St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Michael Wacha works in the first inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game against the Washington Nationals Wednesday, March 25, 2015, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
John Bazemore
March 26, 2015

ST. LOUIS (AP) The St. Louis Cardinals are counting on Michael Wacha standing alongside ace Adam Wainwright at the top of their rotation.

Wacha was the NL Championship Series MVP as a rookie but just 5-6 with a 3.20 ERA in 19 starts last year. He was sidelined for most of the season's second half by a stress reaction in his shoulder, and was rusty in October before giving up Travis Ishikawa's series-winning homer in Game 5 of the NLCS.

Now he feels healthy.

''It's very encouraging, the long term of what this kid could be and the short term of how he feels, somebody every fifth day that can bring the kind of stuff he does,'' St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. ''He feels good about himself and we feel good about what we're seeing.''

The 23-year-old Wacha has long insisted the injury is behind him.

''Ever since I came back last year, I haven't thought about it when I was on the mound,'' Wacha said. ''As far as I know, it was a rare injury. I'm not sure where it came from.''

If it stays away, the Cardinals figure to again have one of the deeper starting staffs despite trading 15-game winner Shelby Miller for outfielder Jason Heyward. Wainwright was a 20-game winner for the second time, and Lance Lynn has averaged 16 wins during three years in the rotation.

John Lackey is a proven late-season talent. Carlos Martinez gets his first full-time spot in the rotation as the fifth starter after lefty Jaime Garcia was sidelined late in camp by problems with his surgically repaired shouldere.

Lackey expects to be more comfortable in his first full NL season, saying ''It's different for a lot of reasons.''

Things to watch for with the Cardinals, who open April 5 at Chicago:

LEFT-HANDED HEAVY

There are five lefty bats in the lineup, a potential downside. But there also figures to be more power on the bench. Mark Reynolds, who has hit 20 or more homers each of the last seven seasons, was signed as a free agent. He could factor in as a semi-regular, especially at first base, where Matt Adams has struggled against lefties.

HEYWARD TIME

Only 25, Heyward is a potential future core member of the franchise. His is eligible for free agency after the World Series, and the wooing began not long after the trade with Atlanta - which also brought set-up man Jordan Walden.

''He fits in very well with how our guys work, how seriously they take the game,'' Matheny said. ''He's mixed in very well to this point.''

IMPROVED POP

St. Louis hit just 105 homers last season, second-fewest in the majors. They Cardianls are anticipating more out of right field from Heyward, who had a career-low 11 last year while forced into the leadoff spot with Atlanta. Jhonny Peralta followed his drug suspension with a 21 homers, a franchise record among shortstops, and the smooth-swinging Adams is capable of hitting a lot more than 15.

HEALTHY CHOICES

Though Garcia's return is unknown, Wainwright and Lynn both recovered nicely from health setbacks early in spring training. Center fielder Jon Jay made a delayed exhibition debut following wrist surgery. ''I said the whole goal was to be ready April 5,'' Jay said.

MORE SPEED

Along with increasing the power profile, there will be an emphasis on manufacturing runs. The Cardinals stole 57 bases last year, third-fewest in the major leagues, but are primed for at least a little more thievery with both Wong and Heyward capable of swiping 20-plus.

''I want to see bigger leads. I want to see more aggressive chances with balls in the dirt,'' Matheny said. ''I want to see us take a first-and-second double steal because we have the kind of players to do that.''

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