ATLANTA — The recent inconsistency of the Cardinals bats continued Wednesday night as the offense failed to muster a run against Mike Soroka and company just one day after piling on for two touchdowns against Braves pitching. But that wasn’t the only inexplicable trend extended in the 4-0 Cardinals loss.
Asked before the game what Michael Wacha needed to do to break out of an efficiency slump that had seen him fail to get through at least six innings in five of his seven starts this season, Mike Shildt led with the importance of fastball consistency for the veteran right-hander.
“Just continued consistency of his pitches,” Shildt said. “He’s got all the pitches, obviously. Downhill plane with his fastball, commanding strikes with his fastball on both sides of the plate.”
As has been the case throughout the majority of Michael Wacha’s starts this season, Wednesday was a real grind. It was a slog. It was a… something doesn’t look quite right, here. Though it wasn’t necessarily a bad outing—and the offense’s malaise ensured it would have been a loss, regardless—it was discouraging to see Wacha again unable to pitch very deep into his start.
Though Wacha allowed only one earned run on a mammoth Austin Riley home run, he required 90 pitches to traverse five innings as his command betrayed him on a routine basis throughout the night. With four walks allowed Wednesday, Wacha’s BB/9 rate this season has ballooned to 5.6, significantly higher than any other season of his career. Shildt's pre-game emphasis on Wacha’s fastball command proved accurate, as it was that pitch, specifically, that Wacha felt wasn’t up to par in the loss.
“Today it was definitely the command issue,” Wacha said. “Very few times did I hit the spot whenever I was going to that certain spot. So I’ve got to keep working at that and get it where I need it to be.
“The change up was a good pitch for me, good equalizer to get back into counts today, but I need to get that fastball command and those other pitches where I need them to be.”
Those command issues have coincided with a noticeable dip in Wacha’s fastball velocity this season. He insists that trend isn’t the result of a physical limitation at this point in time, but that doesn’t make any of this less curious or concerning for a Cardinals rotation that has fallen well short of the team’s expectations coming into the year.
"I don't really know," Wacha said when asked about the decreased heat on his heater. "I just try giving it my all and try to make pitches. It's down a little bit right now, but we've had some cold games, some cold weather stuff, so hopefully it starts getting back up there a little bit."
Thought it was a little interesting to note considering Wacha's previous DL stint this season for a left knee issue, but he was absolutely clear that everything feels good for him physically right now.— Brenden Schaeffer (@bschaeffer12) May 16, 2019
The strength and depth of the starting pitching group was supposed to carry the Cardinals to success this season. Injuries to Carlos Martinez and Alex Reyes, along with underwhelming starts to 2019 for several others in the rotation mix, have turned starting pitching into an area of concern for St. Louis. The Cardinals’ 4.30 ERA by starters this season ranks eighth in the National League, and fourth in the NL Central. Only Milwaukee has been worse within the division, with a starters’ ERA of 4.34.
So Wacha is far from alone in the Cardinals rotation for having a tough time to open this season. In a contract year in which he says he’s totally healthy, Wacha’s numbers are especially disappointing for a pitcher of his caliber. If 2019 is his last season with the Cardinals, you can be sure this is not the legacy the MVP of the 2013 NLCS wants to leave in St. Louis.
Even if Wacha doesn’t know the root of the problem, why exactly it’s happening to him at this least opportune time, he does know what the problem is. So, too, does Mike Shildt.
Wacha’s got to find his fastball. Until he does, he’ll be fighting himself every fifth day.
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