Tag Archive | "Fastball"

Wacha, The One Hit Wonder

It’s been quite the year around Michael Wacha thus far. Long before his nearly historic outing last night, the rookie righty has put together an enticing showing in his first rodeo, one that is just getting started. The reward for the pick that Pujols brought to St. Louis, is quickly establishing himself in the fashion that was so eagerly awaited since nearly his first day with the team this spring.

Washington Nationals  vs St. Louis Cardinals

The most impressive things on the surface level for Wacha are the hard fastball, which and the fast rise that it has afforded from college to the Majors in under a year. Yet, as last night’s performance has showcased, it is the poise that is his greatest ally. Balancing upper 90’s fastballs with strategic placement both in the zone and offsetting them with a changeup that he deploys with the knowledge of a hurler 10 years his senior is one thing, but handling the breaks was the most impressive part of his outing last night.

After missing his chance at becoming the third Cardinal rookie to throw a no-hitter in as many of the memorable outings as the franchise has hosted, his demeanor told the story of where he was. Despite missing finishing his fantastic effort by inches, as Ryan Zimmerman’s heart-breaking single bounced through the infield, he did not make a big deal of the situation. He held his head steady as he was removed from the game after that 112th and final pitch, and took a convincing approach to the “failed” outing, which in actually won a crucial series for the club.

While the concern with young hurlers is if they can stand up to pressure of the moment, a closer look at Wacha’s year shows another encouraging factor in his readiness for the postseason. While batters have hit .281 on his pitches 51-75, he does his best work after passing that point, with opposing batters having to .167/.210/.190 split from pitches 76-112. It’s that fortitude that makes him a promising option for the type of arduous games ahead.

The levity of the no-hitter wasn’t his focus, as much was delivering a solid start in a tight game, as well as keeping it in focus. The magic number for clinching the National League Central, and thus avoiding the trap of the Wild Card Game, was in need of yet another strong outing, which he delivered unequivocally. As he relayed to MLB.com’s Jennifer Langosch, he accomplished what he set out for:

That focus is what can make him as much of an asset as the fastball, the eye-popping compliment pitches and the imposing 6’6 frame packaging it all. In a clear cut sense of this, the disappointment from teammates such as David Freese and Pete Kozma, both of celebrated postseason form, was far more evident than his own. And while without a doubt, he will have a time where he runs the scenario back through his mind, his poise in a personal defeat, yet team victory says a lot about what he can bring to the team in the upcoming week when every game hinges on such major moments.

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Justin Maxwell’s blast helps keep Royals’ playoff hopes alive

When Justin Maxwell walked up to the plate in the 10th inning of Sunday’s game against the Rangers, anyone watching could sense that it was a big moment. Whether you were one of the thousands and Kauffman who rose to your feet or whether you were glued to the television, you could sense the enormity of the situation.

Royals Twins Baseball

The score was tied 0-0 in the tenth inning with the bases loaded and two outs. Former Royal Joakim Soria was on the mound for the Rangers. The Royals were battling for their playoff lives against a team that sat ahead of them in the Wild Card standings.

Maxwell worked deep in the count before squaring up a fastball, sending a no-doubter over the fence in left field. After making contact, Maxwell threw both hands in the air, sensing how big the hit he just delivered really was.

For Royals fans who haven’t had much to cheer about over recent years, this was a signature moment in a season that has surprised even the most die-hard fans.

The 4-0 victory gave the Royals a series win against the struggling Rangers. Texas, who once seemed a lock for the postseason now sits 1.5 games behind the Indians, who now hold on to the second Wild Card spot.

It should be an exciting last week, as five teams are still in contention. The Royals are now 3.5 games back, the Yankees 4 games back and the Orioles 4.5 games back.

The Royals have three games in Seattle against the Mariners and close with four games in Chicago against the White Sox. The Royals have their work cut out for them, because they have to pass two teams and hold off the two teams that are nipping at their heels.

Kansas City turns to prized prospect Yordano Ventura, who will start on Monday against the Mariners in one of the biggest games of the year. It is only the second career start for the flame-throwing right-hander.

