BOSTON -- The St. Louis Cardinals' rookie pitchers keep hearing that the stakes are high this time of year, with history poised to render a final verdict. When it's October at Fenway Park and a title is on the line, it's permissible for a young player to feel his heart race and sweat from the tension as much as from the exertion, isn't it?
Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist was aware that the kids might have a tendency to get over-amped in these games, so he passed along a few simple guidelines as St. Louis prepared to face the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.
"We made it a point to keep their distractions to a minimum," Lilliquist said. "We told them to take in everything in its simplicity, one pitch at a time. Enjoy the moment. And make sure you breathe."
The Cardinals' 4-2 victory over Boston on Thursday was forged on several converging plot lines. Carlos Beltran returned from a rib injury to provide inspiration and a couple of knocks in right field. Starter Michael Wacha was superb, and St. Louis shook off the disappointment of an 8-1 loss in the Series opener to become reacquainted with baseball the "Cardinal Way." Now the Series is even heading back to St. Louis, where the Cardinals posted a 54-27 regular-season record at Busch Stadium.
The "oh wow" factor from Game 2 was provided by the back end of the bullpen, where the predominant theme was "Good morning, good afternoon and good night."
After Wacha spun six effective innings, manager Mike Matheny let it ride with youth and power the rest of the way. First Martinez came on and struck out three batters over two shutout innings. Then Rosenthal struck out the side on 11 pitches in the bottom of the ninth, and it was time for everyone to shake hands and get ready to board the team charter flight.
The stat lines can't begin to describe how impressive Martinez and Rosenthal looked. Of the 35 pitches the two righties threw, 28 were strikes. And you had to search hard to find any pitches that could be classified as "hittable."
Rosenthal ditched his power breaking-ball assortment to throw 11 straight heaters. You want efficient? How's this for efficient?
He came in with fastballs of 96, 97, 97 and 98 mph to get Jonny Gomes looking. He threw heaters of 97, 98 and 98 to set down Jarrod Saltalamacchia swinging. And then he pumped fastballs of 95, 97, 98 and 99 to whiff Daniel Nava and earn a congratulatory handshake from catcher Yadier Molina.
Every pitch was formidable, and equal to or harder than the pitch that preceded it. Poise is a wonderful thing. But in the overall scheme of things, nothing is better than cheese.
"It helps to have the arsenals they have," said Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday. "Yeah, they came in and pitched awesome. But it helps when you throw 90 mph sinkers from Martinez and invisi-balls at 100 miles an hour from Trevor. They've been lights-out."
One game doesn't necessarily tilt the balance in St. Louis' favor. But this much is clear: The Red Sox aren't going to click their heels Saturday, wake up in Missouri and find Jose Veras, Al Alburquerque and Joaquin Benoit jogging out of the opposing team's bullpen in the late innings. Boston had an incentive to work deep counts and drive Detroit's starters from the game as quickly as possible in the previous round. Against the Cardinals, that strategy might not work so well.
The Cardinals are back to even in the Series thanks in part to the unflappable Wacha, who turned in a bookend performance to complement his season-saving outing against Pittsburgh in the National League Division Series. Wacha gutted it out for 114 pitches and was working on a shutout until he gave up a two-run homer to David Ortiz in the sixth.
If there was a pivotal sequence once the Cardinals took a 4-2 lead in the seventh, it came on a gutsy bullpen decision by Matheny in the eighth.
After Jacoby Ellsbury reached on a Matt Carpenter error to begin the inning, Matheny had lefty specialist Randy Choate ready to face Ortiz. Choate held lefties to a .176 batting average this season (15-for-85), so it would have been easy to make the conventional move. But Matheny liked the way the ball was coming out of Martinez's hand and stuck with the kid. Martinez gave up a ground single to Ortiz, then retired Mike Napoli on a popup to end the threat.
Martinez, who was disappointed in himself after giving up a run in the Series opener Wednesday, returned to the dugout for high-fives from teammates and a bear hug from Lilliquist, who simply told him, "Great job." Nothing more needed to be said.
St. Louis' two rookie relief aces come from decidedly different backgrounds. Martinez, a native of the Dominican Republic, signed with Boston for a $140,000 bonus in 2009, only to have the contract voided because of a case of identity fraud that came to light during a background check. The Cardinals signed him a year later, and he rocketed to the top of the team's prospect list. Now he's biding his time in the bullpen until a full-time opening arises in the rotation.
Rosenthal grew up about 20 minutes from Kansas City in the city of Lee's Summit, Mo., and attended Cowley County Community College in Kansas with the intention of playing shortstop or third base. He showed enough skill as an infielder and part-time pitcher to generate interest from Division I programs at Oklahoma State and New Mexico State.
But Rosenthal's career track instantly changed when he took the mound during a postseason tournament in Wichita. St. Louis scout Aaron Looper, the cousin of former big league pitcher Braden Looper and son of longtime major league executive Benny Looper, gleaned enough information from a one-inning cameo to lobby the Cardinals to pick Rosenthal in the draft. They chose him in the 21st round, signed him to a $65,000 bonus and sent him on his way up the organizational chain.
Now Rosenthal and Martinez have officially arrived in St. Louis. Edward Mujica recorded 37 saves as the Cardinals' principal closer for much of this season, and John Axford arrived with closer credentials in a late-August trade with Milwaukee. But it's the kids who make Matheny feel the most comfortable in the late innings. They've quickly found a home in St. Louis.
"Carlos doesn't talk a whole lot, and Rosey is his silly little self," Choate said. "He just tries to get the older guys worked up with his antics, pretending like he's a 10-and-5 [service time] guy. That's what makes Rosey great. Not a whole lot rattles him. When he goes out there and gives up a bleeder or a walk, he forgets about it and goes on to the next guy and strikes him out."
Rosenthal's biggest flaw is a beard that's not quite on par with the facial hair the Red Sox are running out this postseason.
"It's terrible," Choate said. "I told him that from the get-go. We all begged him to shave it, but that's probably why he doesn't. Rosey just wants to be different."
Despite having a touch of the agitator in him, Rosenthal defers to the veterans' collected wisdom and learns something new every day. When he sits in the bullpen with Choate, Axford and Mujica and sees the likes of Beltran and Adam Wainwright walking around the clubhouse, it gives him a sense of calm.
"We have all these veteran guys who've been in this situation and been in the postseason and the World Series," Rosenthal said. "It's really nice to pick their brains and look back at the success they've had and have the confidence that we're going to be able to repeat that."
As former Tigers manager Jim Leyland liked to point out, experience is great, but it's no substitute for talent. Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal are young, skilled and totally in their element this postseason. With each appearance, they're showing the veterans they have a few lessons of their own to impart.