In one of the more dominant spring performances so far this season, Lance Lynn struck out ten men in four innings on Thursday against Atlanta, allowing just one man to reach base. Lynn pitched around a first-inning error by Matt Carpenter, gave up a one-out single in the second, then struck out the final eight men he faced. True, he did that against the Braves, the team that struck out more often than any other in the National League last year (yes, he struck out B.J. Upton both times he faced him), but it was still an impressive performance for the Cardinals' big righty, particularly coming off a rough previous start in which he gave up five runs in just 1 1/3 innings. And it was one he needed.
Lynn's ability to bounce back from that outing was important, as rookie Carlos Martinez is making a serious case to be included in the Cardinals' Opening Day rotation. After three spring starts, Martinez boasts a tidy 1.80 ERA and has allowed just seven baserunners in ten innings. With Jaime Garcia set to open the season on the disabled list following another setback with his surgically repaired shoulder, Martinez only needs to leapfrog one of the Cardinals' established starters to make the rotation. With Adam Wainwright locked in as the staff ace and Michael Wacha—who will take a 1.93 ERA into his start on Friday—having pitched well, Lynn, Shelby Miller, and Joe Kelly are the men whose spots are vulnerable to Martinez's attack.
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Lynn battened down the hatches with his performance in his third spring start on Thursday. Now, the Cardinals will have to see if Miller and Kelly can respond in kind in their third starts of the spring. After two starts, Miller has struck out nine against no walks in five innings, but he was pulled due to a rising pitch count in the third inning of both of his starts and sports a 5.30 ERA. There was a lot of snark over the Cardinals' burying of Miller in the postseason last year, but it's worth remembering that just five of his final 17 starts during the regular season were quality, and he averaged less than 5 1/3 innings in those starts while posting a pedestrian 4.03 ERA. Kelly, by comparison, finished 2013 strong and was a prominent part of the Cardinals' postseason rotation, but he has been awful thus far this spring, giving up seven runs in four innings through his first two starts (15.75 ERA) in walking more men than he has struck out.
It's still fairly early, and regular season track records and scouting speak far louder than spring training statistics, but that's not much of a concern for the 22-year-old Martinez. His minor league track record (2.69 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning) and big league performance in September and October of last year were enough to make Martinez, already one of the Cardinals' top prospects, a compelling candidate for the rotation coming into camp. If he continues to pitch well this spring, it could be hard for St. Louis to rationalize not putting him in the rotation.
"He's had a nice spring," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said after Martinez's start on Wednesday. "He's throwing very well. He has a very good approach to what he wants to do. I think he's got a nice mix. He certainly has the arsenal." Fortunately for Lance Lynn, he proved on Thursday that he has some firepower of his own.