The Royals need to win nearly every game to make up their 3.5 game deficit and emerge from the five-team clutter.

Every game is important, and as Maxwell showed on Sunday, any moment can become an iconic moment as the Royals attempt to make the postseason for the first time since 1985.

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Edward Mujica eerily similar to Ryan Franklin for St. Louis Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals entered the 2009 playoffs with a closer who barely reached 90 mph with his fastball after years of a closer who threw in the mid-to-upper 90s yet had a nearly perfect season before the Cardinals faced the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Division Series.

EdwardMujica

Ryan Franklin had replaced Jason Isringhausen when Izzy got hurt, or got too ineffective, late in the 2008 season and saved 38 games in 43 opportunities.

The situation at the back end of the Cardinals’ bullpen four years later is nearly exactly the same. The Cardinals lost their flame-throwing closer, Jason Motte, to elbow surgery during spring training and eventually gave the ninth-inning job to Edward Mujica late in April.

Mujica’s fastball tops out around 91 mph, but as was the case with Franklin, he has masterfully induced dozens upon dozens of groundballs on the way to 37 saves in 41 chances with nine games left in the regular season.

And the Cardinals are set up to again play the Dodgers in the National League Division Series if they hold on to win the NL Central over the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds.

The last time the Cardinals and Dodgers met in the division series is when Franklin’s almost magical run came to an end and never returned.

Dodgers first baseman James Loney hit a line drive to left field in Game 2 that Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday dropped. Franklin then walked two hitters and gave up two singles, the final one to pinch hitter Mark Loretta to give the Dodgers a 3-2 win and a 2-0 lead in the series that ended in a sweep two days later.

That playoff series was the beginning of the end for Franklin, who had been an All-Star in 2009. He saved 27 games in 2010 but he blew four of his first five save opportunities in 2011 and did not make it to the end of June before the Cardinals released him.

Obviously, the Cardinals hope the matchup against the Dodgers ends a little differently this time around, but the lesson from 2009 is clear. Mujica has been terrific for the Cardinals so far this season, but he is not an overpowering pitcher and not a long-term answer for the team at the closer position.

Thankfully, the Cardinals have a more solid backup option this time than they did two season ago, even though it is the same person.

The Cardinals tried seven different pitchers in the ninth inning in 2011 before manager Tony La Russa settled on Motte in September. Motte saved nine games in the regular season, closed out the National League Championship Series against the Milwaukee Brewers and the World Series against the Texas Rangers, but he had a total of three career saves before that season.

Motte now has a world championship ring and 54 career saves to his name, and manager Mike Matheny will likely give him every possible chance to take back the job when he returns healthy to spring training in 2014.

Until then, Mujica has a lot of work to do, and he has shown some weaknesses lately. After he converted 21 consecutive save chances to start the season and was a perfect 9-for-9 from July 19 through Aug. 26, Mujica has blown two of his four save chances in September and has given up 12 hits in his last 6.1 innings.

Mujica is one of the biggest reasons the Cardinals are in a solid position to make the playoffs, but the team will need more of his first-half performances than his September outings if it is going to beat the Dodgers this time around.

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Avoiding a Red October for Wainwright

The struggles of Adam Wainwright have caused for a red alert about if the Cardinals rotation can hold up to the demands of the remaining pennant chase. Amid his worst back-to-back starts in his career, finding there is a common denominator to his struggles: the Cincinnati Reds. Finding an answer to his approach to facing the club on a collision course with the Cardinals this October is key to the immediate, and final, success of the 2013 Cardinals.

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There’s no easy to put it: the Reds have owned Wainwright in the past week. In two outings, he’s thrown a total of eight innings, but has surrendered a brutal 15 earned runs on 18 hits, five walks and 150 pitches. It has been a study of opposites in his usual habits, his location has been off, he has worked deep into counts and has had back-to-back starts with multiple walks, something that has only happened one other time this year.

Wainwright’s focus pitch is his curveball. It is the pitch he throws more than any other pitcher in the game, and with a success rate that favors why this is his weapon of choice. Yet, regardless of how often he uses it, no breaking pitch can be fully successful without a fastball to work off of. And in recent starts, the problem has been simple: he has not been able to get his fastball over and the Reds batters know this, and have been able to wait on it.

