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St. Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds

Michael Wacha follows through on a pitch during the June 4 game against the Reds at Busch Stadium. Photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com

CHICAGO — With a series of decisions during Saturday’s loss and a move before Sunday’s game at Wrigley Field, the Cardinals did what they could to avoid using righthander Michael Wacha in relief so that they could turn to him instead for a start.

After an assignment to the bullpen and two relief appearances, one disastrous and the other reassuring, Wacha is scheduled to return to the rotation Monday at Miami. The righthander is 2 1/3 innings removed from allowing three homers in one inning, and yet the Cardinals saw the desired return of his velocity and effectiveness of his changeup to turn to him for the vacant start against the Marlins.

“I think it was just making pitches down in the zone, where I really needed to be,” Wacha said. “I was making pitches down and away, and just not leaving too much stuff middle middle, right over the plate.”

Although Jack Flaherty had an abbreviated start Saturday, the Cardinals avoided using Wacha for long relief, and before Sunday’s game they recalled Daniel Ponce de Leon to serve in the long-relief role. To make room in the bullpen, the Cardinals optioned righthander Ryan Helsley to Class AAA Memphis after two impressive outings at Wrigley. The swap of righthanders was made for one driving reason, manager Mike Shildt said: “Freshness.”

Ponce de Leon, 27, was a candidate to start Monday if Wacha was needed during the series against the Cubs. Instead, he’ll slide into Wacha’s role and bring added versatility to it because Ponce de Leon has proven effective in short-burst relief assignments.

The righthander made one start earlier this season for the Cardinals and allowed one run on two hits in five innings. For the Triple-A Redbirds, Ponce de Leon is 4-4 with a 3.90 ERA in 11 starts and he has 47 strikeouts and 30 walks in 55 1/3 innings. He pitched three scoreless Thursday in a start that was purposefully truncated to keep him ready to pitch in the majors at some point this week, if needed.

In his last start, Wacha allowed seven runs (six earned) on seven hits through 4 2/3 innings against the Royals – part of a trend that saw his ERA bloat from 4.78 to start May to 6.61 by May’s end. Wacha toyed with different arm slots during the month to find more command even as he saw velocity leak from his fastball. In that start against KC, Wacha’s fastball slowed to an average of 92.5 mph and his changeup ran about 85 mph and mostly out of the zone. In his most recent relief appearance, the fastball zipped back at 95.1 mph – and touched 98 mph – and his changeup had vigor at 87 mph.

Wacha explained how he corrected his mechanics to get his pitching hand out of his glove quicker, restoring the timing needed for his high arm swing and steep angle to the plate.

“I don’t know if coming out of the bullpen is what got it to click,” said Wacha, who expected to be with the relievers during Sunday’s game, ready if needed but aware the Cardinals were scripting Monday’s start for him. “Whatever it was, definitely feeling better now.”

MOLINA: MEET ME IN MIAMI

Catcher Yadier Molina, on the injured list with a torn tendon in his right hand, took batting practice Sunday at Busch Stadium before donning an Ivan Barbashev sweater and attending Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. He will join the Cardinals in Miami on Monday, participate in batting practice with his teammates, and begin what could be an imminent return to the active roster. The Cardinals want to see how his injured hand responds to baseball activities and whether his grip strength has returned enough for him to hit with authority.

Molina, whose 33 RBIs rank sixth among catchers, was eligible to come off the IL on Saturday and could be back in the lineup by the end of the week, if not sooner.

“If it was a pain tolerance thing, the toughest guy on the planet might be playing still,” Shildt said. “But it’s also there is a tear that we have to let heal for grip strength and for longterm. It could get worse. It won’t heal with him doing it. We had to get him healed.”

DRAFT SIGNINGS START

The Cardinals finalized deals with two draft picks Sunday and a wave of others is expected as early as Monday. The Cardinals announced agreements with 10th-round pick Jake Sommers, a senior pitcher from UW-Milwaukee, and 24th-round Will Guay, a righthander from Concord University. Signed draft picks will continue reporting to the Jupiter, Fla., facility all week – or head straight to their short-season assignments as physicals are completed.

Three Cardinals draft picks remained active in this past weekend’s NCAA Super Regionals, making them ineligible to negotiate until they’ve been eliminated. Two pitchers, Auburn’s Jake Owen (21st round) and UCLA’s Jack Ralston (seventh round), started their teams opening game of the Super Regional. Ralston, a righthander, pitched six innings and allowed three runs on seven hits and no walks. The Bruins eventually won his start vs. Michigan in the 12th inning. Owen, a sophomore lefty, pitched five innings and allowed four runs on eight hits, and he struck out three in a game Auburn rallied late to win against UNC.

Power reliever Logan Gragg (eighth round), of Oklahoma State, did not appear in the Cowboys’ first two Super Regional games against Texas Tech.

EXTRA BASES

Catcher Matt Wieters took a bruising during Saturday’s game, leaving his hand sore and assuring he “slept well,” Shildt said. At one point in the game Wieters took a foul tip that appeared to bruise his hand and explain an awkward swing he took later. The Cardinals expected the soreness to pass with rest. … With Class AAA Memphis on Saturday, Alex Reyes lost his third consecutive decision as he struck out 10 batters in four innings but also allowed three runs on three hits and four walks. The righthander, who the Cardinals are counting on contributing at some point this season, threw out of the stretch at times with no one on base and continued to search for command. He has allowed 11 runs and walked eight in his past 13 innings. … Sunday’s game was the Cardinals’ 65th night game at Wrigley since the Cubs installed lights in 1988.

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Derrick Goold is the lead Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and past president of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.