An inch in either direction. A more on-target throw from short. A first baseman with longer arms.
If Michael Wacha had even one of these things working for him on Ryan Zimmerman's ground ball with two outs in the ninth inning on Tuesday night, the young St. Louis Cardinals right-hander would have pitched a no-hitter against the Washington Nationals.
Instead, Zimmerman's weak grounder past the mound was an infield hit, and Wacha walked off the mound with 8.2 innings of one-hit ball on the scorecard. "Darn," said the denizens of Busch Stadium, despite the team's 2-0 win.
But all's well that ends well, and a gem is a gem is a gem. And since this was a gem thrown by a promising young pitcher on a team that has a known tendency to play deep into October, we have to ask...
Is Michael Wacha's gem basically a warning shot? Should fellow World Series seekers be more wary of the Cardinals' starting pitching than they were before? I don't think so, no. If anything, it ought to be more frightening for possible opponents to consider what Wacha's spectacular form could mean for St. Louis' pitching in general—not just its starting pitching.
But first, let's clear up why I don't see the starters being any more formidable than before. That's not meant to be a slight, as this is a rotation that was formidable enough before Wacha went out and flirted with history.
Per FanGraphs, the Cards' starting pitching staff was tied for fourth in MLB in ERA heading into Tuesday's action. That Wacha fired eight-and-two-thirds innings of shutout ball certainly isn't going to hurt that cause, and the team's high standing in the ERA ranks is indeed reflective of the kind of talent Mike Matheny has at his disposal.
Adam Wainwright is the Cardinals' Game 1 guy, and he's definitely capable of matching up against the Clayton Kershaws, Mat Latoses (Lati?) and Max Scherzers of the world (or whichever other aces the Cardinals happen to bump up against in October). He has a 3.01 ERA and is the National League leader in complete games, innings and walks per nine innings.
After him could come Joe Kelly, who has a 2.06 ERA in a dozen starts since the All-Star break. Or it could be Shelby Miller, whose ERA was under 3.00 as recently as Aug. 24. Or it could be Lance Lynn, who has shrugged off a bad slump by allowing only three earned runs in his last 18.1 innings.
Or heck, maybe it'll be Wacha following Wainwright in the postseason rotation. He looks like a halfway decent candidate now after stifling the Nationals, and it should be noted that he and Lynn were tied for the second-highest post-break fWAR on the Cardinals going into Tuesday night. Wacha will presumably be in the lead for the time being.
But to a certain degree, it doesn't really matter how Matheny lines them up after Wainwright. What prospective opponents would have to prepare themselves for would be killer control and pitching know-how in Game 1, and then lots of heat. Per Brooks Baseball, Kelly, Miller, Lynn and Wacha all throw their fastballs in the mid-90s. In a short series, the Cardinals have the arms to flat-out overpower opponents.
And now for the obligatory "But..."
The Cardinals' starting pitching staff has a notable Achilles heel, and that's a relative lack of innings eaters. This points us to the real bummer of Wacha's gem as it relates to St. Louis' postseason outlook, as it's not something that has the potential to fix said Achilles' heel.
Wainwright can definitely eat innings. Lynn's not as prolific as him, but he is averaging better than six innings per start. The catch is that Miller's not (5.6 IP/GS). Nor is Kelly (5.8 IP/GS). And up until his Tuesday night gem, Wacha (5.7 IP/GS) was failing to average six innings per start as well.
And this makes sense. The Cardinals plucked Joe Kelly out of their bullpen when they needed a body for their rotation. Miller and Wacha are both young arms that the team is keen on protecting. Miller has tended to stay glued to 100 pitches, and Wacha's 112-pitch effort against the Nats was only his second journey across the 100-pitch threshold.
Whether or not the Cardinals will be willing to let him do so again is the dilemma here.
When Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported earlier this month that Wacha was being reinserted into the starting rotation, he noted that the Cards want to limit Wacha's innings this season and that their initial September plan for him was to use him out of the bullpen.
Wacha went into Tuesday night's outing with a total of 141 innings under his belt between Triple-A and the majors. Add another 8.2 onto that, and he's darn near 150 innings for the season. This is up from a total of 134.1 between college and the pros in 2012, and there's more on the way.
There lies the tough decision facing Matheny and Co. following Wacha's near-no-no. They have to decide how many more innings they want to risk putting on Wacha's 22-year-old arm.
All I can do is guess. And given the amount of innings he already has on his arm and the amount of effort it took for him to flirt with history on Tuesday night, I have an easier time imagining Wacha going into St. Louis' postseason bullpen than I do him going into St. Louis' postseason rotation.
But that also strikes me as the best idea for Wacha. He's definitely proven he can cut it as a starter in his nine starts, but he's also proven that he can cut it as a reliever. And not just any reliever, as this footage can show:
Brooks Baseball says that Wacha was averaging between 97 and 98 mph with his heater in that outing, and you can see the damage he was doing with his Looney Tunes changeup. That he did this over four full innings only adds to the aura and indeed casts him as a guy who could be an unusual asset in postseason play.
What's the right place for Michael Wacha in the Cardinals' playoff plans?
Michael Wacha could be for the Cardinals this year what Tim Lincecum was for the Giants last year: a guy who could come in and clean up after a lackluster performance from a starting pitcher. And given that Lance Lynn can be hit-or-miss and Miller and Kelly are both short-outing guys, the Cardinals should want to have a guy like that in their pen heading into October.
The Cardinals are a team to be feared either way. If they go all-in by using Wacha as a part of their postseason rotation, teams will have to prepare to face a legit ace in Adam Wainwright and then lots of overpowering stuff that could end the series in a hurry. If the Cardinals put Wacha in their bullpen instead, they'll have Wainwright, heat and a long reliever who damn near pitched a no-hitter in the middle of a pennant race.
I feel compelled to say that only the freakin' Cardinals could pull that off.
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