ST. LOUIS — In sports, success is temporary and stability fleeting. Dominance one year can be uncertainty the next, and in no venture are such vagaries so clearly rendered than baseball. For proof, look at the St. Louis Cardinals’ NLDS rotation.
Unsurprisingly, Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn will be the first two in line. John Lackey and Shelby Miller will follow behind them, leaving Michael Wacha to come out of the bullpen.
“I was kind of expecting it,” Wacha said Wednesday after the team workout. “I just never made it back to where I wanted to be as a starter, but I’m just happy they’re going to take a little chance on me in the bullpen and hopefully I make a pretty good impact.”
It’s a strange place for 2013’s NLCS MVP to find himself. After appearing invincible through much of last October, Wacha entered 2014 with a seemingly infinite ceiling. Instead, he missed 78 days on the disabled list due to a peculiar shoulder injury.
He made four starts after doctors cleared him to return, throwing 16.2 innings and allowing an opponent average of .294 with an ERA of 5.40. He struggled with command, especially of his change up, and was working his way back to full control as the season wound down. His final outing came in Arizona, where he rebounded from an ugly two-run first inning to throw four scoreless and set down 10 Diamondbacks in a row before a single knocked him out of the game in the sixth.
It was a sign he was getting close, but the Cardinals ran out of time to get him all the way back. After shining as a starter in 2013’s postseason, Wacha will now join the talented St. Louis pen. The role brings new challenges for him, as a reliever’s life is far more unpredictable.
“It’s definitely a different mentality in that sense. You have to be ready at any time during the game and there’s times where you have to go back-to-back days,” he said, noting that starting a ball game affords a pitcher far more time to settle in. “It’s a different kind of game plan. As a starter you have a little bit more time to develop all your pitches, but as a bullpen guy you gotta come out there and have all your pitches ready to go for that batter.”
Compared to a starter’s schedule, the warmup period afforded to bullpen members is drastically abbreviated. Wacha said Wednesday his experience out of the pen taught him he doesn’t need much to get warm, and believes playoff energy will certainly help bridge the gap.
“I think the adrenaline will be pumping while I’m out there and the arm felt pretty loose within a few throws,” he smiled.
All those challenges are met with enthusiasm, as Wacha said he considered the idea the club may not have room for him heading into the showdown with Los Angeles; further proof that even though the sport has no clock, baseball does not allow success to go on forever.
“There’s always that possibility. Our bullpen has been pitching very well and so have our starters,” he said. “Happy to be on this team right now. Not sure what the role will be out of the bullpen, you know, I’ll just be ready at all times.”
The other side of the coin is Shelby Miller. After being effectively shelved in 2013’s postseason run, the 23-year-old will finally make a playoff start, scheduled for Game 4 in St. Louis.
“The biggest thing you do is control what you can. When you’re told what your role is in the playoffs, you take it when you get it and try to do the best you can with it,” he said. “I’m just excited to pitch. I’m excited to help the team however I can. That’ll be Game 4 of this series and we’ll play a great one.”
Miller returned with force after a brief vacation from the rotation in July, holding batters to a .196 average and going seven innings in four of his 12 starts- something he did only three times in his first 19.
“Physically I feel great. The biggest thing is I didn’t change anything. I didn’t cut back on running or lifting or anything like that,” he said of his second half strength.
It was a satisfying end to trying season for the former first-rounder, who struggled early with high pitch counts early in games.
“It definitely had its ups and downs. I think this season just really opened my eyes on how the game is,” Miller said. “You just take it in stride and find ways to get better.”
One helpful presence on that front has been Adam Wainwright, who pushed Miller throughout the season to search for opportunities to improve. That has paid off with an October rotation spot, and the Cardinal ace said Wednesday he was proud of Miller’s determination.
“He’s just done so well, especially of late. He’s made so many good adjustments- Shelby and Lance- all year long. They just continue to find ways to get better and I just think that you’re seeing that now,” he said at his locker. “A guy that’s willing to listen, willing to learn and willing to try new things; you have to have that a little bit. You have to have some stubbornness and you have to have that ‘I’ll try anything to get better’ mindset. He’s got a great mix going right now.”
‘Right now’ is a relative term, and never more so than in baseball. Ask Shelby Miller. But right now, he will taste October baseball as a starter. Right now, he’s ready.