(Reuters) - The postseason rise or fall of the St. Louis Cardinals could well rest on contributions from 10 rookies on their roster, but the National League’s top seed are confident in them and their own winning culture.
Major League Baseball’s Cardinals own 11 World Series trophies, the most hardware among National League teams, and their long string of achievement has roots in their minor league levels, with players groomed to expect success.
The Cardinals, who won the World Series in 2011 and 2006 and came within one win of reaching the Fall Classic last year, could use up to three young starting pitchers in the playoffs, a rookie closer and rookie slugger in their lineup as they open their postseason push against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“We’ve had so many young players who have come into St. Louis here ready, not to just be in the big leagues, but to contribute to a team that was in the fight from the beginning,” said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny.
Matheny himself is part of the youth movement as he was the major league’s youngest active manager at age 41 when he replaced the retired Tony La Russa two years ago.
Adam Wainwright, who leads the pitching staff with 19 wins is at the top of the rotation followed by 24-year-old Lance Lynn, who won 15 games in his second season as a starter.
After that, Matheny can pick between 22-year-old rookie Shelby Miller (15-9), Joe Kelly, 25, (10-5) and 22-year-old Michael Wacha, who improved to 4-1 after coming within one out of pitching a no-hitter in the season-ending game.
Matheny, a former major league catcher who served as special assistant of development before being named manager, said the procession of potent young players was no accident and was in keeping with the Cardinal way.’
“We’re very, very proud of what our development system, our scouts have done to choose the right kind of guys that can handle coming up here at a young age without a lot of experience. Then our coaches and roving staff prepares these guys to come up and not be overwhelmed, but be ready.”
Matheny said the difference maker could be found in the players already in the clubhouse.
“I think really something different here is just the culture we have with our veteran players. They’ve created an environment where these guys can come in and be successful without any other thoughts except doing what I need to do to help this club win.
“And there is constant teaching going on from our veterans and obviously our coaching staff. It’s been a good system that gets these guys into a place where they feel like they’re ready.”
Wainwright experienced the same baptism under fire in 2006 when he was thrust into the spotlight as the team’s closer late in his rookie season and closed out the World Series clincher.
“Well, ‘06, I think one thing that really helped me was that Tony La Russa and (pitching coach) Dave Duncan just brought me along at the perfect pace. They didn’t throw me in the fire too early.
“They started me as the long man, and I pitched the seventh inning, then I pitched the eighth inning, and when I was thrown into the ninth inning role at the end of the season, I was ready for it because I had faced all the big league moments.
“That’s kind of where our guys are now.”
The back end of a bullpen that includes four rookies has suddenly become the realm of 23-year-old Trevor Rosenthal, who earned three successive saves to close the season after taking over from a struggling Edward Mujica.
“He’s done a great job for us and did the same thing last year. Stepped into big positions,” Matheny said.
The youth movement is not restricted to the pitcher’s mound.
The Cardinals, who led the National League in runs, are without their best clutch hitter in Allen Craig, who is out for at least for the Division Series with a sprained foot.
As they are accustomed, a rookie came to the rescue. Matt Adams took over for Craig at first base and ended the regular season 17 homer, 51 RBIs and a .284 batting average.
St. Louis saved their best for last, winning the final six games to secure home field advantage with a 97-65 record.
“This organization kind of feeds that into you, that never-say-die attitude. That attitude that when playoff time starts coming around, that’s when you play your best ball,” said Wainwright, saying it comes from a long managerial tradition.
“When Tony (La Russa) was here, when Red Schoendienst was here, when Whitey (Herzog) was here, that same mentality was transferred.
“So that Cardinal way that everyone’s heard about that we like to talk about so much, that’s what brings that on in my mind.”
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue