A pitcher with Michael Wacha’s credentials, let alone his stuff, isn’t apt to go either five starts or more than a month without a victory.
Wacha said he was sure that had happened to him in his brief career but, in fact, it hadn’t before he pitched seven strong innings to beat the Chicago Cubs, 5-3, on Thursday before 42,501 paid customers at Busch Stadium.
What perhaps would be more unusual than that long victory drought for the Cardinals’ 22-year-old righthander would be a Wacha base hit.
Wacha had been nothing for 14 before he batted against Chicago righthander Jason Hammel with two runners in scoring position in the second inning . And he admitted he had been hearing about his hitless streak from his fellow pitchers although Lance Lynn, for instance, was only one hit better for 14 at-bats.
“I was definitely catching a lot of it,” Wacha said.
But Wacha shot a two-out single to center to score two runs and highlight a four-run inning that provided the cushion for his third victory against three losses and his first triumph since April 13 when he beat the Cubs here, 6-4.
Bench coach Mike Aldrete, in large part, is the hitting mentor for the starting pitchers and Aldrete said, “He’s improving.
“Other than shutting a team out, there’s a bunch of different ways you can help yourself. You can field your position, you can hold your runners, you can get bunts down. And you can get hits or you can have extended at-bats that might get that other (pitcher) out of there sooner. What I try to tell them is, ‘If you can make a difference three times (in a season), a 13-13 pitcher can become 16-10.’
“From Wacha’s standpoint ... well, we won by two and he drove in two. He made a difference. Take a look at Waino (Adam Wainwright). Take a look at (Greg) Maddux. Take a look at Bob Gibson. Take a look at (Clayton) Kershaw,” said Aldrete.
“There’s a bunch of different ways you can help your team and not all of them throwing 100 miles an hour.”
Wacha, who had three hits in 21 at-bats last year for the Cardinals, admitted that offense hadn’t been the strongest part of his game. He had just one hit for Memphis last year, although noting that his speed had accounted for him beating out an infield single.
“I only hit one home run in high school,” Wacha said. “I had really perfected the bloop single over first base. I’m not much of a hitter and I never hit in college. Wainwright (hitting .381), makes it look easy, but we take batting practice every day. You can help yourself win games sometimes by getting bunts down and driving in people when you have the opportunity.”
Manager Mike Matheny had noted that Hammel had singled in a couple of runs against the Cardinals in a game earlier this month in Chicago. Speaking for pitchers at large, Wacha said, “We don’t like giving up hits to other pitchers. Especially when they drive in a couple of runs, it doesn’t feel too good.”
Not only did Wacha help himself with his hitting, he abetted himself by not walking anybody, thus enabling his 104 pitches (77 of them strikes) to take him seven innings rather than five or six.
“Pitch counts high early in a game ... I’m not a big fan of those,” Wacha said.
He also was helped by the fact that he didn’t have his start interrupted or delayed by rain, as most of his outings had been this year. His scheduled start Wednesday was called more than two hours ahead of time by rain, so Wacha had plenty to time to reboot before Thursday.
The Cardinals loaded the bases with one out in the second on a double by Yadier Molina and consecutive walks to Allen Craig and Peter Bourjos. Second baseman Luis Valbuena made a diving stop on Mark Ellis and although Ellis was out, Molina scored the first run.
Wacha then made it 3-0 with his two-run hit. And Matt Carpenter ended a nothing-for-16 nosedive with a double off the right-field wall to send Wacha home from first.
“I didn’t even know it was 0 for 16,” Carpenter said.
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, beating the defensive shift, twice bunted toward third for hits in his first two at-bats against Wacha. The second hit, leading off the fourth, preceded a two-run homer by Starlin Castro, who had three hits and would have had a fourth but for right fielder Craig’s tumbling catch in the sixth inning.
In Rizzo’s last at-bat, the Cardinals modified their shift, keeping an infielder much closer to third base and in a few steps and Rizzo lined out.
“That’s the thing about the shift,” said Carpenter. “You give up the bunt. But we weren’t going to let him do it any more. It ended up being a good play for them.”
The Cardinals’ Matt Holliday punctuated a sixth-inning hit to right center by diving into second base with a double. Holliday advanced to third on Matt Adams’ fly ball to center. Molina, after being low-bridged by Hammel’s first pitch, lined a two-strike single to left to score Holliday. Molina has delivered the runner nine times in nine opportunities with a man at third and under two outs and is hitting .456 against the Cubs since last July 14.
Trevor Rosenthal, after blowing his first save in 11 opportunities on Tuesday, nailed down his first five-out save this year.
Wacha, who has a 2.82 earned run average, probably should have more than three wins, but Matheny said there was a sermon involved in the dry spell.
“It’s going to let him appreciate those times when he’s not at his sharpest and he’s able to scratch out some wins,” Matheny said.
“He’s pitched good enough to get quite a few wins. It will come back to him. He’s just got to stay the course.”
That, of course, could be said for the entire Cardinals team, which is looking for its first three-game winning streak in a month.
• JEFF GORDON: CARDS CAN'T WAIT FOR REINFORCEMENTS
• BOX SCORE: CARDINALS 5, CUBS 3
Here are the updates posted by Dan O'Neill during Thursday's game:
Cards pump lead to 5-2
The Cardinals chased Chicago starter Jason Hammel with a run-scoring single from Yadier Molina, improving their lead to 5-2 in the bottom of the sixth.
Matt Holliday started the frame by stretching his hit to center field into a double. Holliday then aggressively took third base on Matt Adams' fly out to center.
