MILWAUKEE — October began with a basic premise, established as much by lore as by fact, that starting pitching wins championships. Send to the mound Koufax in his prime, Gibson in Games 1, 4 and 7, or Schilling and Johnson back-to-back in the desert, and show up at the end to collect your hardware. Never mind that it didn’t hold true every year. When it happened that way, it was generally memorable.
But whatever credibility was left in that old premise has been exploded these past 2 ½ weeks by the St. Louis Cardinals, who will be representing the National League in the World Series beginning Wednesday night with a strange concept of the role and importance of starting pitchers.
In a gory 12-6 victory Sunday night over the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series — which clinched the best-of-seven series and sent St. Louis to the World Series for the third time in the past seven years — the Cardinals’ zany experiment to see just how little starting pitching a good team needs to succeed reached its absurd climax. The answer? Six outs.
That’s what the Cardinals got out of starter Edwin Jackson in Game 6. For the series, the Cardinals got just 73 outs from their starters — an average of just over four per game. The rest were entrusted to the large and formidable collection of flamethrowers and surgical specialists in their bullpen, with Manager Tony La Russa pushing the buttons like a crazed scientist out to amuse himself.
“There’s a lot to work with — the talent down there,” ace Chris Carpenter said of the Cardinals’ bullpen. “But [La Russa] pulled the right strings. Those guys absolutely dominated this series, and Tony did a great job using them.”
After dispatching the ace-rich, odds-on-favorite Philadelphia Phillies in the first round, the Cardinals made like the anti-Phillies — they delivered everything except starting pitching — in pounding the sometimes-hapless Brewers in the NLCS. The Cardinals will meet the American League champion Texas Rangers, a similarly built, similarly starting-pitching-challenged squad, in the World Series beginning Wednesday night with Game 1 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
“It’s amazing,” first baseman Albert Pujols said through the champagne mist in the Cardinals’ victorious clubhouse. “But the goal is to win it. Nobody remembers who was in second place.”
No one will ever use the word “classic” to describe this series. It is never a good sign when the member of the winning team who gets the most ink is the manager. None of the six games in the series featured a lead change after the fifth inning. There were no memorable starting pitching performances on either side, or even transcendent offensive ones – with the exception of Cardinals third baseman and series MVP David Freese, who singled, doubled and homered Sunday night to complete a 12-for-22 series.
What did this series have? Lots of home runs and pitching changes. The two bullpens at Miller Park sit in right-center and left-center fields, separated by some 200 feet of outfield fence. The eyes were constantly being drawn there Sunday night, what with all the flyballs landing in and around them, and all the pitchers taking turn warming up on their mounds.
There were 17 homers hit in the series, including six within the first 22 batters Sunday night. By the time someone finally put a zero on the scoreboard, in the bottom of the third, there were already 13 runs scored, and five pitchers had graced the mound.
As for pitching changes, Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa made 28 in the series, including five Sunday night — although, given Jackson’s ultra-brief outing, limiting himself to that many can actually be viewed as restraint on La Russa’s part. It helped that the Cardinals held leads of 4-0 after a half-inning and 9-4 after three, and that the Brewers seemed more likely to self-destruct than mount a serious charge.
It took some real effort for the respective starting pitchers, Milwaukee’s Shaun Marcum and St. Louis’s Jackson, to produce the shortest starts of this series. But by goodness, they did it. Marcum, whom the Brewers chose to start despite mounting evidence (including an 8.18 ERA in his previous six starts) that he was cooked, lasted only one inning, giving up four runs and departing with an ERA of 14.90 in his three starts this postseason.
While the Brewers’ pitching was nothing short of awful, special mention must go their defense, which committed nine errors in the series and outdid itself Sunday night with a series of grotesque bungles, missed cutoff men and unmade plays. By the end of the game, the crowd of 43,926 mustered barely a peep — except a hearty ovation when first baseman and free-agent-to-be Prince Fielder came to the plate in the eighth in what was likely his final appearance for the Brewers.
But the Cardinals are a worthy and compelling World Series team, a band of survivors who were 10 ½ games out of a playoff spot in late August – left for dead by virtually everyone but themselves — but who rallied to sneak in on the last day of the season.
“This is about as driven as you'll ever see a team,” said Cardinals owner William DeWitt Jr.
Even now — especially now — the Cardinals remain in survival mode. And if survival means yanking your starting pitcher after the second inning and blowing out your bullpen and living out-to-out for nine innings, every night, the Cardinals are prepared — and extraordinarily equipped — to do that.