The mysterious part of it is how he has lost his location. Wainwright at his best lives in the bottom of the strike zone, and on either side of the plate. But has he’s reached to find ways to work for outs versus the Reds batters, he’s began to lose the ball inside and up, and the Reds batters response to it has been brutal. Just a sample size of their core versus Wainwright comes off like this:

Jay Bruce: 4 for 4, three doubles, home run, walk and four RBI

Shin-Soo Choo: 3 for 6, HR and 2 RBI

Joey Votto: 1 for 3, HR and two walks

Ryan Ludwick: 2 for 5, 2 RBI

Obviously, that will not suffice for success against the Reds. In light of his last two outings, Wainwright’s line on the season versus the Reds features a 1-2 record, with a 7.31 ERA and 13 runs in 16 innings, spurred by a .308 Reds batting average. These are all high marks on the year for an opponent he has faced more than once.

Considering the situation that the club finds itself in, it begins to beg the question of if Wainwright would be the right choice for a potential one game Wild Card playoff that the two clubs would be on track to face off in if the season ended today. On one hand, not pitching one of the best arms in the National League in a winner takes all scenario seems unreasonable, but considering what the match up as brought thus far, the idea that he is not the ideal option to take the ball if the club is pitted against Cincinnati is more than realistic, it should be deemed as likely.

There’s a month of season to go before that scenario becomes a potential reality, but the match up game is not a favorable one for the Cardinals when it comes to facing their divisional foes recently, and finding a way to separate Wainwright from the Reds for the remainder of the year would be more than just ideal at this point; it could be a matter of seasonal life and death.

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Is a Trade Really Necessary?

ShelbyMiller

 

Joe Strauss of the Post-Dispatch wrote an article that confusingly argued the Cardinals should pick up another starter. He claimed the Cards are a balanced team with a defense that is “short on sizzle but corrals what it reaches” (whatever that means). He admits the Cardinals are more than likely to make the postseason due to their “offensive professionalism” (is that the same as just being good?) and a bullpen that will help them “solve close games”.

Weeding through the drivel and fat of the article, it seems Strauss is claiming the Cards are already basically a lock for the postseason, but need extra pitching to contend once they get to the “October stage”.

There’s major problems with that thinking and the article in general:

1) Which prospect would you trade for a starting pitcher?

Strauss points out The Cardinals should add pitching, but doesn’t put it on the line and name which prospect he would part with to get this pitcher. This sets up a conundrum as in order to get someone like David Price or Cliff Lee, you really can’t give up anything less than an Oscar Taveras or a Wacha. But it’d be insane to give either up for a half a year of anyone.

And if you are willing to give up less, you’ll receive a pitcher like Jason Marquis or Jason Vargas, who isn’t really any better than what they have now.

2) Are the Cardinals pitching really that bad?

Strauss tries to prove his point by looking at the Cardinals 51 quality starts being 7th in the NL for the year, as opposed to having the most quality starts at the end of May.

He points out that Miller hasn’t thrown at least 151 innings in a year (duh, he’s a rookie) and it’s causing an “erosion of his fastball command and overall efficiency.”

He points out that Lynn has a 5.36 ERA in his last 7 starts. Since June 1st, the team ERA has been 4.65 vs the NL average of 3.91.

Quality Starts, though better than win-loss record, don’t give a complete picture. Lynn does have an ERA of 5.36, but a FIP of 3.58. And though Strauss spreads Lynn’s misfourtunes out to two months, it’s really just July. In June, his ERA was 4.83. But in June, opponents average was only .223, versus .220 in May. Opponents wOBA was .297 compared to .277 in May. And along with a good FIP, it shows he was just getting unlucky.

Now in July, the numbers to kick up.  6.85 ERA, opponents avg .340, and opponents wOBA of .368. And this is all over the sample size of just 22.1 innings. When you look at his starts in July, it’s inflated by an outlier start on 7/13 vs The Cubs, where he went 4.1 innings and allowed 6 ER. If you excuse that start as an outlier, the rest of the month is similar to June.