Molina followed by hammering a Hammel pitch and down left field line for a run-scoring single, his second hit of the afternoon. The RBI was No. 20 for Molina.
At that point, the Cubs pulled Hammel in favor of righthanded reliever Jose Veras. Hammel worked 5 1/3 innings, allowed five hits and five earned runs.
Veras earned his assignment, getting the Cubs out of trouble by inducing a double-play grounder from Allen Craig.
Cardinals starter Michael Wacha protected the momentum, retiring the side in order in the top of the seventh.
The Cardinals are batting in the bottom of the frame, leading 5-2.
Cubs strike back
The Chicago Cubs got to Michael Wacha and trimmed a 4-0 Cardinals lead in half in the top of the fourth inning.
Anthony Rizzo started the noise with his second consecutive bunt single. Sterling Castro then pulled a 0-1 pitch from Wacha inside the left field foul pole for his sixth homer. The Cubs were within two, trailing 4-2.
Wacha ran into more problems in the inning, but escaped.
Luis Valbueno singled to right and, with one out, Mike Olt reached on an error by first baseman Matt Adams. But with runners at first and second, Wacha fanned catcher John Baker and pitcher Jason Hammel to minimize the damage.
Cards erupt in second for 4-0 lead
The Cardinals took advantage of Chicago Cubs starter Jason Hammel's control issues and erupted for a 4-0 lead in the second inning. And the big blow was delivered by pitcher Michael Wacha.
Hammel blew through the Cardinals in the first, striking out the side. But with one out in the second, Yadier Molina drove a ball over the head of right fielder Ryan Kalish - who didn't distinguish himself defensively on the play.
After Molina's double, Hammel walked both Allen Craig and Peter Bourjos on 3-2 pitches, loading the bases. Mark Ellis, 5 for 7 off Hammel drove in a run with a ground out to second, giving the Caridnals 1-0 lead.
With runners advancing to second and third, Wacha singled sharply to center, driving home two more and expanding the lead to 3-0. The hit was the first of the season for Wacha, who had been 0 for 14.
Along those same lines, Matt Carpenter stepped in carrying an 0 for 16 stretch, and doubled to right. Wacha scored all the way from first and the lead became 4-0.
"Jhonny Shortstop" Peralta then grounded out to second to end the frame.
At the end of three innings, the Cardinals still led 4-0 behind shutout pitching from Wacha.
Rainout serves Wacha well
If you're scoring at home, the past day has been a good news - bad news - good news -bad news roller coaster for Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong.
First, there was good news. On Wednesday, Wong was recalled from Class AAA Memphis, where had applied a tourniquet to his season-starting struggles in St. Louis. In a recent 10-day stretch, Wong batted .372 in Memphis and overall, he was batting .344 while reaching safely in 13 of 15 games. His production included two home runs, 10 runs batted in and 5-for-5 in stolen-base attempts.
Then there was bad news. On his way to the ballpark Wednesday, Wong was overwhelmed by influenza-like symptoms. He was at the stadium only briefly before returning home. He was in bed the entire day, dealing with chills, cold sweats and the brunt of the 24-hour bug.
“It was weird, when I woke up, I didn't feel sick at all,” Wong, 23, said. “Then coming over … I just felt … not good the whole day. I was in bed the entire time, from 2 o'clock until this morning. My fiance tried to bring me a little soup in bed, and I couldn't even eat it. All I could do was sleep.
“It was terrible, You don't want that. You get a chance to be back up, you don't want to tell them that you're sick. I was trying to see if I could push through it as much as I could. But when I got here I couldn't even stand up that well. So I told them. I think they were a little disappointed, but luckily it was just a one-day thing.”
Then this morning, good news resurfaced. Turns out Wong didn't miss a thing. The Cardinals game was rained out on Wednesday night. And when Wong woke up this morning, it was like Groundhog's Day.
“No, I didn't even know (about the rainout),” Wong said. “I think (my fiance) told me last night … I mean, I was aware it was raining. But I didn't really remember.”
So Wong and the Cardinals start over and for Wong, it is an especially fresh start. After a fine spring training, he was batting just .225 and experiencing some hiccups in the field when the club sent him to Memphis on April 27. Rather than despair, he dedicated himself to getting re-established.
“I looked at it as, this is a chance for me to get better,” Wong said, “to get my defense where it needs to be, to get my offense especially where it needs to be. I wanted to take it as a challenge. Wanted to get down there and not be down about getting sent down, but try to see how fast I could get back up.”
So, after some initial disappointment, Wong took stock of his game and took to making some adjustments. He shortened his swing and lowered his leg kick at the plate, taking some excess movement out of his approach to the ball. He went back to reading and reacting in the field.
Part of it was finding his way back to things that had made him successful in the first place. Part of it is learning to channel input, to absorb the advice and expertise he can get from others, but to not abandon what he does instinctively.
“When I got up here, I was so focused on trying to make sure I was following what everyone wanted me to do instead of knowing what I can do,” Wong said. “The thing that I realized is you got to take what they give you and go with it, but I have to do things that I can do that helped me get here.”
Oh yes, and there was one more piece of relatively bad news. Wong found out he was not in the lineup today when he got to the ballpark. Mark Ellis, 5 for 7 in his career against Chicago Cubs starter Jason Hammel, was at second base for the 12:45 p.m. (FSM) start.
"Last night was a long night for (Wong),” manager Mike Matheny said. “He was worried about dehydration. I think we've all been there. Trying to get your legs under yourself the next day isn't necessarily the best way to jump back into what we're doing.
"So, we'll give him a day to get him feeling strong again and we'll have him back out there soon."