Michael Wacha made a brief but encouraging return to the Cardinals rotation on Wednesday night in Milwaukee, allowing one run in three innings over the course of 50 pitches before departing from his first major league appearance in nearly 12 weeks. His teammates scratched out three early runs against Brewers starter Willy Peralta, and thanks to the work of six relievers and some spectacular outfield defense from Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos, that was enough for a 3-2 win that sent Milwaukee to its ninth straight defeat while expanding St. Louis' newfound lead in the NL Central to four games.
Out since June 17 due to a scapular stress reaction similar to those that have bedeviled Brandon McCarthy throughout his career, Wacha made just one rehab start totaling two innings and 34 pitches, doing so for the Cardinals' Double-A Springfield affiliate on Sunday. With Springfield's season over, the team opted to let Wacha continue building up his pitch count at the major league level. Given that, he was on a 60-pitch limit for the night, with manager Mike Matheny planning to piggyback him with rookie lefty Marco Gonzales.
Staked to a two-run lead before he took the mound thanks to a flurry of singles capped by a two-run hit off the bat of the recently-returned Yadier Molina, Wacha burned through his pitch count fairly quickly. He needed 17 pitches to get through the first inning, during which he allowed a run via a Gerardo Parra single and a Jonathan Lucroy double (his 47th of the year, tying the single season mark for a catcher set by Ivan Rodriguez in 1996); he avoided worse trouble thanks to Jay's diving catch of Khris Davis' two-out liner. He labored through the second inning, needing 24 pitches against just four hitters, though he rebounded from a one-out, nine-pitch walk of Logan Schafer by striking out both Jean Segura and Peralta.
Matheny had both righty Jason Motte and Gonzales warming up during that second inning, lest he need the former to get out of a jam so as to give the latter a clean slate at the start of the next frame, but that proved unnecessary. Wacha needed just nine pitches to complete the third, striking out Scooter Gennett, yielding a single to Parra then inducing Lucroy to ground into a double play erasing Parra.
After Wacha’s departure, the game evolved into a September nail-biting classic. Gonzales retired the first six hitters he faced before yielding a solo homer to Rickie Weeks to lead off the sixth, trimming the margin to one run. Motte and then Seth Maness were needed in that inning to extricate the Cardinals from what became a bases-loaded jam, with Jay's over-the-shoulder catch of another Davis drive looming large. The Brewers put runners on first and third with two outs in the seventh against Maness before Carlos Martinez induced Lucroy to foul out. They put runners on first and second with no outs in the eighth against Pat Neshek as well; after Martin Maldonado grounded out, Bourjos made the defensive play of the game, hauling in Shafer's drive to deep centerfield as he crashed into the wall, then throwing the ball back to the infield to prevent the runners from advancing:
After a wild top of the ninth in which the Cardinals nearly added a run but were undone by a Matt Holliday grounder hitting Matt Carpenter (!) and Parra turning the tables by throwing out Jay at the plate, the Brewers had one more chance to draw even. Closer Trevor Rosenthal issued walks to Weeks and Lucroy, but Jay hauled in pinch-hitter Jason Rogers' fly to rightfield, sending the Brewers to yet another agonizing loss, one in which they went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
Back to Wacha … for the night, he threw 34 strikes from among his 50 pitches, six of which were swinging strikes; via the PITCHf/x data at BrooksBaseball.net, three of those came on his four-seam fastball and the other three on his curve. He averaged 95.9 mph with his heater, about two mph higher than his season average, though the latter figure is park adjusted whereas the night’s raw data is not; also worth noting is that lower average came in outings where Wacha was pacing himself for roughly twice as many pitches.
If he can recover from the start as expected, the Cardinals plan for Wacha to remain in the rotation, increasing his pitch counts by 15-20 per turn such that he'll be up to full strength by the end of the month. With Gonzales and fellow lefty Tyler Lyons called up from the minors and Motte activated from the disabled list, Matheny has more than enough arms to compensate for Wacha's limited pitch counts in the interim.
The hope, of course, is that Wacha can recapture the magic that made him look like one of the greatest draft steals of the century this side of Mike Trout within 18 months of being chosen with the 19th pick in 2012. Though he made four starts and six relief appearances prior to September, Wacha didn't join the rotation for good until the final month of the season, but he sparkled down the stretch, pitching scoreless ball in three of his five outings including a near no-hitter against the Nationals on September 24; he fell one out shy.
He carried that momentum into the postseason, yielding just one hit and one run in 7 1/3 innings against the Pirates in Game 4 of the Division Series, shutting out the Dodgers for 13 2/3 innings over two starts in the NLCS and making two World Series starts — one good, one bad — as the team bowed to the Red Sox in six games. For the year, he finished with a 2.78 ERA and 9.0 strikeouts per nine in 64 2/3 regular season innings, adding a 2.64 ERA and 9.7 strikeouts per nine in 30 2/3 postseason innings.
Such dominance led the Cardinals to expect a full season of similarly big things from the 22-year-old righty, and for the first two and a half months of the season, he lived up to that high standard. In 15 starts, 12 of them quality starts, totaling 90 1/3 innings, he put up a 2.79 ERA with 8.3 strikeouts per nine. The Cardinals offense rewarded him with just 2.9 runs per start, however, so the team lost nine of those 15 turns.
That sluggish offense was a major reason why the Cardinals spent nearly five months looking up at the Brewers in the NL Central standings, but they withstood the seven-week loss of Molina to a torn ligament in his right thumb and went 16-13 in August while the Brewers went 13-14, leaving the two teams tied at the close of play on August 31.
Since then, the Cardinals have gone 4-0 to run their winning streak to a season-high six games, while the Brewers have equaled their longest losing streak in the past eight seasons. The Cardinals hold a 7-6 edge in the season series; the two teams play three more games in Milwaukee, and meet again in St. Louis from September 16-18.