ST. LOUIS — The calls came in throughout the postseason. Fans, journalists and talking heads implored Mike Matheny, “Where is Michael Wacha?” Thursday the Cardinal manager answered, sending out the 23-year-old in a 3-3 game in the bottom of the ninth.
Having already used Pat Neshek in the eighth, and facing possible extra innings, Matheny presumably chose Wacha to throw because the former starter could weather a prolonged outing better than his remaining options. Seth Maness had pitched multiple innings before, and Carlos Martinez started eight games in 2014, but neither were a viable choice to shepherd the Cardinals beyond six outs given their recent workload.
The manager already made it clear he wouldn’t bring closer Trevor Rosenthal in if the game was tied on the road, so it fell to Wacha to hold the Giants at three runs. But Wacha had not thrown in 20 days. He was added to the playoff roster as a reliever, admitting before the NLCS that he was unable to return to his dominant form in time to be a starting candidate.
“I just never made it back to where I wanted to be as a starter,” he said on October 1. “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.”
Wacha struggled with command after returning from his shoulder injury, most notably with his signature change up. That unpredictability made him a liability in the postseason, a stage where every mistake is magnified. So he went unused through the NLDS and only appeared in the NLCS in the bullpen before Thursday.
For a pitcher struggling with accuracy, time off does not help. Control is gained through familiarity and repetition, and Wacha had no time for either in the three weeks between the season’s end and his appearance in Game 5.
With the Giants tying the game off Neshek in the eighth, then snuffing out a Cardinal charge in the top of the ninth, AT&T park was shaking with anticipation. One missed pitch, one bad release and a San Francisco hitter could send the Cardinals home for the year. It was an intimidating moment for any pitcher, much less one who hadn’t felt comfortable in months.
Wacha was on the roster for a reason; a last-ditch, break-the-glass emergency option when the Birds needed innings and were running on fumes. Thursday’s ninth inning wasn’t that situation. The Cardinals needed strikes. They needed someone with assurance born of a recent success. Wacha is a tremendous pitcher, but was not himself and had no business being in the game in that spot.
If no one else in the bullpen could last more than an inning, that’s fine. Matheny could have used his best-suited relievers to get one out at a time. After three, the offense would get another chance. If the game stretched on and the bullpen emptied, then Wacha’s time would come. Until then, it seems strange to bypass pitchers who are paid to hold offenses at bay in tight situations.
Wacha ran into trouble right away, and when the Giants got two runners on, Matheny was against the wall. He had already burned his long reliever, forcing him to ride out the the sophomore pitcher for the rest of the inning. It only lasted one more hitter, as Travis Ishikawa hit a home run into right to send the Cardinals back to St. Louis for the winter.
Matheny will revisit the decision in the months to come, gaining experience from the crucible that is October baseball. Wacha will head into the offseason aiming to return at full strength in 2015. Now, he will carry with him the final pitch of the 2014 season as extra motivation. He just shouldn’t have been in there to throw it.