a pitcher who is looking like a future star. After his near no-hitter on Tuesday against the Washington Nationals in his ninth career major league start -- Ryan Zimmerman's infield hit with two outs in the ninth made everyone sad -- it seems pretty clear that Wacha has to be in the Cardinals' postseason rotation.

Wacha is 4-1 with a 2.78 ERA in 64 2/3 innings (he has made six relief appearances as well) and has allowed no runs in three of his five September starts. He did allow 12 hits and four runs in 4 2/3 innings in his last outing, but that came in Colorado, so it comes with an asterisk. When Wacha is commanding his mid-90s fastball like he did against the Nationals, it makes his changeup all that much more unhittable, a pitch opposing batters are hitting just .190 against without a home run.

The question for manager Mike Matheny: Assuming the Cardinals hold on and win the division, do you go with two rookie starters in your four-man playoff rotation? Here's how the other four starters have fared of late:

Adam Wainwright: He gave up 15 runs in back-to-back starts against the Reds in late August/early September, but has looked good with a 2.12 ERA and strong peripherals over his past four outings.

Lance Lynn: After a rough five-start stretch from Aug. 15 to Sept. 5 (43 hits, 25 runs in 27 1/3 innings), he has allowed just four runs in his past three starts (two of those came against the Brewers, the other against the Rockies in Colorado).

Joe Kelly: In his second year, the righty has a 2.32 ERA since moving into the rotation in early July. His strikeout rate isn't impressive but he gets ground balls with that hard, sinking fastball and keeps the ball in the park (just three home runs allowed his past 75 innings).


Where would you slot Michael Wacha in the postseason for the Cardinals?


Discuss (Total votes: 3,574)

Shelby Miller: The other rookie, he's 14-9 with a 3.12 ERA, although he has a 4.23 ERA and a poor 15/13 SO/BB ratio in 27.2 innings over his past five starts.

Certainly, Wainwright draws the Game 1 start. But do you slot the veteran Lynn in the No. 2 hole? While he has been better of late, do two good starts against the Brewers have you convinced that he's back on track? Plus, Lynn has experience in the bullpen from 2011 and didn't pitch well in last year's postseason. Maybe he's best utilized like the Giants used Tim Lincecum last year, as a multi-inning long reliever. But Miller hasn't been as strong down the stretch and the Cards presumably want to watch his innings anyway (he's at 167).

I'd probably go Wainwright, Wacha, Kelly and Lynn, keeping Lynn on a short leash and hoping Miller can amp it up a bit in a relief role. The fact that Wacha has only nine starts could actually be to his advantage as opponents just haven't seen him.

The rotation isn't the only issue for Matheny to resolve. Trevor Rosenthal got the final out on Tuesday and now has saves in back-to-back games. Is he now the closer over Edward Mujica? If so, does that make Mujica the eighth-inning guy? But is one role really any more valuable than the other? Do you demote Mujica and put him in a role in which he may pitch with more runners on base?

While uncertainly can create some nervousness, it can also create flexibility, which can be a good thing since you're not stuck with pre-designated roles. A smart manager knows you don't -- and shouldn't -- manage October that same way you manage April through September.

And if that means two rookies in your rotation and a rookie closer, I'm OK with that. I see no reason why the Cards can't win it all doing that.

Wainwright, Freese deliver big answers

September, 7, 2013

In September, five months into the long season, you don’t want to be asking questions. You want to know what you’ve got and what you’ll get from your players. But going into this weekend’s series against the Pirates, the Cardinals had a pretty big question mark to deal with as far as the recent struggles of staff ace Adam Wainwright. After Saturday night’s well-spun start to blow away the Bucs, that’s one question the Cardinals won’t have to entertain after all.

Wainwright spun a masterpiece to pitch his team past the Pirates in the NL Central for a night. Allowing just four Pirates on base in seven shutout innings with eight whiffs, Wainwright was back to dealing the way he’s expected to, a huge source of relief after he had taken back-to-back drubbings at the hands of the Reds. Overpowering the Pirates makes it look like the question over whether or not Wainwright had begun tipping his pitches has been fixed.

Which team will win the NL Central?


Discuss (Total votes: 4,483)

It might be easy to overstate these kinds of problems when everything involving these three teams running neck-and-neck in the NL Central is under the microscope. Fretting over Wainwright walking more men in half as many starts since the All-Star break as he did before reflects how incredible his season has been: Wainwright’s post-break 4-to-1 K:BB ratio in the second half is tremendous, but it’s less than half of the 9-to-1 ratio he put up before the break. But as good as he looked against the Pirates, it doesn’t look like he has a problem.

