adamLosing Adam Wainwright (left) should move the St. Louis Cardinals to take a hard look at tonight’s opposing starter, Hamels, as the Cardinals and Phillies open a series at Busch Stadium. This isn’t just about this season. It’s a reminder that a transitional time is here.

By Barbara Harrison

Baseball is an unforgiving, 162-game triathlon, not a marathon.

And what looks hopeful in spring training very often gives way to:

Events like slumps, injuries and the fickle hand of fate.

So far, the trade talk revolving around Phillies lefty Cole Hamels has ridden the froth of the blogesphere and radio talk shows.

But Saturday night in Milwaukee it began to get some traction.

For the first time since 2003, the franchise must construct a starting rotation without either Chris Carpenter or Adam Wainwright.

When Wainwright’s left ankle buckled grotesquely during his at-bat in the fifth inning Saturday night in Milwaukee, the Cardinals’ minor-league pitching depth became part of its present.

Its margin for pitching error has evaporated.

Suddenly, a 12-5 team looks vulnerable and potentially needy.

It’s one thing to replace your fourth or fifth starter with organizational fill, something entirely different when it’s the guy who annually provides 230 innings and a shot at a Cy Young Award. This is no bueno, as in ‘‘Waino.’’

At least for public consumption, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak insists the club will pursue internal options to compensate for what appears to Wainwright’s season-ending loss to an Achilles tendon injury. That might be good enough to buy ‘Mo’ some time with deferential local media, but it’s not enough to satisfy those who deem the Cardinals a factor come the postseason.

Losing Wainwright is a seismic shift that should move Mozeliak and team Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. to take a hard look at tonight’s opposing starter, Hamels, as the Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies open a series at Busch Stadium. This isn’t just about this season. It’s a reminder that a transitional time is here.

As prolific as Carpenter and Wainwright were during the last five seasons of Tony La Russa’s managerial tenure, they combined for more than 35 total starts only twice —2009 and 2010. The Cardinals won the NL Central before being swept from the division series in 2009 after the duo took the ball 62 times.

They missed the postseason for the third time in four years when Carpenter posted 35 times and Wainwright 33 in 2010. Wainwright missed the entire 2011 World Series championship run following elbow ligament replacement surgery in February. Afflicted with a bum elbow and a reoccurring nerve problem that eventually necessitated surgery, Carpenter made only four starts in 2007-08, and three more in 2012 before retiring. The Cards returned to the World Series the first year in his absence.

Early statistical returns suggest the two-time defending division champions might withstand the loss of Wainwright. They entered Sunday’s setback against the Milwaukee Brewers with an industry-leading 1.99 staff earned-run average, which included a 1.97 rotation ERA.

The Cardinals can’t fake their way through this one. They are six games into an unforgiving 20-day stretch that requires four starts from each spoke of the rotation.

Cardinal Nation serves as a willing market for organizational boasts about its pitching depth. But now this is for keeps, not fantasy keeper leagues.

Reason enough existed for Mozeliak to “kick the tires” on Hamels last winter. Wainwright, 34 this August, has long served as an innings horse. Lackey and Garcia probably are riding out their final season with the franchise.

Worst (and most likely) case: Wainwright suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon that requires surgery and a rehab of nine to 12 months. He can’t be guaranteed full participation next spring training.

Best case: An incomplete tear at the muscle-tendon juncture higher on Wainwright’s leg requires a recovery of several months, leaving open a possible return in the autumn.

For now the Cardinals can get away with applying a tourniquet (an internal promotion or Dumpster safari) while hoping the rest of the rotation holds. Long term, this team requires another experienced, big arm for the big picture.


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