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Veteran starters have let down the Cardinals in a disappointing season

SAN FRANCISCO -- Adam Wainwright threw two fateful pitches Thursday night that cost the St. Louis Cardinals crucial ground in the National League wild-card race.

He threw a curveball that hung over the upper third of the strike zone long enough for Hunter Pence to rip it into the left-field stands and give the San Francisco Giants a 2-0 lead in the first inning.

“That was a hanger. That was my worst pitch of the day, for sure,” Wainwright said hours later, in the quiet visitors clubhouse after the Cardinals’ 6-2 loss at AT&T Park.

Then, when it appeared he could limit the damage in the middle of the game and give the Cardinals a chance to rally off Johnny Cueto, he threw a fastball middle-in that Angel Pagan lined into center field to give the Giants a 4-2 lead.

“It wasn’t a terrible pitch. He’s had some success off me in the past. He’s a tough out for a lot of people, especially me over the years,” Wainwright said.

The Cardinals’ rally would never come and they would slip to two games behind San Francisco for control of a wild-card spot. The New York Mets lead them by a game for the other one.

Unlike in so many previous seasons, the Cardinals have found it difficult to rely on Wainwright or any of their other veteran starting pitchers.

In spring training, it seemed the Cardinals’ best asset was a starting rotation that had posted a 2.99 ERA the previous year, easily the best in baseball. There were changes, of course. Aren’t there always nowadays? But it seemed reasonable to think that Wainwright could take the place of John Lackey, who signed with the Chicago Cubs, and that Mike Leake could replicate the work of Lance Lynn, who blew out his elbow.

Most people seemed to think Cardinals pitching would continue to give the team a chance to contend, if not dominate. It hasn’t. Cardinals starters have a 4.28 ERA, seventh in the National League. The burden for those struggles has fallen mostly on the three veterans who were being counted on to lead the younger pitchers and who represent a sizeable chunk of the team’s payroll.

Going into Thursday night, the Cardinals had three of the highest ERAs in the National League among qualifying pitchers and three of the worst WHIPs among qualified NL pitchers. Jaime Garcia has a 4.65 ERA (fourth-worst) and 1.38 WHIP (fifth-worst); Leake has a 4.60 ERA (fifth-worst) and 1.29 WHIP (ninth-worst); Wainwright has a 4.51 ERA (eighth-worst) and a 1.37 WHIP (seventh-worst). Together, those three pitchers are making $43 million this season, about 30 percent of the Cardinals’ total payroll of $145.5 million.

You don’t need to do much more research to understand why the Cardinals, who won 100 games last season, are in a tooth-and-claws battle to latch onto one of the two NL wild cards this season.

Before Thursday’s game, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny told Garcia he was being removed from the rotation in favor of rookie flamethrower Alex Reyes. It’s not a particularly surprising move. Garcia had gone 1-4 with an 8.23 ERA in his past six starts, a stretch in which opposing batters had a 1.099 OPS. The average batter who faced him in that stretch of time, in other words, had Hall of Fame-caliber numbers. Meanwhile, Reyes, 22, has a 1.29 ERA and 34 strikeouts in his first 28 major league innings.

The clincher for the decision came against the Chicago Cubs Tuesday in St. Louis, when Reyes rescued Garcia from a bases-loaded jam in the second inning by striking out MVP candidate Kris Bryant and wound up getting a crucial victory for the Cardinals.

“It seemed like a pretty easy transition,” Matheny said Thursday in defending the move. “We’ll give him that opportunity. He continues to impress us no matter what situation we put him in to. He’s our best shot right now.”

That had to be a difficult conversation, as Garcia, 30, has been a starting pitcher since he was a rookie, before the first of three major arm surgeries. Garcia said he will do his best to contribute when he can in relief, admitting it was a disappointing conversation.

“Yeah, personally. I’ve always been a starter in the big leagues, but right now the team needs me to come out of the bullpen,” Garcia said. “It is what it is.”

Both Wainwright and Leake have had similar stretches of ineffectiveness this season. The difference was the time of the season, with fewer than three weeks remaining, and with an appealing alternative at hand. The Cardinals didn’t promote Reyes and Luke Weaver, the other rookie in the starting rotation, until early August.

"I told [Garcia] this isn't necessarily something you have to accept from here on out," Matheny said. "Just be ready to pitch. We'll get you right, too. I don't think anybody that has watched our games when Jaime is on would disagree that this guy has special stuff when he can put it all together."

If Reyes loses command of the strike zone -- and his walk rate of 5.1 is a bit worrisome -- or Weaver struggles, Garcia would be the only readily available replacement aside from Jerome Williams, who has had scant success as a mop-up man.

With 16 games left in the season and their streak of five straight postseason berths in jeopardy, the Cardinals will be relying on two rookie starters. Those rookie starters will be on the mound in two of the next three games. A couple losses could well snuff out the Cardinals’ chances.

But given the course of this season, the Cardinals may as well try a youth experiment. Experience certainly hasn’t worked out as planned.