There Are No Question Marks Here

Mulder silenced the critics of the trade that brought him to St. Louis with one of the best pitching performances in the history of Busch Stadium on Saturday. <p> Mulder facing future HOFer and seven time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens, pitched 10 complete shutout innings, striking out five and walking none, winning 1-0. <p> Mulder joins starting pitchers Chris Carpenter, Jason Marquis, Jeff Suppan and Matt Morris to form perhaps the best five-man rotation in baseball.

Every year, it seems – year after year after year – the big question mark coming out of the Cardinals spring training camp is "starting pitching." How will our starters fare? Are they physically up to the challenges that lie ahead? During the first full week of the season, the question of starting pitching was actually a pretty good one.

In the first set of turns through the four-man rotation in place then, the results were rather unimpressive. After the last two turns through the five-man rotation, though, there is no question about the Cardinal starters. They have been little short of amazing and have been the force behind the early surge this team has demonstrated.

Over the last ten games, going back to the first game of the Milwaukee series, each Cardinal starter – Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, Jason Marquis, Jeff Suppan, and Matt Morris – has two starts. In that period, they pitched 61.0 of a possible 91 innings (including the 10-inning affair against Houston). In those 61 innings, they surrendered no fewer than 14 earned runs. They struck out 53 and walked only 20. In that ten game stretch, the earned run average of the Cardinal starters is a measly, insignificant, absolutely fabulous 2.07.

During those ten games, the Cardinal record was 9 wins to 1 loss. Four of those wins were by a difference of 2 runs or less. The only loss was to the Cubs and that by a score of 3-1. Even in the sole loss, Cardinal pitching kept the team in the game. You may recall that because of Suppan's effort at Busch, John Mabry came within about five feet of tying the score with 1 on and 2 out in the bottom of the ninth inning. His deep warning track flyout against LaTroy Hawkins nearly pushed the affair into extra innings.

It would be worth a visit with the likes of the venerable old Cardinal historian Bob Broeg to recall a better pitched game than that of Mark Mulder against the visiting Astros. If you didn't like the pitching duel between Mulder and future Hall-of-Famer Roger Clemons (1-0, 0.32), you don't appreciate baseball. Mulder threw ten complete innings for the win. He gave up ZERO earned runs. He walked ZERO batters while striking out five. He did this in ten complete innings of pitching for the shut-out win in one of the gutsiest pitching performances I can recall.

Clemons – he of a peculiar hair coloration since his last visit to Busch – has to be wondering what he needs do to win in this place. His last turn here was a losing effort in game 7 of the 2004 NLCS. He left after six innings having given up four runs and a ticket to the World Series.

Perhaps the most pleasant turn of events is the apparently full recovery of Cardinal Nation favorite Matt Morris. His off-season shoulder surgery was expected to keep him benched until May, but Morris has risen above the occasion. He is now 2-0 on the young season, having missed only one turn in the rotation. His ERA is a solid 2.45. He has shown a recaptured mastery of his breaking pitches and, unlike 2004, has kept his pitches down in the strike zone and, therefore, in the ball park. Given the conversion of Rick Ankiel to a minor league outfielder, Matt's remarkable recovery is good news when it was needed.

One would be remiss as well not to commend starting catcher Yadier Molina. Molina continues to struggle offensively, but his handling of these starters has been superb. He has shown great judgment and maturity in his pitch selection. You have seldom seen these experienced pitchers shrug off signs from the 22 year old. One can begin to appreciate why the Cardinals are so high on this young man.

There are now only two issues outstanding. First and the most obvious is sustainability. While there can and certainly will be glitches, can the starting rotation maintain this level of consistency? That's asking a lot and, given their 9-1 record over the past couple of weeks, is unreasonable. Can they continue to keep the Redbirds in the game until the offense perks up? Yes, they can and I believe that by and large they will.

Hopefully, this will be the year that Jeff Suppan says "Yes! I can win at Busch!" His early showings are promising after a 2004 campaign when his road record was better than his home record. If Suppan can establish himself before the home crowds, he is going to have one heck of a season.

After that rough first rotation, there simply aren't enough superlatives to describe the great work of the Redbird starters. Walt Jocketty, Tony La Russa, and Dave Duncan have got to be pinching themselves to be sure they aren't dreaming. I've got a few red welts myself. With these kinds of performances as the standard and not the exception, the best baseball in America will be found in the shadows of the Arch in St. Louis in 2005.

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