If there are words to adequately describe the efforts of Michael Wacha over his playoff starts, they must come from a better wordsmith than me. The frustration that other teams must feel to watch a pitcher who, while a first round pick, was not perceived to be a dominant ace become what looks like a dominant ace so quickly has to be unbearable.
First, Wacha comes within an out of a no hitter. Then he shuts down the Pirates in an elimination game for 7.1 innings. Then he shuts down the Dodgers for 6.2 innings against the Dodgers best starter, Clayton Kershaw, who will likely win the Cy Young and is probably the best pitcher in the game of baseball at the moment.
Michael Wacha was drafted in 2012.
Combine this impressive run with the bullpen support. The youth movement has reached fruition in the bullpen with arms like Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness leading the way. For all the questions surrounding Edward Mujica as the Cardinals entered the post-season, those questions still exist. They still exist for Mujica but hardly for the Cardinals. After collecting 37 saves this season, Mujica is a cipher unseen in playoff baseball. Trevor Rosenthal stands tall as a hard throwing (like seriously hard throwing) closer unthwarted by the pressures of late inning baseball.
The Cardinals have made due with what they've had. The idea that this was their plan at any point in the season -- to rely on a very green rookie starter and a very green bullpen -- is laughable. Instead, the team retained the players that it thought could contribute into October and remained as flexible as possible in their deployment of those players. The loss of Allen Craig was not ideal. The collapse of Mujica was unwanted. The absence of Shelby Miller is curious and worrisome.
Corporate e-mails -- and a baseball team is certainly a corporation -- are rife with stupid mission statements. Those mission statements invariably wind up on the bottom of signatures as executives try to push culture initiatives downward with varying degrees of success. I imagine the Cardinals corporate e-mail contains "2013 Cardinals: Risk Mitigation and Organizational Flexibility".
That is the skill that the club has evidenced when things have gone badly. Like any skill it is a mixture of talent and luck, not always repeatable to this degree but eminently important for as long as it lasts. It's unheralded and difficult to measure in a way that gives baseball analysts fits. How do you adequately describe the Cardinals depth when so much of it is comprised of middling players gone good and what seems to be superior player development starting at the lowest levels of the farm system?
The Cardinals now find themselves up two games to zero after Michael Wacha took down a giant and Joe Kelly was serviceable enough to allow the team to scratch out a win. (The Joe Kelly start remains ill-advised regardless of the results.) Those two games came against the Dodgers' best pitchers in games that they were favored to win.
When a team is "favored" in the post season, however, it's usually a slim margin and it's important to remember that any club can win any game. Take for instance game 1 against the Dodgers. The Cardinals were sending the clearly inferior Joe Kelly (who is a perfectly fine back end starter) against a high caliber Zack Greinke. What does the probability look like for the favored Dodgers? 55% chance to win if you go by Vegas Odds. Results may vary if you use a different simulation model.
For all the perceived value that being the favored team brings -- and you'd rather be favored, obviously -- that margin of superiority isn't necessarily very large. In game 1, that margin is further slimmed by the fact that the Cardinals were playing at home. Historically, home teams win about 54% of games, all other things being equal, by merit of getting to bat last. So the difference between Greinke and Kelly is actually a good bit larger than that 55% would suggest since the Cardinals were the home team.
Still, a 45% chance to win Game 1 is hardly insurmountable odds. This is why the post season is considered so viciously unpredictable. The odds are slimmer than usual (there are no truly bad teams left and the talent split between playoff teams is marginal) and the sample size is insignificant in the extreme.
And the Cardinals won. Play that game 1000 times and they probably win 45% but that isn't how playoff baseball works. Instead, for one game this week, Joe Kelly bested Zack Greinke and Michael Wacha bested Clayton Kershaw. The Cardinals find themselves up by two games with their ace, Adam Wainwright, on the mound for game 3.
The next game in St. Louis could be a World Series game.