Other Cardinals starters for the month of July: Wainwright – 3.41 ERA, 3.08 FIP. Westbrook – 2.66 ERA, 4.57 FIP. Kelly – 3.97 ERA, 5.25 FIP.

Now compare to pitchers rumored to be on the trade market for July (not Price or Lee, since losing Taveras isn’t an option). Eric Stults – 3.20 ERA, 3.44 FIP. Bud Norris – 7.13 ERA, 5.59 FIP. Jason Marquis – 4.30 ERA, 5.26 FIP.

Those options are either much worse or comparable to what we already have. And not worth losing a prospect for.

3) Strauss is also relying on the tired narrative that only pitchers with postseason experience, and not rookies, can excel in the postseason.

There is very little proof that rookies’ stats change at all from regular season to postseason or that they can’t handle it. Here are some examples of rookies who have excelled in the postseason ( I would like to point out Matt Moore wasn’t even a rookie yet when he did it)

Athletics Nation also tackled this subject, listing success of rookies in the postseason.

I want to zero in on a few of these rookies and compare their season stats to their Sept/Oct stats.

Madison Bumgarner (2010)

Season – ERA: 3.00, Opponents avg: .270, FIP: 3.66. WHIP: 1.31

Sep/Oct –ERA: 1.13, Opponents avg: .244, FIP: 2.92. WHIP: 1.09

Jeremy Hellickson (2011)

Season – ERA: 2.95, Opponents avg: .209, FIP: 4.44, WHIP: 1.15

Sep/Oct – ERA: 2.67, Opponents avg: .172, FIP: 5.34, WHIP: 1.07

Ivan Nova (2011)

Season – ERA: 3.70, Opponents avg.: .253, FIP: 4.01, WHIP: 1.33

Sep/Oct – ERA: 2.67, Opponents avg.: .254, FIP: 3.74, WHIP: 1.16.

All three of these players improved in the postseason of their rookie years. Maybe we should not only accept that Miller can start in Oct, but he should be expected to excel.

The truth is, there is no one on the market that The Cardinals can have who is any better than anyone we have now without giving up Taveras. A few of the pitchers are in minor slumps that happen in the season. There’s no need to panic and apply narratives about workloads or not being able to handle the pressure. As Mozeliak says in the Strauss article about Miller “I don’t think it’s just workload. I just think he needs to go back to what he was doing early on and regain that form. I don’t think it’s fatigue. I think that kid’s as strong as anybody out there. He understands this business. It’s not like he’s a first-year pro. My expectation for him is to have a strong second half.”

And postseason experience applied to rookies is a myth.

The Cardinals are 59-37 with a winning pct of .615. They are the best team in baseball. They are geared to really do some damage in the postseason and have a farm system that will help this sort of success be possible for years to come. There’s no need to mess with any of that. So the best option for the Cardinals is possibly the most boring option, and that’s to do nothing.

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Five reasons the Cardinals DON’T need Jonathon Papelbon

Earlier this week, a Boston-based baseball writer speculated in his column that the Phillies believe that St. Louis might be interested in Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon.

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Mind you, there was no real substance behind his assertion, but it made the usual rumor-mill rounds all the same. This move would make no sense for the Cardinals, and here are five reasons why:

1) Salary.
Papelbon makes $13 million, which is ridiculous money for a pitcher (not named Mariano Rivera) at such a fungible position on the diamond. Every year, closers lose their jobs, whether due to injury, ineffectiveness or trade. A large-market team like Philadelphia can absorb that kind of salary commitment much easier than St. Louis. Papelbon has pitched 70 innings in his career exactly ONCE (last season). From what I’ve read, the Cardinals try to keep their budget for salaries in the $100-110 million range. Earmarking over 10% of that to one reliever would be a stupid decision for any team in that salary range, especially one on the downside of his career, which leads me to my second point…

2) Papelbon is not a sure thing
The 32-year-old Papelbon, who has blown two of his past three save opportunities, including last night against Washington – has developed some troubling patterns since joining the Phillies: 1) he is allowing home runs at the highest rate since his rookie season in 2005; 2) his K/9 ratio has dropped from almost 12-to-1 in 2012 to 8-to-1 this season; and 3) his fastball velocity is dropping. In 2012, his average heater was 93.8 mph. This season, it has fallen to 92.6. When the difference between a fastball and slider decreases, both pitches become easier for hitters to pound. Papelblown, er, Papelbon used to be able to blow hitters away with his pure power stuff. That ability is starting to abandon him; and once the fastball goes away, it usually doesn’t come back. He might still be able to get by as a reasonably effective reliever, but that’s not exactly the best use of $13 million, is it?

