While schoolkids across the land sweat through final exams, the Cardinals dive into their latest test in a season full of them: Overcoming the hip injury that sent starter Kyle McClellan to the disabled list this week.
In McClellan's place, rookie right-hander Lance Lynn will get a look. Summoned from Triple-A Memphis to start Thursday night's game against San Francisco (on short rest, nonetheless), Lynn, a supplemental first-round pick in the 2008 draft, was 5-3 with a 4.06 ERA.
Few pitchers in the game have been as valuable as the unassuming McClellan, who, along with Kyle Lohse, has done wonders in keeping the Cardinals atop the NL Central even after losing Adam Wainwright for the season this spring and while Chris Carpenter battles through a (so far) disappointing season.
"In Jupiter this spring, the sky was falling," general manager John Mozeliak said last week, referring to the immediate aftermath of Wainwright's elbow injury. "People said it was doomsday for the organization.
"To see what McClellan has been able to do, giving us a chance to win baseball games, has been special. Both guys, McClellan and Lohse, have done it from different directions: Lohse is healthy [following forearm surgery last summer], and McClellan came in from the bullpen. Both have helped steady the ship."
McClellan, the National League's first six-game winner this season, is expected to miss two weeks with the left hip flexor strain. Because he had made 202 major-league appearances before this season with zero starts, and never pitched more than 75 2/3 innings in the majors, the Cards figured they would have to limit his innings at some point this season. They hope maybe this will be a natural way of doing so.
"There's enough good rotations in this league, if you want to compete successfully, you need to trot out somebody that gives you a chance every day," manager Tony La Russa said recently of McClellan. "[Wainwright] was a huge hole, and Kyle's wanted it and he worked hard every day and he's done a real good job."
As usual, the Cardinals have had the angles figured. They've had McClellan prepare as a starter the past couple of springs to give them options, and they've been rewarded for their preparedness this year.
"I like him in the bullpen so much, but Dunc has been saying since the first year that this guy could be a starter," La Russa said of pitching coach Dave Duncan. "As he so often does, Dunc has got it figured out."
McClellan had a 3.11 ERA through his first 10 outings, but that swelled to 3.86 during a seven-run, four-inning stint while battling the sore hip against San Francisco on Monday.
Meantime, with McClellan out, the Cardinals will lean even more on Lohse. Fully recovered from surgery last May 28 to relieve nerve compression in his right forearm, Lohse so far has been dominant.
In nine post-surgery starts late in 2010, Lohse was 3-4 with a 7.25 ERA.
"I think he really needed all of last year to recover," Mozeliak says. "It was a unique surgery, not common in our sport. He had to get himself strong to where his confidence was back.
"You see a difference in him now in how he approaches things."