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What is Michael Wacha's role in the St. Louis Cardinals' NLCS bullpen?

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Based on manager Mike Matheny's words and actions, it appears that Michael Wacha is the Cardinals' extra-innings pitcher of last resort.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

St. Louis Cardinals righthander Michael Wacha warmed up in the bullpen during the waning moments of the Cards' hideous National League Championship Series Game 4 loss in San Francisco. Wacha's ninth-inning bullpen session was the second time manager Mike Matheny called on the righty to get loose in the NLCS (after not dialing Wacha's number on the bullpen phone once during the NLDS). Game 4 marked the second time Wacha got loose in the series and didn't appear in a game. So this October Wacha hasn't thrown a pitch in game action.

By now you know the arc of Wacha's second MLB season. There was the excellent start derailed by the singular shoulder injury. An extended disabled-list stay gave way to a late-August minor-league rehab start that lasted all of 34 pitches in Springfield due to the end of the season for non-playoff farm teams. Then the Cards thrust Wacha into a pennant-race rehab stint, which they paused because he didn't look or feel right. After being activated from the DL, Wacha wasn't sharp, so the Cards relegated him to the October bullpen, where he's gone unused through eight postseason games.

After NLCS Game 1, Derrick Goold reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that Matheny explained Wacha's role as that of an extra-inning safety net:

"Michael gives us definitely some flexibility, and we can use him in a different role, but right now that’s pretty valuable to us knowing that we can be quick (to other relievers), like we were," Matheny said. "It leaves a huge need in case we come back and tie the game."

Then, in NLCS Game 3, the Cardinals and Giants played into extra innings. Wacha was nowhere to be found. Instead, Matheny went with Lefty One Out Guy (LOOGY) Randy Choate. It didn't end well. So it seemed that Wacha was not just an extra-inning specialist but the pitcher of last resort in extras.

After Wacha got loose during the Cards' poorly played Game 4 loss, per STL Baseball Weekly's Brian Stull, Matheny reiterated the role he has given Wacha this postseason:

"We haven’t had a situation really to get him in there that he’s going to get stretched out like we need him to. We’re also in that spot that if we get a chance to get somebody on and hit a home run and we don’t have anybody at the back end of this game to throw multiple innings, we’re in bad shape.

"Exactly the same situation I told you before the first series. This is (Wacha’s) role right now. Now it could change tomorrow, since we have used the bullpen pretty hard. It could be different. You know, we keep kind of talking about this, but it’s the same answer and this is what he’s going to have to be prepared for–and he will. And when he gets his chance, I know he’ll be sharp."

The Cardinals have placed Wacha in the same role that Shelby Miller filled a year ago, a job that is effectively a sentence to postseason bullpen purgatory. Wacha is the reliever Matheny doesn't want to use unless he absolutely has to use him. To Matheny, Choate is a more palatable option in the fifth or tenth inning than Wacha this October. Put otherwise: Wacha is the pitcher of last resort for Matheny.

In hindsight, we should have seen this coming from the day Wacha's exclusion from the NLDS rotation was announced.

When the Cardinals announced their Wacha-less NLDS rotation, Matheny explained the decision and the plan for the Aggie's deployment thusly, per Jenifer Langosch of MLB.com:

"He's been progressively getting better, but it's a tough time to try and continue to work on things," Matheny said of Wacha. "But we like him. We like him in any situation, and we explained to him that there is the potential that that could change over time. He's got to stay ready, be available in the 'pen, and if we're fortunate enough to move forward, things could be different.

"It's been a challenge for him with the injury that he had and the time that he took. He's made great adjustments, but right now we have to go with the guys who we believe are going to give us the best shot."

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"We aren't where we are right now if we haven't had the guys who are in our bullpen already doing what they've done," Matheny said. "To bail on that right now isn't the game plan. [Wacha] is going to be an extra weapon for us. We'll obviously see what we need."

This statement should have told us everything about how Matheny views the bullpen generally and Wacha's place in it specifically.

  1. Matheny likes Wacha. Duh, don't we all?
  2. Wacha is not right after his return from his shoulder injury and therefore doesn't give the Cards the best chance to win.
  3. Matheny is a man of bullpen roles.
  4. Matheny will not displace a reliever in an established bullpen role in favor of Wacha.
  5. Wacha is a complementary relief option subsidiary to the other established bullpenners.

These realities explain why the manager has ordered Wacha to get loose on two occasions: (1) In Game 2, when extra innings appeared an inevitability and he had one other option (Marco Gonzales); and (2) In Game 4, when extra innings were a possibility and he wanted to save closer Trevor Rosenthal for the save situation. The "extra weapon" designation Matheny gave Wacha before the NLDS has revealed itself to mean "extra-inning weapon of last resort."