Michael Wacha was a revelation last fall.
With the St. Louis Cardinals trailing the Pittsburgh Pirates 2-1 in last year's NLDS, Wacha took the ball in Pittsburgh and pitched more like a grizzled October veteran than a fresh-faced rookie. Wacha responded to Pirates fans tauntingly chanting his name as if he liked it, allowing just one run (on a solo homer to the second-to-last batter he faced) over 7 1/3 innings while notching nine strikeouts and issuing two walks. The Cards won the game, forcing Game 5 in St. Louis. Adam Wainwright started that game and snuffed out the Buccos, propelling the Cards to the NLCS.
With Wainwright starting the decisive game of the NLCS, Wacha drew NLCS Game 2. He would square off against back-to-back National League Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw. Wacha was up to the challenge.
Kershaw lasted six innings, allowing one run on two hits and a walk while striking out five Cardinals. Wacha did Kershaw two-thirds better, tossing 6 2/3 innings and allowing no runs on five hits and a walk while striking out nine. My favorite of Wacha's K's that afternoon was the one of Yasiel Puig that ended with this swing:
The Cardinals took a commanding 2-0 series lead thanks in large part to Wacha's sterling start. In Game 6, it was Kershaw vs. Wacha II. And the Redbird rookie was once again ready for the reigning two-time Cy Young winner. But in the rematch, there was nowhere near as much drama.
The Cards plated four in the third against Kershaw and scored five more runs against L.A. in the fifth. Kershaw did not retire even one of the three Cardinals he faced in the fifth. Manager Don Mattingly pulled his ace mid-inning. Kershaw's final line was ghastly: 4 IP, 10 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 2 BB, 5 K. Wacha, on the other hand, was brilliant once again. With a comfortable lead, he cruised through seven innings of two-hit baseball, walking one, striking out five, and allowing no runs. The Cards won the game 9-0 and the series 4-2. Wacha was named the NLCS MVP.
That is how good we know Wacha can be in October. The thought of Wacha healthy enough to start for the Cards again this postseason is an undeniably enticing one. Especially since, before a stress reaction in Wacha's throwing shoulder caused him to miss a huge chunk of the season, the righty was probably even better this spring than he was last autumn.
On the one hand, it seems like a simple decision. If you have a healthy Wacha, you start him. But the month of September makes the call more difficult. It's a decision that, in some ways, harks back to 2012.
A year after anchoring the Cardinals pitching staff during the club's magical run to the organization's eleventh World Series title, veteran ace Chris Carpenter had his 2012 derailed by Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. The ultimate remedy was Thoracic Outlet release surgery, in which surgeons removed a rib and bits of muscle from just under Carpenter's throwing shoulder. The surgery was supposed to be season-ending, but Carp somehow worked his way back and was throwing for the Cardinals in MLB games in September. It was an amazing feat of willpower and determination.
The only problem was the Carp of 2012 wasn't the Carp of 2011. Carpenter could no longer spot his pitches with that T-1000 precision we were all so used to seeing. Oftentimes, it looked as if Carpenter wasn't entirely sure where the ball would go when it left his hand. To watch Carpenter pitch in the fall of 2012 was to watch a broken-down shell of the man who started Game 7 of the World Series the year before. Carp was getting by on competitive fire and veteran guile. His body had betrayed him and his stuff wasn't what it had been or what he needed it to be.
The Cardinals nonetheless decided to bet on Carpenter that postseason and, at least according to general manager John Mozeliak, felt good about their wager. Past postseason performances had overshadowed the physical capabilities Carpenter possessed then and there. The Cardinals installed Carp in their postseason rotation despite how dull his pitching had been during limited big-league action in September.
Carpenter was shaky against Washington in NLDS Game 3. He allowed seven hits and issued two walks in 5 2/3 innings, yet somehow managed not to allow a run as the Cards won the game 8-0. But Carp was unable to defy the gravity of the baserunners he allowed (or fielding miscues) against the Giants in the NLCS. Carpenter lasted four innings in Game 2, allowing five runs (but just two earned) on six hits (one homer) and two walks; the Cards lost 7-1. In Game 6, Carpenter once again tossed just four innings even though he pitched a bit better: 5 R, 2 ER, 6 H, 2 BB, 5 K. The Cardinals lost their postseason gamble with Carp.
It appears that general manager John Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny have perhaps learned a lesson from betting on Carpenter in 2012. While Wacha's track record is not as long as the seasoned Carpenter, he is nonetheless a weapon gilded in the fires of postseasons past and an enticing option for any manager, field or general. But it appears that Mozeliak and Matheny approached the Wacha decision clear-eyed, objectively assessing where the young righthander's stuff was and concluding it wasn't sharp enough to be trusted with postseason starts. The Cardinals aren't going to bet on Wacha regaining his form during the playoffs the same way they did with Carpenter two years ago. And that's a good thing.
Mozeliak had this to say to KMOX's Chris Hrabe about Wacha not making the NLDS rotation:
Mozeliak on Wacha to pen: "Frankly, he's getting close to being back to where he once was. Unfortunately, we just sort of ran out of time."— Chris Hrabe (@chrabe) October 1, 2014
Per MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch, Matheny explained the club's decision:
"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."
For his part, Wacha recognizes that he isn't where he needs to be in order to start during the NLDS. STL Baseball Weekly's Brian Stull quoted Wacha as follows:
"I was kind of expecting it–never made it back to where I wanted to be as a starter, but just happy that they’re going to take a little chance on me in the bullpen."
If 100% healthy and sharp, the decision to start Wacha is a no-brainer. But Wacha isn't at 100% effectiveness for whatever reason. Because of this, the Cardinals have made a wise decision to relegate Wacha to the pen and start Shelby Miller. As Matheny indicated, this is a decision that will help the Cardinals' chances of winning the NLDS. The Cardinals made the right decision.