SweetSpot: Michael Wacha

Five things we learned Tuesday

September, 10, 2014

Don't forget to check out the Hunt for October for standings, playoffs odds and upcoming schedules for all the playoff contenders.

1. Don't go burying the Oakland A's just yet.

Ahh, America: We love to jump on a bandwagon and then crush it as soon as we can. Witness the A's. Remember back on June 21? That was when they beat the Red Sox 2-1 in 10 innings. It was an exciting walk-off victory. They were 47-28 after that win, the best record in the majors, on pace for 102 wins. They had a six-game lead over the Angels and were still weeks from acquiring Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. We all loved the A's back then, praising this team that had overcome injuries to two-fifths of its projected rotation, writing our "Billy Beane has done it again" stories.

Then came the trades. Then came the losses. Then came the Angels and the loss of the division lead. Then came those two defeats on Sunday and Monday -- blowing leads in the ninth inning -- and even though the A's were still in the wild-card lead, we were ready to put them 6 feet under. Enter Jon Lester on Tuesday against the White Sox. Considering the somewhat dire straits of the bullpen, the A's needed a big game from their new ace and Lester delivered with eight innings of two-run baseball. The A's piled on seven runs over the final three innings to turn it into an 11-2 laugher, but Lester was the key guy in this one.

Lester has been as good as any pitcher in the American League this year not named Felix Hernandez or Chris Sale. And considering Hernandez has been shaky of late, Lester might be the best starter going right now on any of the playoff contenders in the AL. Meaning: The A's might have blown the division, but if they can hold on to win the wild card and have Lester ready to go, he's still a good bet to get them into the next round.

Of course, one game doesn't mean the A's have suddenly turned things around, but it has to feel good after the previous two defeats (and knowing Sale is on deck to start against them on Thursday). The A's are still in the wild-card lead with 18 games left in the regular season. You can jump back on the bandwagon if you wish. No hard feelings.

2. Drew Storen pretty much locks down the closer job for the Nationals.

A few days ago, following the recent struggles of Rafael Soriano, Matt Williams announced he'd go with a closer by committee. Well, Storen has pitched the past three games, faced nine batters, retired all of them and picked up three saves. He has a 1.29 ERA. See you in the seventh inning, Rafael. Oh, and with two straight wins over the Braves, the Nationals not only got that "unable to beat the Braves" monkey off their backs a little, but pretty much wrapped up the NL East title with a nine-game lead now.

3. Yusmeiro Petit keeps Tim Lincecum in the bullpen.

Petit threw 84 pitches in a complete-game, 5-1 win over the Diamondbacks. How efficient was he?

Oh ... the Dodgers lost, so their lead is back down to 2.5 games.

4. Not so soon, Michael Wacha.

You don't want to read too much into Wacha's rough outing -- six runs, four extra-base hits and three walks in four innings in a 9-5 loss to the Reds -- since he's barely pitched after coming back from the stress fracture in his shoulder. Still, it suggests the Cardinals' playoff rotation -- yes, I'm assuming they win the division -- isn't settled yet, with Wacha and Shelby Miller presumably battling for the fourth spot behind Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and John Lackey.

5. Brewers, Braves ... still alive!

The Brewers lost again, 6-3 to the Marlins, as closer Francisco Rodriguez served up a two-run homer and then a solo shot with two outs in the ninth. Brewers fans were not happy. They've lost 13 of 14. AND THEY'RE STILL ONLY 1.5 GAMES BEHIND THE PIRATES FOR THE SECOND WILD CARD. The Braves have lost seven of their past 10 and have hit .193 and average two runs per game during that span. AND THEY'RE STILL ONLY 1.5 GAMES BEHIND THE PIRATES FOR THE SECOND WILD CARD. I mean ... even the Marlins are only 3.5 behind the Pirates.

Yay, wild card?

Five things we learned Thursday

September, 5, 2014
1. Michael Wacha will be able to help the Cardinals.

In a bit of a surprise move, the Cardinals started Michael Wacha in a key divisional game against the Brewers even though the second-year righty had pitched just two innings in his one minor-league rehab appearance as he comes back from the stress reaction in his right shoulder that caused him to miss 11 weeks. Most teams won't start a guy until he's ready to go at least 75 to 80 pitches, but the Cardinals were willing to give Wacha 50 pitches and turn it over to the bullpen. And why not? With expanded rosters, Cards manager Mike Matheny had plenty of relievers to work with once Wacha exited after three innings.

The decision paid off as Wacha gave up one run in his three innings, throwing 50 pitches on the nose. He gave up an RBI double in the first inning but settled down and most importantly his velocity was excellent, averaging 95.9 mph on his four-seam fastball. With Adam Wainwright still struggling and Justin Masterson booted to the bullpen, Wacha's return comes right as the Cardinals are ready to put the hammer on the Brewers and Pirates.

The Cardinals held on to win 3-2, handing the Brewers their ninth straight loss and increasing their division lead to a suddenly cushy four games. Wacha should slowly get extended out, throwing another 15-20 pitches in his next start.

2. Cardinals' outfield played some defense.

In the sixth inning, right fielder Jon Jay totally robbed the Brewers' Khris Davis with two runners on base. That wasn't even the play of the game. In the bottom of the eighth, with two runners on and one out for the Brewers, Logan Schafer lined a ball to deep center that Peter Bourjos flagged down. Two great catches, four runs saved. This is what happens when teams lose nine games in a row.

3. Brewers manager Ron Roenicke may have overmanaged just a bit.

In that eighth inning, Aramis Ramirez reached on an error and then Davis singled. Trailing 3-2, Roenicke ran for Ramirez, his cleanup hitter, at second base. As much as you hate to take your cleanup hitter out of the game, you can certainly understand the reasoning there. You need to get that run home. So that wasn't the worst decision. Except ... Roenicke then bunted with the next batter, but Martin Maldonado, pinch-hitting for Lyle Overbay, lined the bunt attempt back to the pitcher. Why run for Ramirez and then play for one run? A runner's speed is less important at third base than at second base. Plus, if you do tie the game, Ramirez's spot is likely to come up again but he'll be out of the game. I can see running for Ramirez, but only if you're going for the big inning.

As it turns, Ramirez's spot came up in the ninth, with two outs and two runners on, against Trevor Rosenthal. Roenicke pinch-hit Jason Rogers for Hector Gomez; Rogers was making just his second major-league plate appearance. He flew out to right field.

I'm not really blasting Roenicke. Without expanded rosters he certainly wouldn't have run for Ramirez in the eighth inning. It shows the ripple effect of moves. I think the error was not trying to go for the big inning when he had a chance.

4. Big win for the Yankees.

On a night the Tigers and Mariners would both win, the Yankees would have dropped another game back in the wild-card standings. Instead, they hit two dramatic home runs in the bottom of the ninth inning off Koji Uehara, with Chase Headley's walk-off blast giving the Yankees the 5-4 win in Derek Jeter's final game at Yankee Stadium against the Red Sox. Headley has hit a solid .256/.353/.391 for the Yankees in a key trade-deadline pickup (and would make for a better No. 2 hitter than Jeter right now). The bullpen was once again key, throwing 4 2/3 scoreless innings. Can the Yankees overcome Seattle and Detroit/Kansas City to win a wild card? I still don't see it. They host the Royals this weekend; maybe they don't need a sweep but a sweep would be nice. After that the schedule doesn't get much easier with Tampa, Baltimore, Tampa again, Toronto and Baltimore. Only a season-ending trip to Fenway looks easy. We finally get a season-ending series between the two rivals in the one year it may not matter.

