ST. LOUIS — At the trade deadline in July, the Cardinals appeared to be in the market for starting pitching. Instead, St. Louis stood pat and trusted their young arms.
That trust paid off — in a trip to the World Series.
Michael Wacha capped a nearly untouchable month by being selected the NL championship series MVP after outpitching Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw for the second time in a 9-0 win in Game 6 Friday night.
Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright, a 19-game winner, said the 22-year-old rookie has been so good he wouldn’t be surprised if Wacha was on the mound for Game 1 of the Fall Classic on Wednesday at the winner of the ALCS between Boston and Detroit.
"I told them if we have enough time off they might try to get Michael back for Game 1," Wainwright said during the Cardinals’ celebration Friday. "You never know."
Joe Kelly was the strongest member of the rotation for a long stretch in the summer and has been tough in the postseason, too. Closer Trevor Rosenthal hit 100 mph on the stadium radar in finishing off the Cardinals’ 19th NL pennant, tied with the Giants for the most in the league. Carlos Martinez emerged as the setup man, 41st-round draft pick Kevin Siegrist had a lights-out 0.43 ERA and Seth Maness was one of the best at inducing the double-play ball.
Kelly is in his second season and the rest are rookies, all of them enjoying themselves in the postseason instead of stressing out about the implications of each pitch.
Wacha made his major league debut in late May, but he was back at Triple-A Memphis when many of his teammates were promoted.
"They were performing at a high level, they weren’t letting a lot of things affect them," Wacha said. "So whenever I got called up, I felt like I had to hang with these guys."
The Cardinals have a mid-level payroll with a handful of high-paid players and rely heavily on a system that keeps promoting prospects — who keep coming through. After dispatching the free-spending Dodgers, they’re seeking their second title in three years and third since 2006.
"Payrolls aren’t playing, the players are playing," chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said.
As the rookie fill-closer on a veteran-laden team, Wainwright got the final out of the NLCS and World Series in ‘06. The current crop is a lot deeper, influencing general manager John Mozeliak’s no-deal strategy.
Wacha leads the way, a little more than a year after the Cardinals drafted him in the first round out of Texas A&M.
The 6-foot-6 right-hander held the Nationals to no-hits for 8 2-3 innings in his final start of the season and is 3-0 with an 0.43 ERA in three postseason starts. He kept the Cardinals alive in Game 4 of division series at Pittsburgh.
"I think our general manager had a pretty good plan," Wainwright said. "I think he knew he had an ace in the hole. I think the rest of the world wanted him to go out and sign a big-name starting pitcher."
Turns out they had more than enough pitching to overcome serious setbacks to three-fifths of the starting rotation entering spring training, Edward Mujica’s collapse the final month after earning 35 saves and the failures of other projected bullpen stalwarts.
It was enough to sideline Shelby Miller, too. Miller led all rookies with 15 wins and was in the rotation from opening day, but he has barely pitched in the postseason.
Chris Carpenter, 2005 NL Cy Young Award winner, has been out all year with a nerve ailment that could end his career and Jaime Garcia underwent shoulder surgery in midseason. Jake Westbrook, dogged by elbow and back injuries, was barely used the final month and hasn’t been on the postseason roster.
Cleanup man Allen Craig could be ready to contribute, as a DH or more, after ramping up his rehab program and getting favorable results. The first baseman-outfielder been out since early September with a mid-left foot sprain.
"I can’t put myself on the roster, but I feel pretty good and I’m excited about what lies ahead," said Craig, whose .454 average with runners I scoring position led the majors. "I feel ready."
Elder statesman Carlos Beltran is fired up about the first World Series appearance of his 16-year career. He was the offensive star of the NLCS and made some key plays in right field, too.
"My legs are fine, man, my legs are good," Beltran said. "I’m very happy."
Beltran has three go-ahead hits in the postseason and 12 RBIs, a number that should boost his profile entering free agency. The Cardinals have to be interested even though they’ll be trying to find regular duty for Matt Adams, the stand-in first baseman in place of Craig, and top outfield prospect Oscar Taveras. Also, big contracts for Chris Carpenter, Jake Westbrook and Rafael Furcal are expiring.
But that’s for later.