Cheap Seats

Cardinals pitcher shows he’s still capable of being a top starter

A month ago, St. Louis Cardinals starter Michael Wacha was one bad outing away from losing his spot in the starting rotation.

With an earned run average nearing 5.00 and a streak during which he failed to make it through five innings for five out of six games, many Redbirds rooters were starting to wonder if the 26-year old hurler’s best days were behind him.

So, it was great to see, since the second half of June, that Wacha has won five consecutive starts and seems to be gathering steam. On Monday, he pitched what is arguably the best game of his career in his first major league complete game shutout, holding the New York Mets to three hits and a walk to improve his record to 7-3 for the season.

Wacha’s season ERA dropped to a very respectable 3.71 thanks to holding opponents to a .189 batting average and a 1.01 ERA over his last four games.

After eight strong innings, manager Mike Matheny could be seen asking Wacha if he thought he had another inning in him. It was great to see Wacha reply, “I want to go back out there.”

It’s no secret that the Cardinals have had problems in recent years turning their top prospects into stars. Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal, Aledmys Diaz, Kolten Wong, Michael Wacha and Stephen Piscotty are all guys we were told were going to be stars. While they’ve all had their moments, they’ve also had problems being consistent contributors.

Wacha may have been the crown jewel of all those prospects. He was the heir apparent to Chris Carpenter. The guy who was going to be the next dominant St. Louis pitcher.

Wacha wowed St. Louis fans by tearing through the Cardinals farm system before taking a major role in the rotation during his rookie season. I’ll never forget watching him mow down the Pittsburgh Pirates in a do-or-die playoff game on the road while opposing fans tried to intimidate him by chanting his name. Obviously, it didn’t work.

He had the stuff. He had the composure and he had the size to be a dominant and sturdy starter.

It was heartbreaking when it was discovered that the young hurler had a chronic shoulder problem that threatened to derail his promising career. Wacha has spent two off-seasons trying to strengthen his troublesome joint with varying degrees of success. But the front office lost so much confidence in him that Wacha’s name was written into the starting rotation in pencil. If top prospect Alex Reyes wouldn’t have blown out his elbow before Grapefruit League games even started, Wacha might never have even had a chance to win back his spot in the starting five.

You just can’t replace that kind of talent. Young top pitchers sign for $200 million contracts if they even hit the open market. And the Redbirds aren’t going to spend that sort of cash on a player.

So, it’s encouraging to see the big righthander pitching well this deep into the season. Over the course of his career, Wacha has amassed 406 1/3 innings pitched with a 3.59 ERA in the first half of the season. During the second half, his ERA balloons to 4.28 in 170 1/3 innings of work.

It’s tough for a major league team to whiff on a prospect of Wacha’s promise. While 2017 may already be a lost cause, getting him healthy enough to pitch all season long could make a big difference as the Redbirds plan out their future. With Carlos Martinez establishing himself as the team ace, Adam Wainwright pitching solidly again and Mike Leake and Reyes rounding out the top five, Wacha could be a real difference maker in the middle. He showed Monday he has the skills to be a top of the rotation hurler if he can just stay healthy.

I’ve got my fingers crossed.