5. Robinson Cano.

Well, everyone did say he wouldn't get the same attention playing for the Mariners. That, they were right about. He had his first four-RBI game with Seattle, raising his season line to a pretty nice .322/.388/.463. He's second in the AL in OBP, 10th in OPS, fifth among position players in WAR. He's on the short list of American League MVP candidates.
The St. Louis Cardinals suffered a double dosage of bad news on Sunday as the team placed starters Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia on the disabled list, Wacha with a stress reaction in his pitching shoulder and Garcia with soreness in his shoulder.

There is no timetable for either pitcher. Wacha's injury doesn't require surgery but the Cardinals will certainly proceed with caution. "This last start he missed, we did it just to give him some rest because as we said all along we're trying to bank some innings so come September and October, he'd be available, being a young pitcher," GM John Mozeliak said. "It's disappointing to learn of this, but obviously he is too young and too valuable to take risks with."

Garcia, coming back after shoulder surgery last season, had pitched well in seven starts with a 4.12 ERA and 39/7 strikeout/walk ratio but was unable to complete a bullpen session on Saturday.

Without knowing the length of time the Cardinals will miss the two starters, one obvious ramification is this would have to heighten the Cardinals' interest in Tampa Bay left-hander David Price, the Cy Young winner everybody expects to be traded before the July 31 trade deadline.

Right now, the Cardinals will stick with Carlos Martinez in the rotation. The young right-hander certainly has potential but hasn't shown an ability to consistently get out left-handed batters, who are hitting .284/.393/.473 against him with more walks (14) than strikeouts (10). The Cardinals will have to use a spot starter for Garcia on Wednesday. Eventually, Joe Kelly, who begins his rehab assignment on Friday after missing two months with a hamstring strain, would fill the fifth slot.

So the Cardinals aren't necessary desperate, as they still have Adam Wainwright (who returned Sunday after missing a start and pitched well), Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller. While Lynn has pitched better than last year, Miller has struggled at times and ranks 93rd among 96 qualified starters in strikeout/walk ratio as his strikeouts have dropped and his walks increased from his rookie season. That leaves a rotation suddenly shaky in three of the five spots.

Price has more value to a team trying to win a division title than a wild card -- general managers will be reluctant to give up too much for Price just to increase the odds of reaching a one-game playoff -- so that's one reason the Cardinals should have interest. While they're 5.5 games behind the Brewers, there's no reason they can't make a race of it. (Right now, FanGraphs projects the Brewers with a 50 percent chance of winning the division, the Cardinals at 37 percent.)

Plus, the Cardinals have some depth to trade from. While they would undoubtedly like to keep Oscar Taveras, outfielder Stephen Piscotty is hitting .312/.371/.438 at Triple-A. If the Rays are looking for more power, maybe something like a Matt Adams/Kelly duo is the centerpiece of a trade. Martinez could also be bait, especially if the Cardinals don't believe in him long-term as a starter.

Remember, Price has one more year under contract, so he's not just a rental. With so many pre-arbitration players on the roster, the Cardinals could afford to keep Price for 2015 and there's no denying a Wainwright-Price-Wacha trio in a potential playoff series looks nice.

A final thought: With three of their core offensive players (Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and Jhonny Peralta) in their 30s, and Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter 29 and 28), the Cardinals are built to go for it now. A play for Price makes sense and won't gut the future.

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.
[+] EnlargeMichael Wacha
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsMichael Wacha should benefit from better defensive support in his second big league season.

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.

When losing Jameson Taillon hurts worst

April, 6, 2014
Top prospect Jameson Taillon is going to miss the season with Tommy John surgery? If you wanted to see the latest Pirates prodigy pumping mid-90s gas and big-breaking benders in the big leagues, you're going to have to wait another season.

Considering there was little to no concern about Taillon's workload and he’d been handled as carefully as any top prospect should be, this automatically becomes another suggestion that some guys are just going to get hurt. But more important, it’s extremely disappointing news, because we’re greedy when we start talking about a young pitcher this good. Whether you’re a Pirates fan or just a fan of the game, you want to see him, because we all want to see him pitch the way he can.

On the other hand, will this hurt the Pirates that badly in terms of the 2014 season? Over the course of a full 162-game campaign, maybe it won't. The Pirates still have depth to cover their rotation needs for the full season. A front four of Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, Wandy Rodriguez and Charlie Morton is a quartet you can win with -- if everyone stays healthy, which is no sure thing.
[+] EnlargeJameson Taillon
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarFans will have to wait another year to see Jameson Taillon pitching regularly in the Pirates' rotation.

They also have two live science projects to choose from for their fifth slot. Right now, they have the task of building journeyman Edinson Volquez back up to what he was, as Jerry Crasnick covered in detail. Perhaps later, they’ll see if they can bring Jeff Locke back -- once he’s healed up from his strained oblique -- to the form that got the defense-dependent lefty into last year’s All-Star Game. If both of them pan out, the Pirates would be ready to endure an injury among their front four. And they have swingman Jeanmar Gomez to turn to before having to reach from Triple-A for a solid organizational guy like Brandon Cumpton. So they have the depth to be able to compete and perhaps contend with.

And keep in mind that in terms of the full scope of Taillon’s career, this may also perhaps not dent their long-term outlook that much. Assuming that Taillon is one of the 75 percent or so of guys who recover fully from the surgery, he’s going to be a big part of their 2015 rotation at some point, the same as was already expected before injury struck.

However, the problem with losing Taillon now is multifold. A great young pitcher just experienced the first major stumbling block of his career. Here’s hoping he can roll with it, recover fully, and work with the Pirates to deliver on the promise that has so many fans ready to watch him in the majors. And there’s that element of anticipation that’s always associated with a young prospect, now thwarted.

But the bigger problem by far is losing the stuff that fuels that anticipation about Taillon’s future. As Cole showed last October -- as did Michael Wacha for the Cardinals and Sonny Gray for the Athletics -- you want to be able to turn to a guy with the stuff to overpower a postseason lineup. Any postseason lineup. Guys like Morton or Rodriguez are great assets to have over a full six months, but are they the guys you want on the mound in a must-win postseason game? To advance deeper into October? It’s possible, but you'd rather have the outcome depend on someone with Taillon’s talent, someone with an arm so able he can take complete control of a low-scoring game. Say Liriano gets hurt or Volquez doesn't become their latest resurrection. Who starts a crucial third or fourth game in an League Division Series? Who starts twice in an LCS?

Assuming the Pirates make it back into the postseason, that’s when losing Taillon might hurt most, when they won’t have the freedom to choose one of their best arms to exploit a championship opportunity. And if anyone knows how rare those opportunities can be, it’s Pirates fans, who just recently saw their team’s two-decade run of futility end.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

Overreact after one series? Of course we're going to overreact! We're baseball fans. It's no fun if we just spout things like "small sample size" and "check back in two months." So, what have we learned after one series? Here are a few trends and things to watch, starting with Evan Longoria.

The Rays third baseman went 2-for-4 in Tampa's 7-2 win over Toronto, slugging a three-run homer for his first home run of 2014. So here's the deal with Longoria: If anyone is going to crack the Miguel Cabrera-Mike Trout stranglehold on the AL MVP Award, Longoria is the most likely candidate. Consider his merits:

[+] EnlargeEvan Longoria, David DeJesus, Ben Zobrist
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsIs this the year Evan Longoria puts it all together for the Rays?
1. He's off to a hot start! Our guy is hitting .400.

2. He's good. Not including 2012, when he played just 74 games, he's finished fifth, sixth, third and fourth in WAR among AL position players and has three top-10 MVP finishes.

3. The Rays are a good bet to make the postseason. MVP voters love that.

4. Longoria is an RBI guy, averaging 110 RBIs per 162 games over his career. MVP voters love themselves some RBIs.

5. He should knock in more than the 88 runs he did last year, when he hit .265 with just four home runs with runners in scoring position (22 of his 32 home runs came with the bases empty).

