Will Shelby Miller Play a Crucial Role in the Cardinals Winning the NLCS?

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Will Shelby Miller Play a Crucial Role in the Cardinals Winning the NLCS?
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

After splitting the first two games on the road in San Francisco to open the National League Championship Series, the St. Louis Cardinals will return home on Wednesday afternoon for Games 3-5.

Attempting to repeat as World Series champions after a historic late-season surge in 2011, the Cardinals have already defied the odds with their historic comeback against the Nationals in the ninth inning of the decisive Game 5.

Although the Cardinals have put together outstanding at-bats and delivered clutch hits with the season on the line, the team's starting pitchers have suddenly fallen on hard times over the last three games.

 

Starter Woes

Of the eight games the Cardinals have played this postseason, only two have produced a "win" for the team’s starting pitcher—and that includes the wild-card play-in game against the Braves. Unfortunately, only one starter, right-hander Kyle Lohse, has lasted more than 5.2 innings this October. And as the Cardinals’ most (and only) consistent pitcher, it should come as no surprise that he’s slated to start Wednesday’s afternoon contest opposite Matt Cain.

While Lohse has been the undeniably great this postseason, the rest of the starting rotation has struggled to work deep into games and hold the opposing offense at bay. Furthermore, the Cardinals’ other key starting pitchers are each coming off their worst outing of the 2012 postseason.

In Game 5 of the NLDS, Adam Wainwright allowed six earned runs on seven hits over 2.1 innings.

Lance Lynn, who replaced the injured Jaime Garcia in the team’s rotation, followed Wainwright’s dismal performance with one of his own, allowing four runs on five hits in 3.2 innings in Game 1 of the NLCS.

And then it was the always-reliable Chris Carpenter who struggled on Monday night, as the Cardinals’ big-game pitcher last only four innings after allowing five runs (two earned) on six hits.

 

Right-Handed Rookies: Starters or Relievers?

For as bad as the team’s starters have been, the Cardinals’ bullpen has been that excellent, often limiting any further damage and, in general, keeping the team in the game. But perhaps the most unexpected surprise has been the effectiveness and consistency of the team’s rookie pitchers: Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal

At one point earlier this season, all three right-handers were exclusively starting pitchers for team’s Double or Triple-A affiliates. And more importantly, all three performed well in that role. But due to the Cardinals’ relatively loaded rotation—at least on paper, right?—Kelly, Miller (who replaced Garcia on the postseason roster) and Rosenthal were stashed in the bullpen. However, it’s worth noting that Rosenthal was the only one not to start a game in the major leagues this season.

Regardless, the trio has been excellent in the postseason: Kelly has yet to allow an earned run in five appearances spanning 5.2 innings, Miller fired an impressive perfect inning in Game 2 but ultimately allowed two earned runs thanks to shaky defense by the Cardinals, and Rosenthal—who touched 100 mph seven times in Game 5 of the NLDS against the Nationals—has allowed only one hit with seven strikeouts over 4.1 scoreless frames.

Considering the struggles of the Cardinals’ starting rotation this October, it’s conceivable that either Miller or Kelly could receive a start in the series’ remaining five contests.

 

It's Miller Time

Even though Kelly started 16 games and registered a 3.74 ERA over 91.1 innings for the Caridnals during the regular season, the hard-throwing right-hander was more effective as a reliever after finishing the year in the bullpen.

Therefore, if the Cardinals were in sudden need of an additional starting pitcher, Miller seems to be the logical choice. Although it’s a somewhat unlikely scenario, the team may opt not to start Lance Lynn in Game 5 after the Giants roughed him up with four earned runs on five hits and three walks to open the series.

Regarded as the team’s top prospect headed into each of the last three seasons, Miller, a first-round draft pick in 2009, breezed through the Cardinals’ farm system and opened the 2012 season pitching for Triple-A Memphis as a 21-year-old.

However, the 6’3”, 195-pound right-hander unexpectedly struggled in his first year at the more advanced level, posting a 4-8 record and 6.17 ERA with 17 home runs allowed and 43 walks through his first 17 starts.

As a result, the Cardinals offered Miller a short break toward the end of June to tweak his mechanics with the team’s pitching coordinator, Brent Strom, who corrected his stride and insisted he become less dependent on his fastball.

Over the second half of the season, Miller was an entirely different pitcher, posting a 7-2 record, 2.88 ERA, .217 BAA and 70/7 K/BB in 59.1 innings spanning 10 starts following the All-Star break.

As a result, the Cardinals called up their prized right-hander when the active roster expanded from 25 to 40 players on Sept. 1. Making his big league debut on Sept. 5, Miller was highly impressive in six appearances over the final month of the season, as he registered a 1.32 ERA with 16/4 K/BB over 13.2 innings.

Miller’s best performance came against the Reds in the final regular-season game on Oct. 3. Not only did he make the first start of his major league career, Miller absolutely dominated, carrying a no-hitter into the sixth inning before finally allowing a bloop single to Wilson Valdez. It ultimately was the only hit Miller would allow, as he finished the game with seven strikeouts and two walks over six brilliant innings.

It’s difficult to say whether Miller may actually be considered to start Game 5 instead of Lynn, as the decision is seemingly predicated on the result of Games 3 and 4. Even it that ultimately does not happen, Miller’s experience and success as a starter in the minor leagues, and now in the major leagues, has him poised for a potential long-relief role over the remainder of the NLCS.

And considering that a Cardinals' starter hasn’t won since Game 3 of the NLDS (Carpenter), the decision to use Miller as a multiple-inning reliever in the middle of a close game may be far more valuable than anyone expects.

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