3) No need.
This is perhaps the most obvious point. The Cardinals HAVE a closer with whom they are quite happy, thank you. Edward Mujica is 21-for-21 in save opportunities. Can’t be much more of a shutdown closer than that, can you? Now, is he the “prototypical” power closer who overwhelms batters with 95-plus gas or a devastating slider? No. In fact, he primarily has thrown a split-change since becoming the closer in April. But he has thrown the pitch so effectively that hitters are batting below .200 against him for the season. Is he the type of closer you can count on in October? Well, let’s look at the closers of the past five World Series champions:

Obviously, Rivera is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and maybe the greatest reliever of all time. But Romo? A career set-up guy who took over the closer’s job due to injury (very similar to Mujica). Wilson? More known for his beard and goofy antics than his dominant pitching. Lidge? Briefly dominant with the Astros (2004-05), imploded, then rebounded for one last great year with the Phillies in 2008. Motte, of course, was Tony LaRussa’s unofficial closer during the glorious run in 2011 and was superb in 2012, but he’s out for the year and an unknown quantity for the future. Other than Rivera, Mujica’s effectiveness matches up quite well with any of the other four.

4) Organizational depth.
Even if Mujica blows up in July or August, the Cardinals have alternatives on the roster. Trevor Rosenthal has been overpoweringly filthy in his 8th inning role, striking out nearly 13 batters per nine innings of work and regularly touching 98 mph on the radar gun. Many people expected him to take the closer’s job instead of Mujica. He could be just as effective as Motte was in 2011-12, given the chance. Joe Kelly is another reliever whom I believe could succeed in the role. He has a mid-90s fastball and no fear of opposing hitters. Heck, I’d give Carlos Martinez or Seth Maness a shot at the job before I would even think about considering whether Papelbon was an option. The point is, the team has several in-house options that would be preferable.

5) What would the cost be to acquire Papelbon?
Philadelphia isn’t going to just give him away, of course. They have a barren farm system and need to rebuild.  Given that, you have to figure that they would ask for a top prospect like Martinez, Michael Wacha, or Oscar Taveras. Such a request should cause John Mozeliak to burst into a fit of laughter as he hangs up the phone. Sacrificing six years of cost-controlled Wacha for an overpriced closer with a declining fastball? PASS. Decisions like that get general managers fired. This is not something Mozeliak has shown any inclination to do since taking the reins as GM. Even if the Phillies requested lesser prospects or offered to pay, say, half of Papelbon’s contract, such a move would make little sense. This is another area where Cafardo’s speculation makes little sense. Has anyone with actual knowledge of the team reported any interest in Papelbon? If so, I haven’t seen it. This strikes me as a classic “let’s throw this against the wall and see if it sticks”-type rumor. That might have made more sense when Walt Jocketty was the GM, but that was many years ago.

If the Cards were to consider acquiring a veteran reliever, they would be better off with someone like the Rockies’ Rafael Betancourt – reasonable $4.25 million option for 2014, plenty of experience pitching for a contender, or Luke Gregerson from the Padres (which would give St. Louis the chance to reclaim Gregerson for its bullpen after the disastrous Khalil Greene trade). Not lobbying for Betancourt or Gregerson; just pointing them out as better options than Papelbon.