In truth, as good as Longoria has been, we've kind of been waiting for that monster season, haven't we? Maybe that's unfair to say about one of the best all-around players in the league (did you see the play he made the other night?), but Longoria hit .294 in 2010 and just .269 last season, when his strikeout rate increased to 23.4 percent, easily his highest rate since his rookie season. If he cuts down on the strikeouts, I can see that average climbing over .300 for the first time in his career and the RBIs climbing well over 100.

Other thoughts from many hours of baseball viewing over the past few days:
  • If they stay healthy, the Giants are going to have the best offense in the National League. On Thursday, they scored five runs in the eighth inning to beat the Diamondbacks 8-5. Angel Pagan is a solid leadoff hitter, and Brandon Belt, Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Hunter Pence provide a juicy meat of the order. I've mentioned Belt as a guy I like to have a big breakout season, and he hit his third home run. Pence seems to get better the higher he wears his pants legs. Posey won't slump like he did in the second half last year. Sandoval hits and eats and hits some more.
  • The Angels’ and Phillies’ bullpens look like disasters. The Mariners pounded every reliever the Angels tried in their series and the Angels are suddenly staring at another bad April start: 9-17 last year, 8-15 in 2012. Jonathan Papelbon looked like a shell of his former shelf in getting roughed up the other day.
  • [+] EnlargeJim Johnson, Bob Melvin
    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesStruggling Jim Johnson might get hooked from his role as the A's closer.
  • How long do the A’s stick with closer Jim Johnson? OK, he led the AL in saves the past two seasons. He also led the AL last season in blown saves and was second in relief losses. He has two losses already, he’s not a strikeout pitcher and the A’s have other good relievers. It’s never too early to panic about your closer!
  • How many closers do you have complete confidence in right now anyway? With low-scoring games and tight pennant races, late-inning relief work is going to decide a division title or two. We had six blown saves on Wednesday. The D-Backs coughed up that game on Thursday. The Rockies blew an eighth-inning lead to the Marlins. And so on. Rough few days for the bullpens (in contrast to starters, who generally dominated).
  • A young pitcher who hasn’t yet made his mark to watch: Seattle’s James Paxton showcased electrifying stuff in his first start, striking out nine in seven and throwing 97 mph in his final inning.
  • With Clayton Kershaw missing a few starts, the new Cy Young favorite in the National League: Jose Fernandez. He’s must-watch TV, Pedro-in-his-prime eye candy. His run support will be an issue, but the stuff, poise and confidence are that of a wise veteran, not a 21-year-old kid.
  • In case you had doubts, Michael Wacha is most assuredly the real deal. His changeup is Pedro-in-his-prime nasty. The Reds went 0-for-10 with four strikeouts against it.
  • Veteran Alex Gonzalez is not going to last as the Tigers' shortstop. He simply doesn’t have the range to play there. Stephen Drew, come on down?
  • Manager on the hot seat: Kirk Gibson. The Diamondbacks are off to 1-5 start, and nine of their next 15 games are against the Dodgers (six) and Giants (three). If the D-backs can avoid digging a big hole over that stretch, the schedule does get a little easier starting April 21, when they play 19 consecutive games against teams that finished under .500 in 2013.
  • Tyro Zack Wheeler is not Matt Harvey. Hold down your expectations, Mets fans.
  • We’re going to see a lot more shifts this year. I haven’t checked the numbers, but anecdotal evidence suggests infield shifts are way up. Expect batting averages to continue to plummet as a result.
  • Free-agent-to-be Max Scherzer is going to make a lot of money this offseason.
  • I hope B.J. Upton gets fixed, but I have my doubts. Six strikeouts in his first 12 plate appearances.
  • Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman is going to have a high BABIP again. Great stroke to all fields, great balance between attacking fastballs early in the count and waiting for his pitch later in the count. He'll be an MVP candidate again.
  • Clearly, Emilio Bonifacio (11 hits in three games!) is the best player in the NL. OK, seriously: The Royals couldn’t find a spot for this guy on their roster? Ned Yost, everyone!
  • Rookie Xander Bogaerts is ready NOW. He’s hitting .556 with three walks and one strikeout in three games. Maybe the power takes a year or two to fully develop, but his mature, disciplined approach at the plate is going make a star right away.
  • Dave Cameron of FanGraphs suggested this and it’s not outrageous: With Jose Reyes injured, Brad Miller might be the best shortstop in the AL. Or maybe Bogaerts. Could have been Bonifacio, if only the Royals had kept him!
  • Best team in baseball: The Mariners ... too early?
Welcome back, Tim Hudson, even if you do look a little strange in that Giants uniform.

In a day and evening of masterful starting pitching performances, Hudson’s may have been the most important. Making his first regular-season start since that gruesome fractured ankle ended his season last July, Hudson’s debut with the Giants was brilliant, that great sinker of his dipping and diving and leaving the Diamondbacks flailing at air and pounding worm burners into the ground.

Hudson threw 103 pitches in his 7 2/3 innings, 74 strikes, and put a zero in the run column while allowing three hits and no walks as the Giants won 2-0. Fifteen of his outs were registered via a groundball (eight) or strikeout (seven). At 38 and coming off a serious injury, there had to be some question marks about what Hudson could bring a Giants rotation that struggled last season behind ace Madison Bumgarner. How good was he? His Game Score of 80 was Hudson’s highest since throwing eight shutout innings with 10 strikeouts on Sept. 17, 2011.

Hudson went 8-7 with a 3.97 ERA in 21 starts for the Braves last year and the Giants need that kind of performance -- or something a little better. The Giants’ rotation last year was pretty much a disaster, despite its “We won two World Series” reputation. Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong took the brunt of the punishment, but Matt Cain struggled for two months and Tim Lincecum’s ERA was also over 4.00. As a group, the Giants ranked 22nd in rotation ERA and 27th in FanGraphs WAR -- worse than the Twins or Cubs.

For one game at least, it was vintage Hudson. And that’s a wonderful thing.

* * * *

Welcome back, Michael Wacha. Last year’s October rookie sensation picked up where he left off (well, we’ll ignore that final World Series start) with 6 2/3 scoreless innings, three hits allowed and seven K’s. Wacha's changeup was just as dominant as last season as the Reds went 0-for-10 against it with four strikeouts. He may not even have been the best pitcher in the game, however. Fellow sophomore Tony Cingrani, with his deceptive motion and array of high fastballs (75 of his 92 pitches were fastballs, almost all of them up in the zone), was sensational for the Reds, striking out nine while allowing two hits in his seven innings. The Reds finally scraped across a run in the bottom of the ninth, with Chris Heisey’s pinch-hit single off Carlos Martinez with bases loaded winnng it. With two 1-0 games already in the books, you get the feeling the Cardinals and Reds are going to play a lot of tense, low-scoring games against each other.

* * * *

What kind of night was it? Wacha and Cingrani may not have been the most impressive young pitchers on the evening. Seattle’s James Paxton, who impressed in four outings last September, looked wicked nasty in an 8-2 win over the Angels. He tossed seven scoreless innings with nine strikeouts and two hits, touching 98 on the radar gun, throwing 97 in the seventh inning and inducing several ugly looking swings from the Angels. Paxton’s command has always been the issue coming up with through minors but 64 of his 99 pitches were strikes. Not all of those were in the strike zone (42 percent were classified as in the zone), as he got the Angels chasing his two-seamer that often tailed out of the zone. His fastball really rides in on right-handed batters and he used his curveball as his out pitch -- five of his nine K’s came off his curve. The Mariners swept the Angels in impressive fashion.

