After Adam Wainwright went down for the season, Kyle McClellan looked like the leading candidate to take the open spot in the starting rotation. After his first outing of the spring, that spot is now McClellan's to lose.
He looked strong in three shutout innings, needing only 38 pitches against the Astros today. He threw 25 of those for strikes, and only two balls even made it out of the infield off the bats of a Houston lineup that only started two of its regulars. McClellan only faced one batter over the minimum.
St. Louis also got strong returns from its relief corps, getting a scoreless fourth from lefty Trevor Miller. Prospect Bryan Augenstein sat down six batters in a row, and John Gast gave up a single but erased the runner with a pickoff in the seventh.
Southpaw Raul Valdes allowed two hits in the eighth but got a double play to get out of the jam, and Fernando Salas earned his second save as the Redbirds came away with a 1-0 victory.
Matt Holliday knocked in the only run.
McClellan had a 4.04 ERA in 68 games during as a rookie in 2007 and improved to a 3.38 ERA in 66 the next season. His best season came last year, when he posted a 2.27 ERA (3.92 xFIP) in 68 games.
For the last three years, McClellan has been an integral part of the St. Louis bullpen, but he was a starter in the minor leagues before undergoing Tommy John surgery, and he believes he can return to that role in his fourth full season with the Cardinals.
"It really doesn't change a whole lot for me," McClellan said. "This is what I want to do. The whole time I have been here, this is kind of where I want to be and the situation I want to be in. Obviously it's extremely unfortunate with Adam but it's somewhere where I feel like I could succeed and I have the stuff to do it."
The biggest question for McClellan going forward is his durability. He's never pitched at least 74 innings in a season, and only has 217-2/3 innings under his belt in the big leagues. McClellan doesn't see this as a problem.
"I think it's a legit question but you can't really compare relievers to starters because as a reliever, you're mentally and physically prepared to pitch every day," McClellan said. "Yeah physically you may only throw 70 innings, but you're throwing consecutive days, with no rest, with only a day rest, and as a starter, you can prepare yourself for that one day. You can go out and drain yourself for that one day and have four days to recover.
"I don't think you can just look at it and say, 'He's only thrown 70, how's he expected to throw 150?' As long as I'm prepared physically, we'll just go as far as I can go. You just go out and keep pitching until you can't pitch anymore."
McClellan also has the backing of pitching coach Dave Duncan, who recently transformed Adam Wainwright from rookie closer to a Cy Young candidate and ace starter.
"Right now he's the guy that I think is best suited for the role, provided he can show us this spring what we need to see," said Duncan. "He's done that before but like I said, I'm one vote and not the final vote. In my opinion, it's more important to get him slotted than it is anybody else.
Duncan also dismissed any claims that McClellan will suffer from the drop in velocity that pitchers usually experience after moving from the bullpen to the rotation.
He relies mostly on deception and movement in his pitches, and he has possesses a fastball that tops out at about 93 mph, a strong curveball, and a complementary breaking ball.
This isn't the first time that McClellan has entered camp with a shot at a starting job. Last year, he entered spring as the favorite for the fifth starter's job, but lost the spot to lefty Jaime Garcia. It's poetic justice, however cruel, that he could make his first start after entering spring with a solid spot in the bullpen.