Of course, it’s always possible that the Reds may have picked up something more than tipping his pitches, setting up some potential for extra wild-card drama if the Reds and Redbirds have to face one another in the play-in game. Of course, the Cardinals would rather skip that exercise and just win the division outright, eliminating some questions as they answer others.

That’s because Wainwright isn’t the only Cardinal question mark this time of the year. David Freese going yard for the second time in three games was perhaps another proof of one of those kinks to the Cardinals’ master plan getting ironed out. Freese’s combined July and August performance was woeful: .649 OPS, plus a lone home run. Freese’s value is pretty much tied up in his bat, with his defense generally getting low marks; that’s reflected in evaluative defensive metrics like BIS’s Defensive Runs Saved, where Freese’s minus-13 is worse than everyone at third base not named Michael Young or Miguel Cabrera.
[+] EnlargeDavid Freese
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonDavid Freese's home run was his second blast in three games.

Hitting that badly in an organization as deep as the Cardinals’, Freese had endangered his claim to everyday play, creating an opening for second baseman Kolten Wong in the infield (with Matt Carpenter rotating over to the hot corner), allowing Mike Matheny to get another left-handed bat into his lineup. In the abstract, it’s a nice problem to have when you’re the Cardinals. Unfortunately, Wong hasn’t done anything at the plate since his call-up, leaving the Cardinals with another body but the same problem.

Again, these are the kinds of problems that crop up that provide a reminder that baseball is hard, hard even when you’re among the best players on the planet. Wainwright might be the pitcher you pick to start a must-win game, but his talent isn’t enough to armor him against opponents picking up the slightest bad habit. Like every other player in the game, one of its best is forced to continually adapt and adjust, to his opponents and to the changes in his game over time.

Freese may have been the terror of the Rangers for one magical week, but that doesn’t buy him job security less than two years later in the Show-Me State: He has to keep showing something. As Jimmy Dugan said in "A League of Their Own": “It’s supposed to be hard! If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”

For the time being, this is the sort of happy in-season resolution that the Cardinals will take. It joins a lengthening list of things that are working out for them in-season, like how their bullpen has started to gel with Seth Maness and Randy Choate setting up Trevor Rosenthal and Edward Mujica, or Joe Kelly’s pitching down the stretch. They’ll still need to see whether or not they get Allen Craig back in fully operating order in time for October, but it reflects the organization’s strength that even that question had an excellent fall-back answer in Matt Adams.

So now, with the three teams in the division fighting to earn that bye from the wild card and sudden death within two games of one another. Instead, for the next three weeks, we’ll be focused on the big question: “Who wins the NL Central?” That one’s going to be fun for you and me to kick around for the rest of the month, but for the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds, it’s one all three teams would rather have answered already: “Us.”

We’ll see who pulls it off. We’re already getting a race to remember. But if Adam Wainwright has his ace’s wings back, the Birds could take flight and put the NL Central away the way people have expected them to for months. And if he’s getting extra run support because David Freese is back, so much the better for them.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Young pitchers play big roles for Cardinals

August, 27, 2013
Joe KellyDilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesJoe Kelly has allowed just three home runs in nine starts since moving to the rotation.
ST. LOUIS -- Something catches your eye during batting practice. As a ball flies high toward center field, one of the Cardinals' rookie relievers tosses his glove into the air in an attempt to see whether it will catch the ball. Ah, youth. Do you remember doing that as a kid at practice when the coach wasn't looking? Of course, the glove in the air never caught the ball, but it was always an experiment worth trying.

For the Cardinals, reliance on young pitching is more than tossing chance in the air and hoping to catch something good. The plan has been in the making since the 2008 draft, and in 2013 the results are showing.

St. Louis has used 12 pitchers age 25 or under this season, the most in the majors. The Astros are second with 10, and only one other team has used more than seven. The young Cardinals pitchers have combined for 31 wins, 489 2/3 innings pitched, a 3.31 ERA and 468 strikeouts.

"These guys have great stuff," injured closer Jason Motte said. "What it comes down to is just going out there and believing in what you have, believing in your stuff out there and being yourself. You know, you have a guy like [Seth] Maness, he doesn't try to go out there and be like [fellow Cardinals pitcher] Trevor Rosenthal and throw it 100 miles per hour. These guys know what they have, and they don't try to do too much."

Veteran reliever Randy Choate joined the club this season and has been impressed with the talent and character of his younger teammates.