* * * *

Then there was Mark Buehrle, who registered just the second double-digit strikeout game of his career with 11 Ks in Toronto's 3-0 win over the Rays -- one short of his career high set way back in 2005. Unlike Paxton, he did not reach 98 mph. In fact, his fastest pitch of the night was 83.8 mph. Like Paxton though, just 42 percent of the pitches he threw were actually in the strike zone. Paxton got hitters to chase due to his pure stuff; Buehrle got hitters to chase because he’s one smart, wily veteran who still knows how to pitch.

* * * *

P.S.: In a day game, Matt Garza and Aaron Harang both took no-hitters into the seventh.

P.P.S: I didn’t even mention Max Scherzer.

P.P.P.S: Closers, on the hand, were brutal. They blew six saves.
I love this quote from Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist about Michael Wacha: "I don't see any reason why there is the buzz about the workload. He had 170 innings last year. You can think he could be a 200-inning guy this year. At the end of the day we need some guys who can give us 200 innings."

Wacha is 22, turns 23 on July 1. His innings total wasn't extreme last year, he's a big, strong kid without any history of arm problems, and he was held back in his pitch counts last season, topping 100 pitches just six times between Triple-A and the majors -- four times in the regular season and twice in the playoffs. His highest pitch count was Game 2 of the World Series, when he threw 114 pitches. Many of his 15 starts at Triple-A Memphis were in the 80s.

When we look back at Mark Prior, the pitcher whose injury reinforced the hyper-sensitivity in handling young pitchers, it wasn't the innings but the total pitches and the string of high-pitch games at the end of 2003. Prior threw 211.1 innings in the regular season that year for the Cubs, plus 23.1 more in the postseason, but he topped 100 pitches in 29 of his 33 starts (including the playoffs) and 120 in 10 starts. Check out his final 13 starts: 116 pitches, 118, 100, 116, 131, 129, 109, 124, 131, 133, 133, 116, 119.

No wonder he hit the wall in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the NLCS.

In his 30 regular season starts, Prior threw 3,401 pitches. Since then, only three pitchers have topped Prior's average of 113.4 pitches per start -- Justin Verlander three times and Jered Weaver and Livan Hernandez once each. Verlander did it at 27, 28 and 29 years old. Prior was 22 in 2003. (Kerry Wood averaged 110.8 pitches per game that same season, by the way.)

So considering the fact that the Cardinals aren't going to be sending Wacha out there for 115 pitches a game, a jump in innings is in order. The question is whether Wacha will be efficient enough to get to 200 innings. He ranked 158th out of 190 starters who made at least nine starts in pitches per plate appearances. Of course, a lot of those plate appearances ended up in outs so Wacha was still able to pitch deep into games.

Now, Lilliquist may not be exactly right about needing a 200-inning guy -- the Pirates, Rays and Indians made the playoffs last season without a 200-inning pitcher and four teams did it in 2012 -- but it certainly relieves some of the stress off the bullpen. And with Lance Lynn, who threw 201.2 innings in 2013, not assured of a spot in the rotation, the Cardinals will need another workhorse behind Adam Wainwright.

In other Cardinals talk, Fungoes takes a look at what Mike Matheny's lineup card should look like.
World Series history is filled with dramatic Game 6 contests -- 2011 (Cardinals-Rangers), 2002 (Angels rally), 1993 (Joe Carter), 1992 (Jays clinch in extra innings), 1991 (Kirby Puckett), 1986 (Bill Buckner), 1975 (Carlton Fisk)... just to name a few.

We didn't get a classic Game 6 this time. Instead, we saw a lot of fear of David Ortiz, we saw Michael Wacha's October run end in sadness, we saw Red Sox fans celebrating a World Series clincher at home for the first time since 1918. Which is a cool way to end the baseball season.

Hero: Shane Victorino had missed the previous two games with lower back tightness, but returned wearing patriotic cleats and delivered the big hit of the game. With the bases loaded and two outs in the third inning, he drilled a 2-1 fastball from Wacha high off the Green Monster in left-center for a bases-clearing double as Jonny Gomes just barely beat the throw home for the third run. In the fourth, he singled home another run with two outs for a 6-0 lead.

Back to that double. It was set up by a few things. In order:

1. Ortiz's first-inning plate appearance, in which he worked a nine-pitch walk, fouling off three pitches before finally taking a curveball below the knees.

2. Jacoby Ellsbury's leadoff single in the third and Dustin Pedroia's broken-bat ground out to third base that moved Ellsbury to second. Think of the little things that can turn a baseball game: What if Pedroia doesn't break his bat and instead grounds into a 5-4 force play? That means first base would have been occupied. Instead, there was a runner on second and one out.

3. The intentional walk to Ortiz. "We are going to be careful," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said before the game about pitching to the scorching hot Ortiz. "We haven't made it any big secret, and sometimes when we're doing that, it doesn't even work out how we're playing it. It's a situation where you have a hitter that we know and everybody sees, he's swinging the bat very well."

Sabermetricians are not big fans of the intentional walk, mostly because extra baserunners can lead to big innings. Matheny isn't usually a fan of the intentional walk -- the Cardinals ranked next-to-last in the National League in free passes handed out. But he decided to give the Red Sox a free baserunner; the Cardinals would pay the price.

My take: I'm not a fan of the intentional. Yes, Ortiz was hot. And I'm sure that first-inning walk influenced Matheny's decision. At that point, Ortiz had swung and missed at only three pitches the entire Series. But just because he was hitting .750 in the Series doesn't mean he's a .750 hitter. And if you walk him? Well, then he's a 1.000 on-base guy. The move is even riskier with just one out instead of two. As far as intentional walks go, it was certainly understandable as to why it was done. Don't let Ortiz beat us. But it also reminded me of Ron Washington walking Albert Pujols in the bottom of the 10th inning in Game 6 of 2011 to pitch to Lance Berkman (who would knock in the game-tying run). When you intentional walk a batter in those situations you're assuming the next batter (or batters) are going to hit .000.

4. Hitting Gomes. Wacha struck out Mike Napoli with a 94-mph fastball that looked down the middle. At that point, Matheny's move looked like it would work out. Batters were 0-for-14 against Wacha in the postseason with runners in scoring position, wtih six strikeouts. He just needed to get Gomes. Instead, he hit him.

That brought up Victorino. He fell behind with a curveball inside and fastball below the knees. Victorino took a fastball on the corner but was still sitting 2-1 fastball and got one. Wacha had only thrown five changeups at that point (he got Pedroia on one) and you can certain second-guess going to another fastball there. But again: Bases loaded, can't walk somebody. Victorino cleared the bases, but the intentional walk helped set up the inning.

Goat: Cardinals offense. Look, for all the talk about whether or not to pitch to Ortiz, it wasn't Ortiz who had beat the Cardinals through the first games so much as the Boston pitching (Jon Lester in particular). But the Cardinals scored just 14 runs in six games, hitting .224. They did have nine hits in Game 6, but just one was an extra-base hit (they had just 10 in the entire Series) and Matt Holliday's two home runs (one hit while down 8-0 in Game 1) were the only two the Cardinals hit. The bats simply didn't produce with Matt Adams hitting .136, David Freese .158 and Jon Jay .167.

Big Papi redux: In the fourth inning Stephen Drew led off with a home run and Ellsbury doubled with one out. After Pedroia flew out, Matheny again elected to give Ortiz a free base. He again paid the price for not wanting Ortiz to beat his team. Down 4-0, the game and season on the line, he went to ... Game 4 starter Lance Lynn to face Napoli. Not Carlos Martinez. Not Seth Maness. Not John Axford. Certainly not Trevor Rosenthal (he's the closer!) or Shelby Miller (he was left on the runway in St. Louis). Again, I'm not sure Lynn was any worse of an option than Martinez, Maness or Axford, but it was a bit curious. Lynn faced three batters, gave up two hits and a walk and it was 6-0.

