Commentary

Kyle McClellan has given Cards 'real lift'

Righty has stepped in for the injured Adam Wainwright, and is tied for team lead in wins

Originally Published: May 19, 2011
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

The most interesting season in Kyle McClellan's life began in a most interesting way. When the St. Louis Cardinals' media guide came out in spring training, the personal data of fellow pitcher Lance Lynn was accidentally placed next to McClellan's picture and statistics. Cardinals public relations director Brian Bartow apologized for the mistake, and eight weeks later, McClellan was still laughing about it, saying, "Hey, I don't care. I'm not offended. But, I am not 24 years old. And I am not 6-foot-6, 250 pounds … but I'd like to be 6-6.''

[+] EnlargeKyle McClellan
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireKyle McClellan has pitched six or more innings in six of his eight outings so far this season.

McClellan is 26 years old, he is 6-2, 215 pounds and he is 5-1 for the Cardinals. He's tied for the most wins in a rotation of which he was not supposed to be a member when spring training began. But when Adam Wainwright was lost for the season with an elbow injury, McClellan was moved from the bullpen, where he had worked effectively for two seasons, to the rotation. He has made a seamless transition filling in for one of the game's best starting pitchers over the past two seasons. Who would have guessed in February that in mid-May, the Cardinals would be in contention in the National League Central with no wins from Wainwright, and one from Chris Carpenter. McClellan has had a lot to do with that.

"He has given us a real lift,'' said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.

McClellan has a 3.62 ERA in eight starts, seven of which the Cardinals have won. They scored 45 runs in his first seven starts.

"I'm not replacing Adam Wainwright; I can't be him, there are only a few pitchers in the league who can,'' McClellan said. "All I can do is give us a chance to compete every fifth day. I feel I've given us that chance in most starts. I have a good record, but I haven't had a lot to do with that.''

Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan disagreed, giving McClellan far more credit, but added, "He can pitch better than this. He hasn't had his curveball all year. It's a swing-and-miss curveball. If he can find that pitch, he can do even better than he has this season.''

McClellan was a starter in the minor leagues, but became a reliever after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in 2005. He had ulnar nerve surgery in 2006, but has made steady progress as a reliever since. His move to the rotation hasn't been difficult.

"The biggest part was the change in schedule, I had a different routine,'' McClellan said. "For three years, I would come to the ballpark every day preparing to pitch in the game that night. Now I come in preparing to work every fifth day. With the way Tony uses the bullpen, there were nights that I would come in to face one hitter. So, I took that approach into starting. I think about pitching a scoreless first inning, then a scoreless second, and by the time you look up … I've looked at it that way instead of going into a start saying I need to throw eight scoreless innings, or have a quality start. Dunk [Dave Duncan] had a lot to do with helping me change my mindset. His experience was really helpful to me.''

Duncan did the same with Bob Welch in 1988 with the A's. Welch was a reliever turned starter. "He was a good golfer,'' Duncan said. "I told him, 'In golf, you play the first hole, then you start over on the next hole. Then you start over on the next hole.' He got that.'' Two years later, La Russa is quick to point out, "Bob Welch went out and won 27 games.''

I'm not replacing Adam Wainwright; I can't be him. … All I can do is give us a chance to compete every fifth day. I feel I've given us that chance in most starts.

-- Kyle McClellan

McClellan has been very good in five of eight starts, but on Saturday against the Reds, he struggled. But there might have been a reason: McClellan's wife was less than 24 hours from having the couple's first child. So after the game, he drove back to St. Louis. It was a scheduled induction, and McClellan and his wife, Bridget, were told to report to the hospital at 4:15 a.m. Almost 15 hours later, Olivia Grace McClellan was born.

"It was amazing,'' he said.

McClellan came to the ballpark Monday, the day after the birth, threw in the bullpen, then was allowed to skip Monday night's game to be at home with his wife and baby.

"I can't say enough about what Tony and Mo [Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak] have done, to be so accommodating,'' McClellan said. "Tony is very big on putting family first. It is important to be with teammates, but right now, it's even more important today for me to be with mom and baby.''

McClellan smiled when he thought about what has gone on in his life over the past few months.

"It has definitely been a season of firsts for me,'' he said. "A lot has happened that has been unexpected, starting with going into the rotation. Now I have even more responsibility, and have to be even more prepared, becoming a father. It looks like I'm about to have a lot more firsts ahead. And they're all great.''

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.

Follow Tim Kurkjian on Twitter: