Start with pitching coach Dave Duncan, a man whose pupils have won four Cy Young Awards. One of them is Chris Carpenter, who began his big-league career learning at the foot of seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens in Toronto. Now you throw in John Smoltz, who has won one of his own and was a teammate of five other pitchers who have won the award and, well, you get the idea.
Suffice to say, if you are Adam Wainwright or Joel Pineiro and you work in this environment, you'd improve almost by osmosis.
"It's a whole circle, a pass-the-torch kind of thing," said Wainwright, who is one of the top candidates for this year's Cy Young. "If you learn from the best, like Carp did, and apply it like he can and teaching other guys, it's really good."
The result of this mixture of talent and experience -- not to mention the support of Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina -- is that the Cardinals head into the postseason with something that none of the other teams can claim.
Two legitimate aces.
|Ranking the Playoff Rotations|
|Carpenter, Wainwright, Pineiro, Lohse|
|No question about this one. Carpenter and Wainwright are likely to finish in the top two in the Cy Young voting, or top three at worst.|
|Hamels, Lee, Blanton, Happ|
|Hey, there's a Hall of Famer -- Pedro -- not even in there! Hamels was brilliant last October, and he's made up for a slow start this year. Lee is a stud, although he's slumped lately.|
|Lackey, Weaver, Kazmir, Saunders|
|All four of these guys have been clicking lately. Kazmir pitched much better after coming over from the Rays.|
|4. Red Sox|
|Lester, Beckett, Buchholz, Matsuzaka|
|Lester and Beckett are as solid a 1-2 as there is in the AL, and Beckett has proven to be his generation's answer to Jack Morris.|
|Sabathia, Pettitte, Burnett|
|It's a top-heavy rotation. Sabathia is a true ace, but he hasn't performed in the postseason. Still, it's hard to go wrong with him.|
|Jimenez, Cook, De La Rosa, Marquis|
|Jimenez is a particularly nasty flame-thrower. Guys with power arms tend to do well in the postseason.|
|Verlander, Jackson, Porcello|
|They've got the ace (Verlander) covered, but after that there are issues. Jackson was an All-Star, but he had a 5.07 ERA after the break.|
|Wolf, Kershaw, Garland, Billingsley|
|The Dodgers finished the year with six capable starting pitchers, but all of them are really No. 2 or No. 3 starters right now.|
|Baker, Pavano, Blackburn, Duensing|
|Baker is one of the more underrated pitchers in the big leagues, while Pavano and Blackburn both seem to find a way to get it done while pitching in traffic.|
|-- Jeff Fletcher|
The most similar staffs to hit the playoffs in recent years are the 2001-02 Diamondbacks, with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. They finished 1-2 in the Cy Young voting each of those years. In '01, they helped the Diamondbacks win it all.
The Johnson-Schilling duo leaves the impression that a devastating 1-2 punch can single-handedly (double-handedly?) win in October, faring better than a deeper, more-balanced rotation. Fact is, that's probably not true.
Schilling and Johnson were not nearly as good in 2002, and the Diamondbacks didn't make it out of the first round. During the years when the Braves had Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Smoltz at the top of their rotation, they won only one title. The A's, with Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, never even won a playoff series.
Winning in October takes more than just two big horses (Clydesdales? Budweiser, you know.) Still, it's a good start.
Carpenter went 17-4, with a 2.34 ERA. Wainwright was 19-8, 2.63. It is the first time since the '02 Red Sox (Derek Lowe and Pedro Martinez) that a team has had two pitchers with at least 15 victories and an adjusted ERA of 150 or better (100 being average).
Pineiro has has had a year that would make him the ace on a lot of teams. He finished 15-12 with a 3.49 ERA. The 2002 Braves were the last team to have three pitchers win 15 games with an ERA of 3.50 or better.
Even though Wainwright has had the best year this year, the leader of the group is Carpenter, who draws the Game 1 assignment against the Dodgers. The staff follows him because of his experience and the example he set by simply making it to the mound.
Carpenter, 34, has endured such an injury-marred career that he was named Comeback Player of the Year in 2009 ... for the second time. He first won it in 2004, after missing the entire season recovering from shoulder surgery in '03. Carpenter won the Cy Young in 2005 and had another solid season in '06, leading the Cardinals to a World Series championship.
Then he disappeared again.
"We missed postseason the past two years, and I don't think it's any coincidence that Carp didn't pitch," manager Tony La Russa said.
In 2007 and '08, Carpenter pitched a total of five big-league games while recovering from Tommy John surgery and more shoulder trouble.
"His tenacity on the mound is unmatched, but he's got a freakish arm to have gone through all the stuff he's gone through and still be throwing the ball 97 mph occasionally," Wainwright said. "It's a gift from God."
Carpenter shrugs off the whole "improbable comeback" storyline. He said that never doubted that if he did the work, he'd return. Now that Carpenter is back, he has become a role model for the other pitchers.
"When he starts, the way he competes is a lesson," La Russa said. "The way he works in between starts, the way he cares about the other four games when he's not pitching. All of that is classic mentoring. Guys know he's watching. They ask him questions and he gives an honest answer."
Wainwright, 28, didn't need much of a boost. He was no slouch before this year, having gone 25-15 with a 3.50 ERA in his two previous full years in the rotation. He has clearly taken the next step in 2009. The general opinion is that Wainwright has done nothing more complicated than get a year older, a year smarter.
"You learn what you are doing, what you are comfortable doing on the mound," Wainwright said. "It's just another year I've become more comfortable with my stuff, more comfortable with some of the hitters I've faced."
The third member of the trio is Pineiro, who certainly didn't figure to be pitching to this level. Although he showed flashes of talent in his younger years in Seattle, his career had stalled. Over the previous five seasons, he was 35-47 with a 5.34 ERA.
"He changed how he pitched," general manager John Mozeliak said. "I think that as the year went on, his confidence grew and grew, like a snowball rolling down the hill. It just got bigger and bigger."
Besides the Big Three, the Cardinals also can chose between Kyle Lohse and Smoltz -- not bad options for a No. 4 starter.
"Any time you can go into the playoffs and have a big 1-2, and frankly we can go to three the way Pineiro is going, you have a high level of confidence," Mozeliak said. "The way this team has come together and what it's been able to accomplish, you do feel confident going into the postseason."