ST. LOUIS — Seventeen days ago, Jake Westbrook was facing the possibility of surgery on his right elbow that could have ended his season. But a couple of hours before a scheduled flight to see Dr. James Andrews, Westbook played a game of catch. His arm felt so good that he didn’t step on the plane.
A few more bullpen sessions and two rehab starts later, Westbrook is set to return to the Cardinals’ rotation. He is scheduled to start Friday night at Miami against Marlins phenom Jose Fernandez.
So what happened? How did Westbrook go from surgery candidate to healthy starter practically overnight?
“I really can’t explain it,” said Westbrook, before theorizing a shot of cortisone might have taken a few days longer to work than was first expected.
Not that the “how” mattered much. “As long as I keep feeling great, I really don’t care,” he said.
Feeling great, of course, is a relative term for a 35-year-old right-hander who has pitched 1,670 big league innings. As Westbrook said, “It’s an elbow that has got a lot of miles on it” and has been “battling something pretty much since spring training.”
Despite the discomfort, Westbrook started strong, with a 2-1 record and 1.62 ERA in his first six starts. Now he says his elbow feels better than it has all year. “Hopefully, it continues to be that way,” he said.
Westbrook’s return appears to be coming at an ideal time. As well as the team’s rookies have pitched, counting on three of them in the rotation is asking a lot. Too much, probably, when you consider that 98 games remain on the schedule.
The rookies have started to show signs of vulnerability, too. Shelby Miller allowed more than three runs in a start for the first time in Wednesday night’s 5-1 loss to the Mets. Tyler Lyons has given up four runs in each of his past two starts after allowing only one in his first two. Michael Wacha dominated in his debut but was roughed up in his second start and struggled early in his third start.
Still, all have pitched well enough to force the Cardinals’ brain trust to make a difficult decision. When Westbrook is back in the rotation, who is bumped out? Well, not Miller, of course. You don’t remove a starter who is 7-4 with a 2.12 ERA and a legitimate candidate to make the All-Star team.
Among the other options:
* Send Wacha or Lyons back to Triple-A Memphis. Depending on how much the Cardinals factor in future financials (not much in this case, if you ask me), they could send down Wacha to stop his service-time clock. If he stays up the rest of the season, he probably would become Super-2 arbitration eligible after 2014. Reaching arbitration a year early likely could cost the Cardinals millions not only in his first year, but also in ensuing arbitration years.
* Put Wacha or Lyons in the bullpen and option another reliever. There are two other rookies to choose from, right-hander Keith Butler and lefty Kevin Siegrist.
Though Siegrist is the most recent arrival, he has looked very sharp in his three outings. He has allowed only one hit and one walk while getting 10 outs, eight of them by strikeout. Butler hasn’t been quite as effective, giving up three earned runs and walking six in 7 1/3 innings.
If I were making the call, Wacha would stay in the rotation, Lyons would head to the bullpen and Butler would be sent down. The Cardinals figure to announce the real decision sometime Thursday.
As you’d expect for a team with the majors’ best record, the Cardinals found themselves in the media spotlight on their trip to New York. Adam Wainwright made appearances on ESPN and the MLB Network, while Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly visited the MLB Fan Cave.
The Cardinals also caught the attention of Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, who is the best baseball writer in the land for my money. Citing the value of Yadier Molina as well as the team’s majors-leading run differential, ERA and hitting in the clutch, Verducci raised the possibility of St. Louis being a super team in a column this week. That would be a team, by his definition, that wins 100 games and the World Series.
Only four teams in the past 30 years have met the qualifications: the Tigers (1984), Mets (1986) and Yankees (1998 and 2009).
Manager Mike Matheny, a member of the 105-win Cardinals who were swept in the 2004 World Series, says this team has a chance. At least, it has met his first requirement.
“You have to prove it to yourself early,” Matheny said recently.
A strong start elevates the expectations, builds confidence and puts a team in line for a special season.
“Sometimes you get in a situation where you anticipate winning every night, and it’s a pretty fun experience,” Matheny said.
ADAMS’ TIME IS COMING
No team has played fewer interleague games than the Cardinals, who went 3-1 in a home-and-home four-day series against the Royals. But that will change near the end of the month.
No one will be happier than Matt Adams. With an eight-game trip to Houston, Oakland and Anaheim starting June 25, Adams figures to get his most-regular playing time of the season. If he’s not DHing, he’ll likely be at first, which will allow Matheny to use the DH for the likes of Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran.
Adams has adjusted nicely to his part-time role, especially for a rookie. He has managed to keep his batting average well above .300 — he’s at .329 — despite playing only 15 games at first base and appearing in 18 as a pinch-hitter.
It should be fun to see how he responds to a run of regular duty. Especially for him.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.