Not long after the Cardinals sent down rookie right-hander Michael Wacha in mid-June, they gave him a couple of extended breaks. He ended up pitching 27 1/3 innings in a seven-week stretch through July. He wasn’t injured or in need of time off. The Cardinals wanted to bank some innings for the stretch.
Well, the stretch has arrived and their decision is paying off.
Finishing off what was as fine a weekend as the Cardinals have enjoyed at Busch Stadium all season, Wacha shut out the Pirates on two hits for seven innings in a 9-2 victory Sunday afternoon.
The Cardinals never trailed in sweeping the three-game series during which they outscored the Pirates 26-10. St. Louis trailed the Pirates by 1 1/2 games when the weekend started but now lead by 1 1/2 games with 20 days left in the season.
With the Cardinals off Monday and the Pirates in Texas to face Yu Darvish, St. Louis could have its largest lead in the division since July 26 by the end of Monday night. The Pirates, meanwhile, haven’t won since last Tuesday when their 81st victory assured them of ending their record run of 20 straight losing seasons.
When the Cardinals started the home stand, manager Mike Matheny was addressing concerns about a rotation that had seen everyone but Joe Kelly falter in recent weeks.
“Our success and our struggles had been very closely tied with the quality of starting pitching we’ve gotten all season,” Matheny said.
They got nothing but high-quality outings from Kelly, Adam Wainwright and Wacha against the Pirates. The three starters allowed a total of one run in 20 innings, with each start more impressive than the previous.
“I tried to tell myself I’m going to try and match what they were doing out there,” Wacha said.
With a few more strikeouts, he would have copied Wainwright’s line from Saturday night almost to the number. Wainwright finished with eight strikeouts while walking two and giving up two hits; Wacha struck out only two while allowing the same number of walks and hits.
When the offense broke through for five runs in the first two innings, Wacha’s job became less stressful. Leadoff man Matt Carpenter — who else — led the way by scoring twice and collecting two hits and an RBI. In the process, he also set the record at new Busch for hits in a season (100) and added to his majors-leading totals of multi-hit games (56) and doubles (48).
Carpenter had ample help, though, including two runs and two hits from Pete Kozma and Jon Jay, and two hits and another RBI from David Freese.
“They came out with an edge and they never really lost it,” Matheny said. “They can sense the excitement that comes with this kind of baseball this time of year. The guys who have been here before and won realize the pinnacle of this game is being able to play right now when it matters.”
It doesn’t seem to matter to Wacha that he’s a newcomer to pennant races. He has upped his scoreless streak to 19 2/3 innings, matching Joe Kelly for the team’s longest of the season, with all of the innings coming against likely playoff teams.
“I’ve played in some big-time games before in college,” Wacha said.”This is different for sure but it helped me going to (Texas) A&M and playing in those big-time games.”
Best of all for the Cardinals, Wacha appears to have plenty left in his right arm for whatever remains of the season. The way he is pitching, he could end up ahead of Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn in consideration for playoff starts.
Thanks to the mid-season breaks, general manager John Mozeliak said the other day that Wacha’s workland should not be limited the rest of the season. Besides banking some innings, the time off also gave Wacha a chance to refine a delivery that had gone slightly awry during his first callup in June.
“His front foot contact and his release point were really off,” Matheny said. “He went back and fixed it. Now we’re seeing very similar things to what we saw in spring.”
What the Cardinals saw then was a lean 6-6 right-hander who throws a high-90 mph fastball from a downhill plane that hitters don’t often see. Wacha’s curve was working well enough against Pittsburgh that he used it numerous times when he was behind in the count. And remember, Matheny has called Wacha’s changeup the best in the organization.
When talking to Wainwright earlier this season about the Cardinals’ 2014 rotation, I mentioned Wacha but said it was probably too soon to pencil him in. Wainwright shook his head. “He’ll be ready,” Wainwright said.
Wacha is proving he’s already ready. Thanks, in part, to the Cardinals’ mid-season innings investment.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.