As Keith Law tweeted about yet another intentional walk, "It's almost like putting a hitter on base deliberately, refusing him the chance to make an out on his own, is a bad idea."

Lackey in control: John Lackey wasn't dominant but spaced his hits and worked out of a couple jams, most notably in the second inning when Allen Craig and Yadier Molina led off with hard singles. He retired Adams on another hard liner to deep left, got Freese to fly out to right on a 3-2 curve and then struck out Jay on another curve. Red Sox fans can look back at those two curves as the two big pitches Lackey would make. After that, he seemed to right himself, kept the ball, threw first-pitch strikes and became the first pitcher to start and win clinching games for two different teams (he started Game 7 for the Angels as a rookie in 2002).

Going out in style: Ellsbury is a free agent and with Jackie Bradley Jr. on the horizon, speculation is Ellsbury signs with another team. If it was his final game in a Red Sox uniform, what a game: He went 2-for-4 with a walk, starting both Red Sox rallies. Ellsbury was a late-season add back in 2007, hit .353 in 33 games to earn a starting spot by the postseason and then hit .438 in the World Series. He's had his ups and downs in his Boston career, but he makes the offense go from the leadoff spot and scored 14 runs in 16 postseason games.

Splitting hairs: And the final pitch: A Koji Uehara splitter that Matt Carpenter swung on and missed, the pitch diving off the plate something wicked. The single best pitch in baseball this season was the final one of the season. The guy without the beard let the beards begin the celebration.

The best team won: The best team doesn't always win. But the Red Sox were the best team in the regular season, tying for the most wins in the majors while playing in easily the toughest division. They were best team in the playoffs, beating a good Tampa Bay club, that lethal Detroit pitching staff, and a St. Louis team that was better than its 2006 and 2011 World Series winners. Congrats to the Red Sox.

How 18 teams passed on Michael Wacha

October, 30, 2013
In a postseason of beards, bizarre umpiring decisions and an obsession with the games that straddles the line between concern trolling and cultural imperialism, no storyline has been more annoying than St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Michael Wacha, the 22-year-old wunderkind who twice bested Clayton Kershaw and inspired hundreds of thousands of baseball fans to believe that they were the first person to notice that the Cardinals' No. 2 starter's last name was half of a beloved Muppet's catchphrase.

It's not his fault -- Wacha has done great things on baseball's biggest stage, and works such as his often inspire such adulation as we've seen over the past month.

But with Wacha only one full season removed from college, one question persists, and it has been asked over and over in every media that concerns sports: "How did 18 guys get drafted in front of Michael Wacha?"
[+] EnlargeWacha
Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports Going into Game 6, Michael Wacha already has proved he's something special.

To ask that question 17 months after the draft is an inadvertent admission of ignorance, so in the interest of preventing people from embarrassing themselves, let’s put this question to bed.

1. How did 81 guys get drafted before Paco Rodriguez? All told, Wacha has thrown 91 2/3 innings in the major leagues. And they've been superb: Let alone that he's won all four of his playoff starts, in which he's allowed only three runs in 27 innings -- he was very good in September too. But 91 2/3 major league innings is barely enough of a track record to determine that Wacha is a human being, much less the best player in his draft class. The playoff starts aren't nothing, but they're the only reason the majority of people who are asking this question even know Wacha's name. If he'd gone two picks earlier, to the Blue Jays, who finished 23 games out of first place, and put up exactly the same numbers in the regular season, he'd have never burst onto the stage the way he has, through no fault of his own.

Don't believe me? Consider the following:

64.2 25.0 7.3 3.42 131 2.92 1.7
61 29.5 9.8 3.00 164 3.08 1.7

On top are Wacha's career regular-season stats. On the bottom is Steven "Paco" Rodriguez, a relief pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers who is six weeks older than Wacha, beat him to the majors by eight months and went 63 places after Wacha in the 2012 draft. Despite posting very similar peripheral stats to Wacha's, and despite his having a colorful nickname and a distinctive delivery, Paco Rodriguez has inspired no infantile Muppet-based wordplay, and no one wonders how he lasted until No. 82 overall. The major differences are that (1) Paco Rodriguez is a reliever, which doesn't allow him to, say, go head-to-head with Clayton Kershaw and (2) he got shelled in his only playoff appearance and was left off the Dodgers' NLCS roster.

If two months of games are somehow all-revealing when it comes to 22-year-old rookie pitchers, then why isn't Marty Bystrom in the Hall of Fame?

2. We don't know anything about the 2012 draft. Even if Wacha does turn out to be the best player in his draft class, we won't know for some time. In total, 1,238 players were drafted in June 2012, of which six have played in the major leagues at all. Every single one of those six came from the SEC, which is the most advanced amateur baseball league in the world, so the other 1,232 guys probably need some time to catch up. No 2012 draftee has thrown more than 77 2/3 regular-season innings, nor registered more than 193 major league plate appearances. Carlos Correa, the No. 1 overall pick, will be 21 and 11 months (the age Wacha was when he made his big league debut) in August 2016. That Wacha reached the major leagues so quickly is a mark in his favor, but even if the draft were done over today, there's enough unrealized potential in other players that I find it extremely unlikely Wacha would even go in the top five, much less No. 1 overall.

So when can we judge? Well, let's say an 18-year-old draftee takes four to six years to break into the majors. There are exceptions, of course, but most players will remain on prospect lists until age 23 or 24. And after that, how long until he has enough career to judge? Six years, until free agency? By then, we know practically for certain what kind of a player a draftee will be. Realistically, it takes about a decade to judge a draft class. That might not be convenient when it comes to crafting a postseason narrative, but that's how long you have to wait if you want to give everyone a chance to develop. How many of the people wondering how Wacha fell so far will have forgotten by the time Byron Buxton and Addison Russell come up?

What is Michael Wacha's future?


Discuss (Total votes: 2,877)

3. Michael Wacha isn't the same pitcher he was in June 2012. Potential first-round pitchers exist on a continuum that runs, in shorthand, from Lucas Giolito to Mike Leake. Giolito is one of the 18 players who went ahead of Wacha in 2012, a 6-foot-6 right-hander from California who touched triple digits with his fastball in high school and might have been the first high school right-hander ever to go No. 1 overall if he hadn't hurt his elbow his senior year. He had Tommy John surgery last year and has thrown only 38 2/3 professional innings. He could be a Cy Young contender or he could wind up never making the majors at all. Other low-floor/high-ceiling prospects might be skinny teenagers who put on 25 pounds of muscle and gain five miles an hour of fastball velocity. Still others might have dominated lower-level competition thanks to playing in the Snowbound Wilderness Parochial Athletic Conference, leaving scouts without much of an idea how they'd fare against better competition. Such pitchers tend to be slow to reach the majors.

Leake, however, was at the other end of the spectrum when the Reds drafted him No. 8 overall in 2009. At Arizona State, Leake had performed well against some of the best amateur competition, and he had no notable injuries to overcome, nor did he, at 21, seem likely to undergo any appreciable physical maturation. So he was drafted in June 2009, signed in August and made his major league debut the next April without having played a single game in the minor leagues. The Reds thought they were getting a No. 3 or 4 starter, someone who could throw 180 league average innings a year, and that's exactly what they got.

Coming out of Texas A&M, Wacha boasted good command, a plus changeup and a low-90s fastball. If you've never been to Texas and follow baseball, you could be forgiven thinking that all male Texans grow to be at least 6-4 and are born with a 97 mph fastball, a 12-to-6 curve, soulful blue eyes and a roguish disregard for authority. I've never been to Texas and it's what I believe.

