The Cardinals got a taste Sunday of how well things can work when it all comes together.
Desperately needing a win over the Pittsburgh Pirates to extend their lead in the NL Central instead of handing control back over to the Bucs, the Redbirds were forced to rely on rookie starter Michael Wacha. And the kid was nothing short of spectacular.
Wacha hurled seven shutout innings with only two hits and two walks allowed. On the rare occasions he got into any trouble, it seemed that the St. Louis rookie could summon a double play at will.
The Redbirds needed to make a statement in their last series with Pittsburgh. And they did nothing less in a three-game sweep in which they out-scored the Bucs 26-10 -- and all 10 of the Pirates runs, arguably, came in mop up time with the scrubs in the game for both sides.
The Birds started the series out of the NL Central lead by 1/2 a game. They ended it 1 1/2 games ahead of the Pittsburghers. If the Pirates aren't in a panic, their fans certainly are. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's game story was met by a wall of negativity in the comments section, most remarks were of the "It's over, and didn't we really know this was going to happen the whole time?" variety.
Meanwhile, Wacha's performance has suddenly made the prospect of what the heck the Cardinals were going to do for pitching in the post season a whole lot brighter.
Is Wacha ready for the playoffs? Well... couldn't it be argued that his last two appearances against the Reds and the Pirates -- two teams the Birds are battling for the division crown and one of which they could expect to meet in a potential wild card game -- were really playoff games? If so, Wacha passed the test. He threw a combined 13 shutout innings against those two teams in the last week, allowing a combined total of five hits.
While no one can guarantee that Wacha is going to throw a gem every time out, let's not expect him to go on a career-altering tangent like one-time St. Louis pitching prospect Rick Ankiel. Remember that Ankiel was not old enough to drink a beer when he made his Cardinals playoff debut. He never set foot in a college classroom. Wacha pitched in competitive Big 12 games with Texas A&M. He's a lot farther along then Ankiel -- who had problems with wildness before he lost it on national television.
While Wacha might be the answer for the hole in the St. Louis pitching rotation, the Birds got some other answers from guys already on the roster.
Shortstop Pete Kozma, who looked as if he completely forgot to hit after the All-Star Game, has suddenly shown signs of regaining his stroke. He put together a couple of infield hits before he smacked a double Sunday. And he also worked a walk, something that seemed impossible even a few days ago. And David Freese, who has had a power outage all season, has hit a pair of homers over the last week. He's going to have to fill the hole left by the injury to Allen Craig.