With their 4-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants on Sunday, the St. Louis Cardinals still hold the best record in the majors, and it seems like they have been the best team in baseball all season. But, unfortunately for he Redbirds, the National League Central has the third- and fourth-best teams (Texas Rangers are second-best at 35-21) in the majors, too, and the 37-19 Cardinals hold just a 2.5 game lead over the 35-22 Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds.
So how are the Cardinals (defeated Arizona 7-1 on Monday) accomplishing this stellar start, their best beginning to a season since 1944? Pitching and defense. Yes, the old adage of pitching and defense win championships is ringing true through the first third of the season. The Cardinals lead the majors with a 2.99 earned-run average (ERA) and are tied for the lead in fielding percentage (.991) and least amount of errors (19) with the Detroit Tigers.
In that 1944 season when the Cardinals won the World Series against crosstown rival St. Louis Browns, not one St. Louis Cardinal starter had an ERA over 2.85. The ’44 Birds would finish with a 105-49 record and a 2.67 team ERA. Now the 2013 Cardinals’ pitching staff isn’t quite that dynamic, but the ’44 team had the luxury of some of the best players in the league not playing due to military service in World War II.
This season, rookie Shelby Miller (6-3) leads MLB with a 1.82 ERA. Veteran Jake Westbrook (2-1) would lead the league with his 1.62 ERA if he hadn’t been injured his last six starts, but he is scheduled back soon. Lance Lynn (7-1) has been really good with his 2.91 ERA, and despite Jaime Garcia (5-2) on the disabled list, rookies John Gast (now on DL), Tyler Lyons and Michael Wacha have filled in nicely, not only keeping the Cardinals in games, but winning them (or at least deserving the win).
This brings us to the glue of the Cardinals’ rotation. After an off year coming off Tommy John surgery where he posted a 14-13 record and a career-worse 3.94 ERA last year, Cardinals’ ace Adam Wainwright has been the horse for St. Louis this season. Wainwright is 8-3 with a 2.33 ERA and leads the league in game starts (12), complete games (3), shutouts (2), innings pitched (89.0), batters faced (345), least homeruns per 9 innings (0.2), bb/9 inn. (0.6) and a ridiculous strikeout-to-walk ratio of 14 to 1. Wainwright has walked only six batters all season.
Of course, it’s not like the Cardinals’ offense has been slacking. It’s seventh in the majors right now in batting with a .267 team average. St. Louis is top 10 in runs, but hasn’t been scoring its runs via long ball. The Cardinals are in the bottom five in home runs, ranking 26th out of 30 major league teams with 43 on the year.
Catcher Yadier Molina is second in the NL with a .347 batting average and is hitting .389 with runners in scoring position this season. In fact, clutch hitting has been the recipe for success for the Cardinals as they have five players in the top 20 in the NL in batting with runners in scoring position (RISP).
Carlos Beltran, who is batting .300 with a team-leading 12 home runs, is second in batting with RISP with a .475 average. Allen Craig, who leads the team with 38 RBI, is batting .431 with RISP, Molina’s .389, Pete Kozma (.375) and Matt Holliday (.362). And this is with Holliday having a less-than-stellar season batting .244.
Now can the pitching and defense hold up? Why not? The pitching staff probably won’t finish with an ERA under 3.00 and things tend to “even out” as the season treks on, but there’s no reason to believe the Cardinals can’t continue their pace. Sure, there will be a stretch when the Cardinals will struggle, but a good start is better than bad any day.