Finally, Papelbon doesn’t seem like a Cardinal-type player to me. Fox Sports loved to focus the cameras on him when he pitched for the Red Sox, and he comes off as an attention hog with a big mouth. It went over well in Boston when they were winning, but as the Red Sox struggled, he fell out of favor and they made no effort to sign him after the 2011 season.  Given how tight the free-agent market has become towards relievers, he was extremely fortunate to land a huge contract from Philly. Personally, I find the idea of him possibly wearing the Birds on the Bat as distasteful as I would Manny Ramirez or Ryan Braun. If they wanted an obnoxious relief pitcher with declining skills, they could have signed Wilson. Since that hasn’t happened, I’m going to assume the team doesn’t wish to waste its money in such a fashion, but I digress.

All one has to do is look at the situation logically, and frankly, it makes no sense for the Cardinals’ business model. The combination of drastically overpaying for Papelbon in terms of salary AND young talent is one that makes no sense for a team like the Cardinals. The only surprising aspect is how much attention it has drawn from other national baseball “experts,” when in fact it should be filed in the circular file where most rumors end up.

Follow me on Twitter: @ccaylor10

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Kelvin Herrera’s up and down season

Everything was trending up for Kelvin Herrera.

KelvinHerrera

It was April 16 and the flame-throwing right-hander already owned a win, two saves and two holds. He had struck out at least two batters in four of his first six appearances of the 2013 season and had yet to give up a run.

And all this was coming off the 2012 season in which he was one of baseball’s best setup men. Last season, Herrera pitched to a 4-3 record with a 2.35 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and struck out 77 in 84.1 innings.

Herrera entered the eighth inning of the game in Atlanta with the score tied at 2. He was ready to blow away the heart of the Braves’ lineup with his blazing fastball.

However, after recording the first out of the inning, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton caught up to Herrera’s heater for back-to-back home runs. After another out, Dan Uggla went deep for the third home run of the inning.

Herrera finished the day with 0.2 innings pitched, 3 hits (all home runs), 4 runs and 1 walk. To put things in perspective, Kelvin only allowed four home runs all of last year.

Just a blip on the radar screen, right? Every pitcher has a bad outing once in a while.

After a scoreless inning the next day against the Braves, Herrera had another stinker, this time against the Boston Red Sox. He entered the game in the eighth inning with a runner on base, two outs and the Royals leading 2-1. Following a walk to the first batter he faced, Herrera served up a home run to Daniel Nava and the Red Sox went on to win 4-3.

In 10 appearances after the April 20 game against Boston, Herrera gave up an earned run in five of them and served up four more home runs. His struggles with the long ball eventually led to his demotion to Triple-A Omaha on May 22.

He had doubled his home run total from 2012 and that was a serious problem in the eyes of Royals management. He needed to go down to the minors and work out the kinks.

“He got to the point by not having confidence in his fastball to where he was trying to overthrow it, so he needs to just smooth his mechanics a little bit and really just go down and have some success,” Manager Ned Yost told the media after Herrera’s demotion. “He’s very young, too, and a big part of our ‘pen, so we need to get him straightened out. Get a little bit of his swagger back and bring him back.”

Aaron Crow served as the eighth-inning reliever while Herrera was in the minors. He has struggled as well, with a 4.11 ERA and a 1.47 WHIP in 16.1 innings.

Crow had a meltdown of his own on May 29 against St. Louis, giving up 5 hits, 4 ER, and 1 HR in a 5-3 loss.

Meanwhile, at Omaha,  Herrera appeared in five games, logging 4.2 innings. He gave up 2 hits, 3 walks, and struck out six. Most importantly, no home runs and no earned runs.

The Royals saw what they needed to see from Herrera and recalled him from Triple-A on Tuesday.

Now that he is back, the Royals should give Herrera a shot to regain his setup role. On Wednesday, Ned Yost called on Herrera to pitch the eighth with a 4-1 lead over the Twins. He retired the side in order with one strikeout.

With Herrera’s success in the minors, as demonstrated by the numbers, he should have some of his swagger back. That could be a huge boost for the free-falling Royals.

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Adam Wainwright back in domination mode

This is the Adam Wainwright the St. Louis Cardinals think is worth $97.5 million for the next five years.

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In his second season after Tommy John surgery to repair a torn elbow ligament, Wainwright has returned to the Cy Young award-caliber pitcher he was before the injury.