Wacha, despite his height, didn't fit the archetype. On the eve of the draft, Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus declared him to be closer to Leake than to Giolito on the continuum. His command, fastball and easy delivery would make him a likely major league starter, but his lack of anything more than a "show me" breaking ball limited his upside to that of a mid-rotation starter. After the draft, Wacha and the Cardinals both seemed to be on board with this characterization -- he'd move through the minors quickly, but his ceiling wasn't that high. That's how he fell to No. 19.

And you know what? It happens. Tom Brady fell to the sixth round of the NFL draft because he was a skinny kid with a 5.3 40-yard dash time and a reputation for not being able to hold onto the starting job at Michigan. It's not as though every team passed on him while he was holding his Hall of Fame bust on draft night, and amateur scouting in football is, by orders of magnitude, a more exact science that amateur scouting in baseball.

So Wacha was a low-ceiling, two-pitch starter last summer, but since then his fastball has ticked up ever so slightly and he has developed his breaking ball into something that's actually useful. The Cardinals are probably the best franchise in baseball when it comes to developing players, and Wacha won't be the last pitcher they draft who will outperform his expectations.

And that's even assuming the Wacha you see now is the Wacha you'll see going forward, that he won't get hurt, or regress at all, both of which are eminently possible. Wacha has about a two-month track record of being the pitcher he has been this postseason, and a lifetime's worth of not being as good before that. It's possible, maybe even likely, that his performance this postseason isn't an aberration, but it's not certain. Even beyond the possibility that Russell, Buxton, Correa, Giolito or 14 other guys might turn out to be just as good as Wacha, and beyond the point that it borders on irresponsible to try to judge a draft class this soon, we might be seeing Wacha's best right now, at this moment.

So how did 18 guys get drafted before Michael Wacha? Because the draft is an inexact science, and there's a lot we know now that we didn't know then. But even though the Cardinals have benefited immensely from Wacha's performance, and the other 29 teams would be glad to have him, there's even more we don't know now that will influence the eventual accounting of this draft class.

Michael Wacha went No. 19 overall because 18 teams liked another available prospect better than they liked him. And if you redid the draft today, playoff heroism and all, many of those 18 teams would pass on him again.

Michael Baumann writes for Crashburn Alley and contributes to Grantland.
Thoughts on a Game 2 of the World Series that was a thousand times more interesting than Game 1, that ended with the Cardinals beating the Red Sox 4-2.

Hero: Cardinals rookie sensation Michael Wacha was nearly sensational once again, taking a shutout into the sixth inning. Facing David Ortiz with a runner on and one out, he threw one changeup up too many to Big Papi -- four in a row, with Ortiz depositing the 3-2 changeup just over the Green Monster in left-center. But Wacha recovered to strike out Mike Napoli and retire Jonny Gomes to get through six innings. The Red Sox ran up his pitch count -- 114 pitches -- and he walked four batters, but he gave up just three hits, got a big double play on Napoli with two on and no outs in the fourth and improved to 4-0 in the postseason when the Cardinals took the lead in the top of the seventh.

Goat: Red Sox reliever Craig Breslow replaced starter John Lackey with two runners on in the seventh. Breslow isn't exactly a lefty killer (.238 average allowed, including the postseason) but it made sense for manager John Farrell to bring him in to face lefties Daniel Descalso (.183 versus southpaws) and Matt Carpenter. But Breslow allowed a double steal and then walked Descalso on a 3-2 slider to load the bases, setting up the play of the game.

Turning point: So bases loaded, Carpenter lifts a fly ball to shallow left, setting in motion four awful plays that are basically unacceptable in any major league game, let alone a World Series game: (1) Gomes' throw was offline even though he wasn't that far beyond the infield cutoff; (2) catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia didn't catch the ball; (3) Jon Jay, on second base, for some reason headed back to second base as the throw went home, and got a late break for third; (4) which drew a throw from Breslow (at least he was backing up the throw home), which went wildly into the third-base stands, allowing Jay to score. Final tally: two runs, and when Carlos Beltran followed with an RBI single, it was 4-2.

At-bat of the night: How about the walk by David Freese to start that rally? He fouled off two pitches with two strikes, eventually taking a 3-2 cutter outside. Lackey threw 71 of 95 pitches for strikes, his season-high percentage of strikes, so terrific job by Freese to work a walk.

The Jonny Gomes Hunch: All season, John Farrell platooned Daniel Nava and Gomes in left field. Suddenly in the postseason he's gotten the itch to play Gomes against all pitchers, even though Nava had a .411 on-base percentage against right-handers. The Red Sox like Gomes' energy, and Boston had been 7-0 with Gomes starting in the postseason, but Farrell's lucky charm hurt the team in this game. Gomes went 0-for-4, had the bad throw and is 0-for-7 in the two World Series games. Unless there's something going on with Nava we don't know about, he should be out there in Game 3. Yes, Gomes may be more likely to pop one out (especially at Fenway), but Nava gets on base against righties and is a little better in the field.

Hey, it worked, but ... Eighth inning, 22-year-old rookie Carlos Martinez protecting the 4-2 lead in his second inning of work, Ortiz up with a runner on and two outs. Matheny had three options: (1) Bring in lefty killer Randy Choate (.161 against left-handers including the playoffs with no home runs allowed); (2) bring in closer Trevor Rosenthal for a four-out save; (3) leave in Martinez. Choate seemed like the obvious choice, considering Ortiz's production falls way off against lefties. The cameras panned to a nervous-looking Matheny on the dugout steps. He chose to keep Martinez in there, perhaps preferring to battle Ortiz with the 100 mph fastball instead of Choate's junk. I think Choate was the right call, but while Ortiz reached on an infield single, Martinez did get Napoli to pop out.

Revealing statistic: Rosenthal struck out the side in the ninth. Eleven pitches, all fastballs, average speed of 97.2 mph, 99 on the final pitch to Nava (pinch-hitting for Drew). And, yes, all 27 outs recorded by rookie pitchers for the Cardinals.
This probably isn't the World Series you wanted, assuming you don't root for the Red Sox or Cardinals. After all, both franchises have been to the World Series multiple times in the past decade and both have won twice. So maybe you wanted some new blood. Instead you'll get beards. Lots of them.

But you also get two great teams, with no shortage of reasons to watch. Here are 10:

1. Adam Wainwright. He was a rookie closer when the Cardinals won the World Series in 2006 but was injured when they won again in 2011. In a season where much of the attention for pitchers went to Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Matt Harvey and Mariano Rivera, Wainwright quietly went 19-9 with a 2.94 ERA while leading the majors in innings pitched. This is his chance to make his October mark in Cardinals history alongside the likes of Bob Gibson and his mentor Chris Carpenter, who won two games in the 2011 World Series. He has that big curveball -- maybe the best since Bert Blyleven was spinning his own -- that he'll throw on any count but is especially deadly with two strikes, when opponents hit .118 with 130 strikeouts in 238 plate appearances.

2. David Ortiz versus Carlos Beltran. They're not facing each other, but you sort of get the feeling they are. Few hitters have delivered in their playoff careers like these two, although Ortiz did go just 2-for-22 in the American League Championship Series. Beltran had six RBIs in each of the Cardinals' first two series and now gets the opportunity to play in his first World Series … and perhaps make a Hall of Fame statement.

3. John Lackey's redemption. Two years ago he was the most hated man in Boston after posting a 6.41 ERA in 28 starts and ordering lots of fried chicken between starts. Now, after beating Justin Verlander 1-0 in the ALCS, he's going to start Game 2 of the World Series. Remember, he's familiar with the pressures of a big game: As a rookie with the Angels in the 2002 World Series, he was the winning pitcher in Game 7.

