St. Louis Cardinals

September 3, 2014

'Anxious to see him': Cards eager for Wacha's return to the mound

We shouldn't make a big deal of this.

Aw, what the heck: Let's make a big deal of this.

The St. Louis Cardinals may be seeing into October when prized right-hander Michael Wacha takes the mound in Milwaukee tonight.

Wacha, the Cards' best pitcher last October, rejoins the staff this September, making his first appearance since early summer. He last pitched on June 17 -- 79 days ago -- before landing on the disabled list with a stress reaction behind his pitching shoulder..

If that only seems like a lifetime for a team looking for stability in its rotation as the pennant race reaches its final three weeks ... well, there you are.

"We're anxious to see him come back," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said Wednesday. "Every guy we've had go down ... every time we get a piece back, it's just another weapon we have, and another active part that helps us come together as a club."

Yadier Molina is back behind the plate, and the Cards -- not coincidentally -- are 5-1 with him in the lineup. Matt Holliday is putting up his typical late-season rush, gunning for a ninth-straight season of at least 20 homers and 75 RBIs. Adam Wainwright is trying to get past the dog days of August with a strong final month, aiming for his second 20-win season in St. Louis.

Would any of them mean more to the Cards than a healthy Wacha? A healthy, raring-to-go, give-me-the-ball Wacha?

"I wanted to be back a month ago, but I'm happy with where I am coming back right now," Wacha told reporters at Busch this week. "I'm ready to get it started again. The command is still on its way with offspeed pitches.

"But other than that, I felt like the velocity was there. Everything else will come."

Surely, the Cardinals would welcome back a healthy Wacha at any point. But no better time than the opener of a four-game set in Milwaukee, the club closest to the Cardinals as they try to win the National League Central title.

"We've put him tested through fire last year," Matheny said. "Big situations, I don't think get the best of him, I think it brings the better out of him.

"He's a guy that doesn't overthink, he goes out and makes pitches. He keeps it very simple regardless of what the situation is."

Simple? Wacha, 23, was simply sensational in the playoffs last fall, winning his first four starts including a scintillating one-hit win over Pittsburgh in the Division Series, two commanding wins over Los Angeles in the Championship Series, and a win in his World Series debut in Game 2 against Boston.

He ran out of magic in a Game 6 loss in Boston, ending the Cardinals' season and his coming-out party on the national baseball stage.

His first full season as a starter was truncated this June, when the irritation near his shoulder blade grew too intense for him to continue pitching. At 5-5 with a 2.69 ERA in 15 starts, Wacha was just starting to show signs of the dominant pitcher the Cardinals expect him to be: He struck out 83 in 90 1/3 innings, allowing only 75 hits while holding opposing batters to a .222 batting mark.

Those numbers will change, for better or worse, when Wacha faces the Brewers tonight after one minor-league outing at Class AA Springfield on Sunday. He pitched two innings, giving up one hit while throwing 34 pitches, 24 of them strikes.

"The ball was coming out clean and he felt free and easy and there was nothing forced in his actions," said Springfield manager Mike Schildt, who was Matheny's guest in the dugout before the game Wednesday. "His velocity was what we would expect it to be coming time back. He felt good afterawards and that was the main consideration."

The Brewers are not a Double-A club in Tulsa, though. And Wacha will be watched carefully on his way to a pitch limit Matheny described Wednesday as "60ish."

"His location is going to be that next thing," Matheny said. "I know the arm feels right, the ball was coming out well, the changeup and breaking ball looked good. The thing is executing in the right part of the zone. That's going to come."

If anything, the Cardinals were trying to downplay Wacha's appearance against the Brewers, saying there's no more importance to this start than any other as September winds down.

"There's going to be a lot of talk about ... going into Milwaukee, and that's just a distraction we don't need," Matheny said. "We've got to go out there and play the game, regardless who it's against, regardless of who's pitching for or against (us). We've got to continue to play the game the right way, and Michael's going to help set the tone for that.

"Basic point right there: It's just another game. We've got to win every game, and that's the way we look at it. Doesn't matter if it's against Milwaukee or whoever else you want to put in that category.

"Trying to put more onto that series, more onto that game, more onto Michael ... it doesn't make for good baseball."

Too bad, Skip. If it's all right with you, we're going to make a big deal of it anyway.

Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has written about the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since 1985. He can be reached at (618) 239-2512, at jostermeier@bnd.com, or on Twitter @joeostermeier.

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