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Pitching plans for the stretch run

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With a playoff berth at stake, how will the Cardinals arrange their starting rotation?

Scott Kane-USA TODAY Sports

For a Cardinals rotation that has generally been hailed as the team’s greatest strength in 2018, the starting pitching situation has been murky as of late to say the least. Michael Wacha hasn’t toed an MLB mound since June 20 and has since been ruled out for the season with an oblique injury. Carlos Martinez’s last start came on July 30, Alex Reyes succumbed to injury after a single game, and Luke Weaver was yanked from the rotation following an extended rough patch performance-wise.

Adam Wainwright, who missed the better part of four months due to elbow issues, has evidently earned himself another start after his nine-strikeout performance on Sunday. It also appears that the rotation spot belonging to Austin Gomber, today’s probable starter, is his to lose as we enter the final few weeks of the regular season. With expanded rosters, increased bullpen flexibility given St. Louis’ plethora of “stretched out” arms, and a pair of off-days both this Thursday and next, the Cardinals have the ability to get creative with the way they manage their pitching staff as the wild card race heads for the final turn. Let’s walk through some of those scenarios.

But first, here are how things currently line up.

Assuming Mikolas, Flaherty, Gomber, and Wainwright all remain in the rotation, the only pressing question regarding the regular season would be who receives the ball in game two of the series against the Brewers. Even if Luke Weaver is not to be trusted, options including John Gant, Daniel Poncedeleon, and Tyson Ross–not to mention 10 other relief pitchers–could bridge their way through nine-innings without a traditional starting pitcher that day (although Gant or Poncedeleon in particular are perfectly capable of starting if need be).

I’m already panicking about a potential tie-breaker and Wild Card Game.

As you may have noticed, both Mikolas and Flaherty are slated to pitch on the final weekend of the regular season, which would likely render the Cardinals without either of their services in a potential tie-breaker game. Granted, a team’s primary focus should simply be to win its regular season games and avoid that situation altogether, but by moving both of Mikolas’ starts up a game–with the one against the Giants now coming on short rest–he would be on the standard four days’ rest for a game 163. Flaherty and Gomber’s starts don’t need to be flipped–which would force Flaherty to pitch today on three days’ rest–but doing so would allow Flaherty to pitch in a significantly greater capacity in the NL Wild Card Game on October 2.

Let’s squeeze an extra Mikolas start into the schedule.

Both of the previous two calendars share one thing in common: Mikolas and Flaherty combine to make six of the final 12 starts for St. Louis. The above schedule can be slightly altered depending on whether one prefers Wainwright or Gomber, but the point remains that an outing originally allocated to them now goes to Mikolas, who pitches in each of the last four series. The major drawback to this plan is that Mikolas, already approaching last year’s career high in innings pitched (188) with the Yomiuri Giants in 2017, must make two starts on short rest. His September 25 start could be moved back a day so as not to strain his arm with back-to-back starts on three-days’ rest, but that is nonetheless quite the burden on Mikolas physically.

I wasn’t kidding. I only trust Mikolas and Flaherty.

This is arguably the most aggressive of the four plans–one that I preface this by saying almost certainly has zero chance of actually being implemented by Mike Shildt and Co. It calls for Mikolas and Flaherty to work on three-days’ rest for every start the rest of the way while Wainwright and Gomber alternate making the other start in a series. This should liberate Gant and Poncedeleon, for example, from the confines of piggyback starting or waiting in the wings as an emergency starter, but even 70-75 pitches a game might be excessively pushing the envelop with Mikolas and Flaherty at this stage in the season and on this type of throwing schedule. The Cardinals would be placing great trust in their bullpen by asking them to cover more innings per game. In short, this pitching schedule asks you to determine how valuable it is to limit non-Mikolas-or-Flaherty starts and weigh that against the increased burden on the bullpen.