He simply dominated the Washington Nationals on Tuesday and now has a 4-1 record and a 1.93 earned-run average with 37 strikeouts against one walk in five starts. He’s established himself once again as the Cardinals’ ace, and that’s a huge relief for everybody involved.

Wainwright had put together a 64-34 record with a 2.99 earned-run average in four seasons as a starter before he suffered the elbow injury at the beginning of spring training in 2011. He also possessed a fastball that reached 96 mph and one of the most devastating curveballs in Major League Baseball.

But that was gone for much of 2012. Wainwright had a winning record, 14-13, but he also had the highest ERA of his career, 3.94, and rarely had the dominating games he did before the injury. His fastball wasn’t as fast, his curveball didn’t break as sharply and too many of his pitches were up in the strike zone, which allowed hitters to often drive balls they hit for extra base hits.

He did have a few standout games, including a four-hit, complete-game shutout May 22 against the San Diego Padres, but he also had several poor stretches such as back-to-back games against the Nationals and New York Mets in late August and early September when he gave up a combined 11 runs in just 7.2 innings.

Wainwright said he was sure his good stuff would come back, but he hadn’t proved it until that complete game against the Padres.

“It’s a huge sense of relief; it’s a huge sense of feeling blessed,” he said after the shutout against San Diego. “Mentally, tonight, I was so much better than I had been. I’ve worked very hard to get back to where I am.”

However, not every game went so well, and the Cardinals had an important decision to make as the 2013 season approached. Wainwright was about to enter the final year of his contract, and the Cardinals had to figure out if they were going to keep him beyond this season.

Overall, his career track showed he could be as good a pitcher as there is the game, but his performances after the injury caused plenty of concern.

Yes, most pitchers come back from Tommy John surgery and pitch as well as they did beforehand, but successful surgery is never a guarantee, and Wainwright’s 2012 season offered no certainties that he would ever be the type of pitcher he was beforehand.

But the Cardinals signed him to the long-term deal March 28, just days before the season started. Now, it is a fairly big risk to give a five-year contract to a 31-year-old pitcher who had major elbow surgery, but so far Wainwright has made the Cardinals’ management look pretty smart.

And the best could be yet to come. Wainwright sliced through the Nationals on Tuesday for 8.1 shutout innings with nine strikeouts and his first walk of the season after 34.2 innings, which was fewer than six innings from the franchise record.

He threw a fastball at 94 mph, his curveball buckled Nationals hitters’ knees throughout the night and his control was as precise as ever.

Wainwright is back to the form Cardinals officials hoped they would see when they signed him to the contract extension, and now they can sit back and watch their investment dominate opposing hitters as if its 2010 again.

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Changes continue to confound Jaime Garcia

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jaime Garcia is one of the most dominating pitchers on the team when everything around him is satisfactory. When it’s not, a team such as the Philadelphia Phillies can tag him for eight runs in three innings, as they did Friday in Philadelphia.

JaimeGarcia

Garcia has struggled on the road throughout his career. He has a 15-12 record with a 4.40 earned-run average in road games, but he is 20-11 with a 2.45 ERA in his career at Busch Stadium where he is more familiar with the surroundings and can comfortably prepare for a game the same way every time.

But one more change might have factored into Friday’s poor performance. Regular catcher Yadier Molina had a day off for the first time all season. Tony Cruz got the start instead.

So without his regular home routine and normal catcher, Garcia gave up eight runs on nine hits and two walks. Sure, third baseman Ty Wigginton made a throwing error in the first inning to make four of their eight runs unearned, but four of the Phillies hits went for extra bases, so Garcia got hit around regardless.

Unfortunately, Garcia has too many of those nights, and that keeps him from being one of the better pitchers on not only the Cardinals, but in Major League Baseball.

He has the stuff. He throws his fastball in the low 90s with movement, he has a knee-buckling curveball and owns a changeup that is as good as any top-tier left-handed starter in the game. And when he has those pitches working correctly, he has the potential to throw a no-hitter.

But he also has nights when he can’t command those pitches and simply gets crushed.

