After missing nearly three months with a shoulder injury, Michael Wacha returned to the St. Louis Cardinals rotation on Thursday night. He was limited to three innings, over which he allowed one run on three hits with one walk and three strikeouts. Rookie pitcher Marco Gonzales three 2.1 innings in relief of Wacha, helping to bridge the gap to the back of the bullpen. With the victory over the Milwaukee Brewers, the Cardinals increased their lead in the NL Central to four games.
Losing Wacha was a big blow for the Cardinals. The 23 year-old right-hander had picked up where he left off last postseason. Last October Wacha burst onto the scene, allowing just nine runs in five postseason starts with 33 strikeout and 12 walks. He won four of those starts. Wacha was named MVP for his performance in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers, a series in which he hurled 13.2 shutout innings with 13 strikeouts and two walks.
Before landing on the disabled list, Wacha had made 15 starts. Over 90.1 innings, he had authored a 2.79 ERA with strikeout and walk rates of 22.6 percent and 7.0 percent, respectively. Opposing hitters had managed a meager .222/.286/.317 batting line against the big right-hander. In addition to his low to mid 90s heat and devastating changeup, Wacha was mixing in a much improved curveball, with positive results.
The return of Wacha is key for the Cardinals, whose starting rotation ranks just 18th in baseball in fWAR with 8.7. Ace Adam Wainwright has a nice 2.69 ERA, but his strikeout rate has dropped by more than three percentage points to 19.7 percent. As a consequence, his park-adjusted xFIP has risen to 94. Lance Lynn is having a very good year, but beyond that, the Cards rotation has been in flux.
Shelby Miller has been a disaster, and his 4.79 FIP is the 3rd highest among qualified starting pitchers. Jaime Garcia impressed for seven starts before his shoulder issues flared up again. Carlos Martinez has electric stuff, but no weapons with which to go after left-handed hittes. Tyler Lyons and Marco Gonzales are not yet ready for starting duty. Joe Kelly was traded away, and John Lackey represents an upgrade. The newly acquired Justin Masterson was disastrous and is now in the bullpen. Overall, the Cardinals have used 11 different starting pitchers.
The Cardinals won’t rush Wacha. He threw just 35 pitches in his only rehab appearance, and they limited him to three innings Thursday night. They will attempt to build his pitch count over his remaining three regular season scheduled starts. If he’s fully healthy they will be in prime shape to head into October with a rotation that features Wainwright, Wacha, Lynn and Lackey. That’s a daunting task for opposing hitters.