On Wednesday, the St. Louis Cardinals announced that veteran John Lackey would start Friday and youngster Michael Wacha Saturday against the Cincinnati Reds. The Cardinals had previously tapped the brakes for each right-hander, by giving them a turn through the rotation off. Now the club's foot is back on the pedal, accelerating toward the finish line of a division race and hopeful October berth via second consecutive Central title.
Derrick Goold reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the Michael Wacha situation. In an article rich with quotes from Cardinals decision-makers, general manager John Mozeliak (the most important decision-maker regarding team personnel) observed that the organization's position with a handful of games to go was "not ideal." Mozeliak was referring to the Cardinals only being able to get Wacha innings of adversarial pitching at the big-league level—with the minor-league seasons over, no rehab stint is possible—but he could've been talking about the St. Louis rotation over all.
Cards rotation is jumbled heading to October
The slowdown of Michael Wacha, skipping the start of John Lackey, and the late-season effectiveness of Shelby Miller have caused confusion for the current state of the rotation as well as the playoff status for the Cardinals' staff.
With two weeks until October, the Cardinals face as many rotation question marks as they did at the trade deadline, questions that the acquisitions of veterans Justin Masterson and Lackey were supposed to answer. With Masterson flaming out in spectacular fashion (as a Cardinal: 7.53 ERA, 6.02 FIP, 4.17 xFIP), the Wacha cavalry charging down the October hill has become more important than ever.
On Sunday, I noted the gap between Matheny's words and actions on the night Wacha last started against the Reds, on Friday when the manager announced the Cardinals were going to have the Aggie skip his next scheduled start, and Wacha's explanation for what was going on. Matheny focused on how Wacha looked; Wacha discussed how he didn't feel quite right.
From Goold's article on Wacha:
"We’re buying time," Matheny said. "It’s a new schedule. We have a guy we’re making sure is right. We don’t have anywhere to send him to go pitch. We don't. We’ve got to get the work in somehow while also monitoring how much and have everybody keep eyes on how he’s responding, how his arm is holding up. It’s a unique injury. We don’t have a lot of protocol for that. So we don’t know exactly what that looks like. So the answer is this is something that we’re just trying to feel our way through to protect this kid. But also, if we can, we’ve got to take our best shot. And I believe with him on the mound we’ll take it."
The idea is that when right, Wacha can be a game-changer.
"But he has to be right," Mozeliak said.
Before Sunday's game, Wacha threw a bullpen session of about 30 pitches and told Jim Hayes of Fox Sports Midwest that he felt great afterward. For their part, the Cardinals were more cautious—Matheny stated they would take a wait-and-see approach on Wacha. Matheny and Wacha's reactions seemed to confirm that the Cardinals' decision to pause Wacha was based on how he felt. After all, the righty either looked good or he didn't during his bullpen session. The Cardinals understandably wanted to see how his body responded after the bullpen session; that is, how he felt.
Apparently Wacha's last two trips to the Busch Stadium practice mound have led the Cards to believe that he's right, or at least close enough to merit starting on Saturday with a 70-pitch limit in the hopes of getting him ready for a full postseason starter's workload. Is it full throttle ahead? Perhaps. There could be more fits and starts ahead, or the Cards might decide caution dictates shutting Wacha down. For now, Wacha feels right enough in the Cardinals' eyes to give starting another go. The Cardinals are banking on the same difference-maker taking the hill that they saw last October.
For his part, Matheny seems to be of a full-steam-ahead-to-win-now mindset:
"I don't see us going backwards," Matheny said in answering a question about potential pitch count. "I think we'll have kind of a number in mind. If he looks good, we'll stretch him. If he doesn't, we're not going to necessarily have to push it to a number. We have to win a game."
Lackey, the salty bulldog, whose postseason credentials have been touted since the club sent Joe Kelly and Allen Craig to Boston in exchange for his services got a break himself. Unlike Wacha, Lackey's turn of the rotation off due to shoulder tightness or dead arm (both descriptions have been used) was against the pitcher's wishes. Lackey's health issue is far more nebulous than Wacha's. The veteran has received no diagnosis, nor has he spent time on the disabled list. Nonetheless, the Cardinals made a similar calculation to the one with Wacha: rest was the best bet to get the pitcher right for the home stretch of the pennant race and whatever might lie beyond.
This weekend and in the weeks ahead, we'll see if the Cardinals' decision to give Wacha and Lackey rest enables the pitchers to go from question marks to answers in the St. Louis rotation.