4. Yadier Molina. One of the memories of the 2011 World Series that stuck with me was the ovations Molina received from his home fans -- louder than those given Albert Pujols. Perhaps Cardinals fans anticipated Pujols' departure, or maybe they just appreciated everything Molina does for the team, from his hitting to his defense to the confidence he instills in his pitchers. Few players ever perfect their jobs on a baseball field, but you get the idea Molina has perfected playing catcher. Appreciate and enjoy. And then see if the Red Sox -- who set the all-time record for stolen-base percentage (123 for 142) -- attempt to run on him.

5. Power versus RISP. Each team led its league in runs scored, just the fourth time since 1976 that's happened (1976, Reds-Yankees; 2004, Cardinals-Red Sox; 2009, Phillies-Yankees), but did so in different ways. The Red Sox, while not as powerful as some Red Sox teams of the past, hit 178 home runs (sixth in the majors), but also pounded out 363 doubles (first) and drew 581 walks (third). The Cardinals ranked 27th in the majors in home runs and don't steal many bases (just 45), but they put the ball in play, an attribute that allowed them to hit .330 with runners in scoring position, the highest figure in the majors since that stat has been recorded beginning in 1961. The Red Sox beat the Tigers largely because of three key home runs -- the grand slams from Ortiz and Shane Victorino plus Mike Napoli's solo shot in the 1-0 victory in Game 3 -- and while the Cardinals have hit just .210 in the postseason they've hit .286 with RISP.

6. Michael Wacha. In the span of 16 months he's gone from Texas A&M to ... well, almost unhittable. In his past four starts, going back to his final outing of the regular season, he's allowed an .093 batting average -- 9 for 97. In his three postseason starts, he's allowed one run for a tidy 0.43 ERA. He has a chance to become just the sixth pitcher to have four starts in one postseason where he allowed one run or less, joining Blue Moon Odom (1972), Burt Hooton (1981), John Smoltz (1996), Ryan Vogelsong (2012) and Curt Schilling (2001, the only one with five). I can't wait to see what the rookie does.

7. Xander Bogaerts. He just turned 21 and had just 18 games of big-league experience before the playoffs began. Now he may be starting at third base, like he did the final two games of the ALCS. He's going to be a big star down the road so this is kind of like a sneak preview. He's had 11 plate appearances in the playoffs and drawn five walks while going 3-for-6. How can a kid have such a mature approach at the plate?

8. Cardinals relievers. Speaking of kids, the Cardinals' top four relievers right now -- Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness -- are all rookies. Teams have won before with rookie closers -- Bobby Jenks of the White Sox in 2005, Wainwright in 2006 -- and the Cardinals had some inexperienced relievers in 2011. But four rookie relievers in key roles? (Five if you include starter Shelby Miller working out of the bullpen.) How can you not be pumped watching Rosenthal and Martinez throwing 100 mph in the eighth and ninth innings?

9. Koji Uehara's splitter. It's the most dominant 81 mph pitch in baseball history, a force of nature that breaks the natural laws of baseball, a pitcher who turns skilled batsmen into helpless amateurs. Including the postseason, batters are hitting .134 off Uehara. Against the splitter, they're hitting .096. Since the All-Star break, they're hitting .074 against the splitter, just 6-for-81 with 37 strikeouts and no walks. He's 38 years old and basically the opposite of the gas-throwing Rosenthal and Martinez. The contrast in styles should make for some exciting late-game drama. One more thing: In what other sport could a 38-year-old guy, who while a good pitcher was never to be confused with Mariano Rivera, suddenly have a year better than any season Rivera ever had?

10. The best against the best. For the time since 1999, the teams with the best records in the majors will face off in the World Series. For the time since 2004, the teams with the best run differentials will face off. The rejuvenated, bearded Red Sox against the youthful, talented Cardinals. Players trying to create postseason legacies, others trying to add to existing ones. Big stars and future stars on the rise. To me, it's a World Series that has the elements for a classic duel. I think we're going to get one.
If the Los Angeles Dodgers are Hollywood’s team, then the script was in place: Clayton Kershaw, baseball’s best player in 2013, would dominate the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, the Dodgers would find a way to win Game 7, and then Kershaw would be in line to start Game 1 of the World Series. There, much like Sandy Koufax in 1965 or Orel Hershiser in 1988, he would carry the Dodgers to a championship, the best pitcher in the game living up to the moment.

Sorry, Hollywood: The Dodgers aren’t taking the Oscar home this year.

In a stunning Game 6, the Cardinals hit around Kershaw like he was a Class A pitcher making a token appearance in a meaningless spring training game. Instead of Cy Young, the Cardinals got Anthony Young. The third inning was an inning for the ages for the Cardinals, a horror show for the Dodgers. The Cardinals scored four runs as Kershaw threw 48 pitches -- it was the first time a team batted around against Kershaw since 2009. The National League pennant will once again be raised in St. Louis thanks to big names like Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina and unsung role players like Shane Robinson, who delivered the big hit in the inning.

Oh, yes, Michael Wacha: The rookie can flat-out pitch.

(For the obsessive historians out there, a reminder of Game 2 of the 1966 World Series, when a 20-year-old kid named Jim Palmer beat Koufax 6-0, in what would be the final game of Koufax’s career. Dodgers fans at least take solace in that Kershaw is not going to retire.)

The final score read 9-0, as Kershaw, perhaps mentally and physically shot after that third inning, allowed three straight hits to start the fifth and was done after 98 pitches. All three batters would score, giving him a final line of seven runs and 10 hits in four innings, just the fifth time in his career he has allowed seven or more runs.

Much of the immediate reaction on Twitter was to rip Yasiel Puig, who made two ill-advised throws in the third inning, but the throws ultimately had no impact in the chain of events. The inning was about the Cardinals’ hitters and their ability to fight off good pitches -- they fouled off 12 of those 48 pitches -- and their season-long ability to produce with runners in scoring position. They hit .330 with RISP, an all-time record, and while some will subscribe that number to luck or simply write it off as the kind of fluke thing can happen in baseball, it’s also clear that it happened as well due to skill and approach. In this day when hitters swing from their heels no matter the count or situation, willing to trade strikeouts -- lots of strikeouts -- for home runs, the Cardinals excel at that old-school stat that everyone loves to denigrate: batting average.

They put the ball in play and that leads to more hits. They had the lowest strikeout rate in the majors this season -- as they also did in 2011, when they won the World Series -- and if there’s a trend to watch in the playoffs these days, it’s that: not striking out. Since 2009, teams that had the lower strikeout rate in the regular season have won 23 of 29 postseason series. The statisticians may argue that the sample size is too small to draw any conclusions; maybe they’re right. But tell that to the Cardinals.

You saw all that in the third inning. They cut down on their swings. They go for base hits, content to trust the next guy in the order to drive in the run if necessary. They had just four swinging strikes out of those 48 pitches. Matt Carpenter got the rally going with one out with a marvelous 11-pitch at-bat, fouling off eight pitches before finally doubling on a slider. Yes, the Cardinals had a couple breaks in there: One hit bounced over the glove of second baseman Mark Ellis and Kershaw appeared to strike out Matt Adams on a 3-2 fastball at the knees. If he gets that call, it’s 2-0. Instead, Robinson hit a two-run single and it's 4-0 and the champagne was rolled outside the St. Louis clubhouse.

As for Wacha, we’ve been writing about him a lot lately. He pitched seven innings and allowed two hits. Going back to his final start of the regular season, when he had a no-hit bid broken up with two outs in the eighth, he’s made four starts, allowed one run and opponents are hitting .093.

And here’s more good news for the Cardinals: Clinching in Game 6 means Adam Wainwright will be ready to start Game 1 of the World Series and, since it doesn’t start until Wednesday, Wacha will be ready for Game 2.