That has been the main problem Garcia has fought throughout his five-year career. He looks like a pitcher who can dominate, and at times he does, but mind games tend to get in the way of him being a consistent pitcher who can fill a spot near the top of the rotation.

The problem is Garcia now has five years of big-league experience, and he hasn’t been able to get over those issues.

The Cardinals are aware of these issues. They’ve even manipulated the rotation in recent years to try to minimize the times Garcia has to pitch on the road.

And while it’s great his team is trying to help him out, Garcia has to get past those concentration issues at some point or he is going to become the next Oliver Perez, a left-handed starter who came up with the San Diego Padres in 2002.

Perez, who is now a reliever for the Seattle Mariners, had electric stuff when he debuted and even posted a 2.98 ERA with 12 wins for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2004, but his inconsistency kept him from being Johan Santana or any number of other great left-handed starters.

For the most part, Garcia has had a good start to his 2013 season. He pitched well in spring training after recovering from a shoulder injury and started this season well in his first start on the road. He held the Arizona Diamondbacks to one run in 5.2 innings April 2 in Phoenix and then made two solid starts at home before the Phillies shelled him Friday.

Maybe Molina’s absence had more to do with the poor outing than anything, or perhaps he simply had an off night. All pitchers do. But Garcia is going to have to get beyond those relatively minor differences in each start if he is going to not only help the Cardinals in 2013, but also live up to his long-term potential.

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Trevor Rosenthal best-suited to help St. Louis Cardinals as reliever

Trevor Rosenthal might have lost the battle for the final starting rotation spot, but the St. Louis Cardinals gained a great resource for their bullpen in 2013.

Trevor Rosenthal - photo from FoxSportsMidwest

Trevor Rosenthal – photo from FoxSportsMidwest

The Cardinals officially said last week that Rosenthal is out of the running for the fifth spot in the rotation and will start the season in the bullpen. And while that might be disappointing for a pitcher who had a goal of winning that battle, the move should work out best for both sides.

Rosenthal can throw more than 100 mph and often looked as unhittable as any pitcher in Major League Baseball last season out of the bullpen, and the Cardinals will give him the chance to do more of the same in 2013.

As a reliever, Rosenthal could rare back and throw the ball as hard as he wanted without having to worry about stamina. That gave his fastball the extra few miles per hour that often make the difference in whether a hitter gets a hit or swings threw a pitch.

And he most likely would’ve lost that quality had he moved to the rotation.

Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander can still crank it up to 100 mph late in a ballgame, but he is a rare (almost unique) pitcher who can throw as hard as a starter as he could if he were a reliever. Others tend to lose a few miles per hour on their fastball once they’re asked to throw more than one or two innings.

Adam Wainwright began his Cardinals career out of the bullpen as the closer for the 2006 World Series championship team. He threw in the high 90s as a reliever but rarely reaches above 94 or 95 mph as a starter.

Granted, Wainwright is plenty effective as a starter and is on the precipice of receiving a whole lot of money because he can pitch effectively for seven innings or more. That could very well be the path Rosenthal eventually follows, but for now he is best suited for the bullpen.

He started one game at the beginning of spring training, and it didn’t go well. He gave up four runs on five hits in two innings against the Miami Marlins while walking two batters and failing to strike out anybody.

Sure, that was an early spring training game, but the Cardinals would be foolish to take a chance on a young pitcher in their rotation when they have others who they have already groomed to be long-term starters for the organization.

Those two are Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller, and they will battle for the final spot in the rotation.

Kelly did not look good in his last start, giving up two runs and three walks in two innings Thursday against the New York Yankees.

But Miller hasn’t been much better. He gave up two runs and three hits in two innings Friday against the Washington Nationals but walked just one hitter.

Overall, Kelly has more experience as a starter and is more of a sure bet than Miller at this point.

Theoretically, the Cardinals could give Kelly the starting job and send Miller to the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds to start the season. Then Miller could come up into the rotation and Kelly could slide to the bullpen if a reliever gets injured, or if the Cardinals find they need more depth in the bullpen.

That situation will work itself out in time, but at least the Cardinals already know they have a flamethrower who can shut down hitters late in a ballgame, even if he technically lost a job to get to that position.

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