- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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It’s always a treat watching two hot young pitchers square off, even in the slop that passes for baseball weather in April. But with Jarrod Parker, Patrick Corbin and Matt Harvey all rehabbing from elbow reconstructions, Mike Minor and Taijuan Walker delayed by shoulder issues and Clayton Kershaw on hiatus with a back injury, the pickings are a little slimmer than they ought to be.
St. Louis and Cincinnati, those perennial National League Central rivals, are doing their share to pick up the slack. They’ve played four times in a span of eight days, and Michael Wacha and Tony Cingrani have squared off twice already. In the first installment, Cingrani dominated the Cardinals over seven innings for a 1-0 victory at Great American Ball Park. In a mucky, gloomy rematch at Busch Stadium, Wacha returned the favor, going six strong innings in a 5-3 St. Louis win.
This won’t be the last time we see the two young counterparts go at it. Adam Wainwright has the big shoulders to carry the St. Louis staff and Homer Bailey is Cincinnati’s $105 million man, but the two kids have compelling stories to share and contrasting styles to enjoy.
Cingrani, the quiet lefty from Rice, is a bundle of kinetic energy, tilting his cap in the air, wiggling his shoulders, eyeballing the baseball as he holds it like a Faberge egg, and taking strolls around the mound in those high red socks. When he finally stares in for the sign, he assumes a look of such rapt intensity, hardcore Reds-watchers have taken to calling it the #CingraniFace.
When a guy’s competitive scowl merits its own hashtag, you know it has potential.
Wacha, the big Texas A&M Aggie, is long on power and stoicism and reliability. As his 4-1 record and 2.64 postseason ERA showed, he already has the unflappable, poker-faced-demeanor thing down pat. The moment is never too big for him, as the scouts like to say. And the more humble he appears, the harder St. Louis fans are falling for him. His jersey sales have taken off in the city, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a story in February about a diehard Cardinals fan who adopted a rescue dog and named it “Wacha.”
Jose Fernandez notwithstanding, young pitchers (even Texas college guys) don’t arrive in the big leagues as finished products with four-pitch assortments, and the NL Central tandem helps substantiate that point. Cingrani brings to mind the classic quote by Reggie Jackson, who once responded to a question about Nolan Ryan by conceding that he’s fond of fastballs in the same way that he enjoys ice cream. “But you don’t like it when someone’s stuffing it into you by the gallon,” Jackson said.
Cingrani is a one-man Baskin-Robbins franchise. Last year, according to FanGraphs, he threw his fastball 81.5 percent of the time -- a figure surpassed only by Bartolo Colon’s 85.5 percent. In Cingrani’s first start this season, 73 of his 92 pitches were four-seamers.
Cingrani hides his fastball so deftly that he’s elicited some comparisons to Sid Fernandez, who had the benefit of a lot more girth to help create deception. Hitters pick up the ball so late out of his arm slot, he can make 93 mph look more like 97 or 98.
To this point in his career, Cingrani has done a lot more than just get by on one pitch. His four-inning appearance Monday marked the record 20th straight time in his career that he has started a game and allowed five or fewer hits. True, several of those starts have lasted five innings or fewer. But when you consider that righties are batting .193 against Cingrani and he has averaged 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings in the majors, he has long since passed the point of being regarded as a fluke or curiosity.
Perhaps because Cingrani was seeing the Cardinals for the second time in a week, he varied his repertoire a bit. According to Brooks Baseball, he threw 57 fastballs and 31 sliders and changeups against St. Louis -- well above his average allotment of offspeed stuff. But his four-seamer checked in just a tick more than 90 mph, and Yadier Molina clocked one of those fastballs into the gap for a three-run double in the first inning.
Cingrani threw only 46 of 88 pitches for strikes, and a mere 13 of his 31 offspeed pitches for strikes. That’s just not going to cut it against a lineup as formidable as the one St. Louis runs out there. Confidence in the fastball is a great thing. But as Cardinals broadcaster Rick Horton pointed out during Monday’s broadcast, it helps a pitcher to have a “Plan B” when the heater isn’t obliging.
Wacha, like Cingrani, is working diligently to expand his repertoire. After throwing his fastball and changeup about 92 percent of the time as a rookie, he’s making more liberal use of his curveball so far this season. If he can’t learn the curve from Wainwright, his new mentor, he’s not going to learn it from anybody.
If Monday’s game is any indication, Wacha and the entire St. Louis staff might benefit from a more proficient defense this year. Peter Bourjos will make a difference in center field, Matt Carpenter is an upgrade over David Freese at third, and Kolten Wong looks pretty sharp for a kid who was once considered just an adequate defender. Wong turned two impressive double plays against Cincinnati on Monday, and barely had to move to field a hot shot by Jay Bruce in short right field in the sixth inning. The Cardinals, one of baseball’s most shift-averse teams in past years, are finding they might learn to embrace the shift.
Both these teams have yet to find their stride offensively. The Cardinals, who hit .330 with runners in scoring position last season, got off to a .143 start this year (6-for-42), and Allen Craig, Jhonny Peralta and Peter Bourjos are a combined 7-for-68 (.103). The Reds aren’t exactly mashing the ball themselves. Billy Hamilton is 1-for-17 out of the gate, and he might find himself in a big hole very quickly if the Reds aren’t careful.
But pitching cures a lots of ills, and promising young pitching is a sight to behold. Cincinnati and St. Louis provided a double dose of it in the Cardinals’ home opener. With the possible exception of watching a 39-year-old shortstop take some bows in the Bronx, there’s nothing better on a baseball Monday in April.