Wainwright and Wacha and hitting with guys on base. It's a wonderful combination, isn't it?
Michael Wacha last pitched 13 days ago. You may remember that he was pretty good in that game: He lost a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning on Ryan Zimmerman's infield single.

Amazingly, in just his 10th career start, Wacha followed up that start with not just the game of his lifetime, but almost the game of anyone's lifetime, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning before Pedro Alvarez crushed a meteor to right-center field with one out. Still, while Wacha was five outs short of the third no-hitter in postseason history, following Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series and Roy Halladay's no-hitter for the Phillies in the 2010 NLDS, his dominant start gave the Cardinals a 2-1 win over the Pirates in Game 4 to even the series.

Many believed the Cardinals should have started Adam Wainwright on three days' rest in this game, but Mike Matheny had ultimate confidence in his young rookie -- just like he has confidence in the five other rookies on his playoff pitching staff. Like Wainwright, Wacha is tall and thin, but while Wainwright relies on that nasty curveball, Wacha's best off-speed pitch is a lethal changeup that makes him extremely tough against left-handed hitters, who hit just .197 off him this season.

On this day, Wacha dumped his curveball and stuck with the fastball and changeup. After an eight-pitch seventh inning, the no-hitter was no longer a fantasy but appeared to be an impending reality. Wacha blew away Marlon Byrd with a 96-mph fastball for the first out. Up stepped Alvarez, who had the big hit in Game 3 and had homered in the first two games. Wacha fell behind 3-1 and, not wanting to walk him to bring up the tying run, threw a 93-mph four-seamer into Alvarez's wheelhouse and Pedro didn't miss, sending it 438 feet into the Pittsburgh afternoon.

After Wacha walked Russell Martin (who has had great at-bats all postseason), his day was done after 96 pitches. The one questionable decision in this game: Matheny turned to Carlos Martinez, one of those rookies, leaving closer Trevor Rosenthal (yet another rookie) in the bullpen. Rosenthal has just recently become the team's closer and had pitched two innings on six occasions, so is certainly capable of going five outs, but Matheny went with the Martinez (who, like Rosenthal, can hit 100 mph with his fastball).

Josh Harrison pinch-ran for Martin and Jose Tabata pinch-hit. On a 2-1 pitch, Clint Hurdle sent Harrison but Tabata missed the pitch on what might have been a hit-and-run. Yadier Molina's one-hop throw was in time to get Harrison, who started his slide too early and looked like he was diving into quicksand. Tabata fanned on a 3-2 curve, quieting the Pittsburgh faithful. I don't have a huge problem sending Harrison there; ahead in the count, Tabata had to be sitting fastball and he's pretty good contact guy. He did get fastball; he just missed.

Pirates fans had one last moment of hope in the ninth when Rosenthal inexplicably walked Neil Walker on four pitches with two outs to bring up Andrew McCutchen. After falling behind 3-0 to McCutchen, he finally got him to pop up to second on a 3-1, 96-mph fastball.

Now Matheny's decision to bypass Wainwright puts the Cardinals in the driver's seat. He has his ace going in Game 5 at home, where Wainwright had a 2.53 ERA. Hurdle will have to decide whether to stick with A.J. Burnett, who got hammered in Game 1, or go with rookie Gerrit Cole, who dominated in his Game 2 start. With the off day on Tuesday, Cole would be pitching on regular rest.

I know what I'd do: As Wacha showed today, have faith in the youngsters. Especially when they have talent on the level of Wacha or Cole.

* * * *

Wacha's final Game Score ended up as 79 ... a great start, although not historical, at least by the Game Score method. Here are the best starts in postseason history by Game Score:

Roger Clemens, 2000 ALCS, Yankees vs. Mariners: 98 (9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 15 SO)
Dave McNally, 1969 ALCS, Orioles vs. Twins: 97 (11 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 5 BB, 11 SO)
Babe Ruth, 1916 WS, Red Sox vs. Robins: 97 (14 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 4 SO)
Tim Lincecum, 2010 NLDS, Giants vs. Braves: 96 (9 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 14 SO)
Roy Halladay, 2010 NLDS, Phillies vs. Reds: 94 (9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 8 SO)
Don Larsen, 1956 WS, Yankees vs. Dodgers: 94 (9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 7 SO)
Ed Walsh, 1906 WS, White Sox vs. Cubs: 94 (9 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 12 SO)

Michael Wacha enjoys his no-no near-miss

September, 25, 2013

ST. LOUIS -- On Michael Wacha’s ninth career start and just 15th major league appearance, he was one out away from a no-hitter.
Wacha, 22, said he knew from the first inning he had a no-hitter going.

“You know if you give up a hit or not,” said Wacha giving an honest assessment about what he was feeling during the game. “I was just going out there every inning, just pounding the strike zone.”

As the game continued, he said, he kept focusing on the fact that this was an important game for the Cardinals to win.

“That [is] just the main focus coming out right now -- this last week of baseball, every win is crucial, so that was just the mindset going into this game,” Wacha said. “Let’s win this game and stay in first place.”
[+] EnlargeMichael Wacha
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsMichael Wacha could enjoy Tuesday night, even after a no-hitter barely got away from him.

Wacha cruised through the first four innings, but then in the fifth with two outs, Adam LaRoche reached base on a fielding error by second baseman Matt Carpenter. Wacha didn’t unravel after LaRoche reached base, though. On a 96 mph fastball Wilson Ramos lined out to right fielder Carlos Beltran for the final out of the inning.

“Wow. The stuff, the composure,” manager Mike Matheny said about Wacha’s night after the game. “He was able to tune everything out. For a kid to do that against a lineup like this at this time of the season, it’s hard to really get your head around that.”

In the sixth with two outs Denard Span tried to bunt his way on base. The ball came down the line to third baseman David Freese.

“I was going to barehand it to first, then I saw it moving. I was going to let it go and, you know, the stadium let Denard [Span] know how they felt about that,” Freese said referring to the fans booing Span. “I think I just had to scamper after it. Once I got it in the mitt, I wasn’t nervous.”

Span ended up grounding to second baseman Matt Carpenter for the final out of the inning.
After Ryan Zimmerman walked to lead off the seventh, Wacha retired the next three batters, but it was the moment in the eighth inning when the ball soared through the air off Anthony Rendon’s bat that the crowd at Busch Stadium held their breath ... right up until left fielder Shane Robinson made a great catch for the final out of the eighth inning.

“It was a pretty special night,” Wacha said. “The defense was playing great behind me. That’s the only reason I was able to go that long, because Shane Robinson is making great plays. I mean, everyone on the field was making plays. It was just an unbelievable night.”

Steve Lombardozzi grounded out for the first out, then Span was called out on strikes, but Ryan Zimmerman singled on a ground ball that just tipped Wacha’s glove. Pete Kozma tried to get the out at first, but Zimmerman was safe.

“He made a heck of an effort on it,” Wacha said about Kozma's throw.

“I think we all kind had a smile on our face because we knew what kind of outing Wacha just threw out there,” Freese said. “And more importantly, getting that win so young in the big leagues, and he’s so mature for his lack of time up here. It’s a huge win at this point in the season.”

The Cardinals come into the clubhouse confident and ready to win each game, Freese said, and Wacha showcased one of the reasons why on Tuesday night, keeping the Cardinals in first place two games ahead of Pittsburgh.

“We understand what’s at stake,” Freese said. “We understand that we kind of control our own destiny, but tonight it’s Michael Wacha’s night.”

Wacha said everything about Tuesday night felt great, even the ice bath at the end of the game.

“It was cold, but it was a good cold,” Wacha reflected.