"I don't know if it's necessarily the Cardinal way or what, but they've obviously drafted guys that are well-rounded," he said. "They have a personality where they don't have that big of an ego."

[+] EnlargeSeth Maness
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesSeth Maness has surrendered just one earned run in his past 16 appearances, a span of 15 2/3 innings.
Joe Kelly, who starts Tuesday night against the Reds, was a third-round pick in 2009 out of UC Riverside. The 25-year-old right-hander relies primarily on a 95 mph sinker and four-seam fastball but added a curveball and changeup after getting drafted.

After beginning the season in the bullpen, he moved to the rotation, where he's gone 5-1 with a 2.25 ERA in nine starts.

"It's been different because I was in the bullpen at the beginning of the year, then got a start, then go back to the bullpen," Kelly said. "[I had] 15 days before outings one time. I just have to show up to the field every day and be mentally tough and don't think about how many off days I've had, just be prepared to pitch every single day. It's different, but I guess being versatile like this is key."

Kelly offers another important skill to the club.

"Everyone thinks I'm the best dancer on the team," he said. "In the clubhouse one day I started dancing, and I just keep doing it more and more."

Rosenthal disagreed with Kelly.

"Um, I mean I'm a pretty good dancer, too, so I don't know if Joe can say that," Rosenthal said. Seth Maness also had his doubts. "That's a big statement for Joe, especially with his locker being right next to mine. I'm good at singing. I train dogs, too. I'm really good with animals. In the offseason I train animals."

These guys love to joke around with one another. When asked what pitch he would feel most comfortable throwing if the bases were loaded and the game was on the line, Maness said, "I'm going to take Trevor Rosenthal's fastball," eliciting a laugh from Rosenthal, whose heater has made him one of the best eighth-inning guys in the league, with a 2.49 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 61 1/3 innings.

But they're also serious about their craft -- and learning how to improve.

"The curve was hard [to learn]," Kelly said. "The changeup came a little bit quicker than the curveball. The curveball took a little longer. But yeah, coming from the bullpen to starting you had to learn those pitches. There's a comfortable grip that I have. I started playing with that every day. Worked on it a lot. ... It's not even that great right now, either, but I'm still working on it."

Rookie starter Shelby Miller has received the most attention of the young pitchers, owing to his 12-8 record, 2.90 ERA and six scoreless starts. Like his teammates, he's quick to credit instruction he received in the minor leagues. "I think my biggest learning experience last year was Blaise [Ilsley] at Triple-A when I was really struggling early on. He's a big factor in my mechanics, the change in my second half and why I started to succeed a little bit more. But at the same time, Gerdy [Memphis pitching coach Bryan Eversgerd] and Dennis Martinez, who won 250 games in the big leagues, I learned how to throw a really good curveball from him."

Michael Wacha, a first-round pick last year who made his major league debut in May, also praised Eversgerd for helping him with his mechanics in Memphis. He also listens to the veterans on the St. Louis staff.

"I guess after my first start guys started getting a little bit of a scouting report, so you know I've just been talking to Waino [Adam Wainwright] and the other starters," he said. "They just really help me on not tipping your pitches, with the off-speed pitches, how to command those a little bit better."

Successfully developing young arms is not just about pitch velocity or movement, health or good mechanics. Now that the Cardinals' youth movement is here, if you look closely, there's an organizational foundation in place to make good pitchers great and gifted pitchers productive for the long term. One things Cardinals starters will do is watch one another's bullpen sessions.

Wainwright said he hopes he imparts some knowledge to the younger guys.

"I certainly learned from some of the best, Carp (Chris Carpenter), Dave Duncan, even Lilli (Derek Lilliquest) now," said Wainwright. "The reason we started watching bullpens back in the day even before I was even here was that sense of oneness that comes along with it, that thought that your starting staff is not just five individual guys but one family and so with that thought in mind that's kind of how we do everything."

Rosenthal also said veteran guys on the team have consistently told him that not every team in the majors has what the Cardinals have -- teammates working together.

"It's really special," Rosenthal said. "Especially for the young guys to be able to have that relationship and be able to talk to them and learn from them and be comfortable on the basis where we have the opportunity to learn more often."

There is still one unanswered question: Which pitcher really is the best dancer? No one knows them better than Eversgerd. If he had to project (because baseball is all about projections, right?), who would win a dance-off?

"Here's what I'm going to say. I think you have to break it into categories," Eversgerd said. "So, I'd say as far as classic dancing moves, formal dancing, I'd say Maness. But as far as doing a lot of quick feet, quick movement -- break dancing or something like that -- I'd have to go with Kelly."