Jason Marquis fanned nine Dodgers without walking any on Saturday night. (Tom Gannam/AP)
ST. LOUIS -- The regular-season doubts about the St. Louis Cardinals' starting rotation have long since been dispelled. Now, it is time to start ditching the doubts about this group's postseason potential.
The St. Louis starters are a combined 67-30. And in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately category, the last two nights, two Cardinal starters threw 16 shutout innings at the Los Angeles Dodgers, a division-leading club.
Matt Morris pitched a two-hit shutout Friday night. Jason Marquis followed with seven shutout innings Saturday night in a 5-1 Cardinal victory. It was the eighth straight victory for St. Louis and it made yet another point regarding just how formidable this rotation is.
Of all the successful St. Louis starters, including Morris, Chris Carpenter, Jeff Suppan, Woody Williams, Marquis has the highest winning percentage. He is 14-4, with a 3.44 earned run average. He has not lost a decision since May 26. He has won 11 straight decisions, becoming the first Cardinal pitcher since John Tudor in 1985 to do that.
This 14-4 Jason Marquis is the same fellow who was 14-15 with a 4.45 ERA over portions of four up-and-down, back-and-forth seasons with the Atlanta Braves. When you evaluate the St. Louis starters now, you have to be up to date. Chris Carpenter, for instance, is not a promising pitcher with a history of shoulder problems. Chris Carpenter is now 14-5 with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 4-to-1.
Jason Marquis / P
Weight: 210 lbs
Bats: L / Throws: R
And Marquis is no longer simply the guy with terrific stuff who couldn't quite throw enough strikes to get with the pitching program in Atlanta. And that kind of thing was a real indictment for a pitcher, because Atlanta is where pitching careers are revived, not derailed. But Marquis, in St. Louis, is transformed.
"We knew from him pitching against us that he had a good arm," says manager Tony La Russa. "What we didn't know until we got him was how determined he was. You don't know until you get him how competitive he is, how willing to work he is. Once we got him in Spring Training, we really got excited about him."
Marquis is a groundball pitcher now. Coming into this start he was second in the National League in groundball-to-fly ball ratio. He is relying on a two-seam fastball, sinking the ball, persistently getting ahead in the count. Saturday night he had nine strikeouts and no walks.
Marquis threw the two-seamer as a teenager. In the Atlanta minor league system, he was steered toward the four-seam fastball, because it gave him slightly more velocity and was easier to control. He used the two-seamer sparingly. But now, relying on the sinking action of the two-seamer, still throwing with velocity into the mid-90s, with improved command, it is as though the light bulb suddenly went on for Marquis.
"Somebody else turned on the light bulb," he said with a smile, crediting pitching coach Dave Duncan. "I'm just trying to keep it on."
"Every time out there, he pitches more and more," La Russa said of Marquis. "You've haven't seen the best of Jason Marquis yet. He's going to get better and better. But he's definitely good enough now."
In the offseason, while Houston added Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte and the Cubs added Greg Maddux, the Cardinals added Marquis. This did not look like a fair fight to some people, but it looks different now. It looks like Marquis is tapping into his vast potential, as an integral part of a very solid St. Louis rotation.
"I got to be grateful that a team of the Cardinals' stature and tradition wanted me, to trade somebody (J.D. Drew) of that talent," Marquis said. "I always knew that I had it inside of me. I have to believe in myself and trust my stuff. I'm still learning, but I'm more comfortable now."
The back-to-back performances of Morris and Marquis underscore the point that the St. Louis starters, far from wearing down, are getting better as the season wears on. "A lot of guys are throwing as well or better than they have all year," La Russa says.
The St. Louis pitching staff leads the Major Leagues with a 3.66 ERA. The St. Louis starters lead the Major Leagues with 83 quality starts. The credentials here are in order. But now, you will hear the argument that the St. Louis rotation will not be sufficient in the postseason, because, no matter how good these starters have been over the last five months, this rotation lacks a "dominant" starter.
The St. Louis pitchers believe that they have answered the questions, and thus the doubt should be in the past tense. "When you look around baseball, there's maybe less than a handful of dominant starters; the Randy Johnsons, the Jason Schmidts, maybe a Roger Clemens, at the tail end of his career," Marquis says.
"I think if you can go out there night in and night out and give your team a chance to win-especially with the lineup and the defense we have-you go six or seven innings and then you throw our bullpen into the mix, and we've been successful all year.
"There should be no doubt. Obviously, coming into the year, we were supposed to be the big question mark, but we've proven people wrong. It was understandable, with the teams that Chicago and Houston put together this offseason. But that was on paper. You still have to go out there and play.
"I think we can control any lineup if we make our pitches. We're going to stick to what we're capable of doing."
What the Cardinals starters have been capable of doing so far has helped this team to the best record in baseball and an unassailable 17-game lead in the NL Central. If you want to doubt their chances in the postseason, feel free. But all of the available evidence is on the Cardinals' side of the question.
Their postseason pitching problem? With a four-man rotation, which one of these highly capable pitchers has to sit? That's the kind of thing that is less a problem than a situation. And it's the kind of situation most teams only wish they could have.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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