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St. Louis Cardinals' Playoff Rotation: Michael Wacha or Joe Kelly?

Final Weekend of MLB Season May Become Impromptu Audition for Fourth Starter Job in October

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COMMENTARY | In one year, Ryan Zimmerman will hardly remember his infield hit to break up Michael Wacha's no-hitter. But that high-bouncing ball that nicked the rookie pitcher's outstretched glove will still keep Wacha up at night.

But make no mistake -- it's keeping St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny up right now, fretting over furiously scribbled playoff rotation scenarios.

Until that near no-hitter on September 24, Matheny's decision seemed obvious. Joe Kelly -- young fire-balling starting pitcher largely credited with carrying the Cardinals' rotation through fatigue, injury and ineffectiveness -- had thrust himself into the fourth October rotation spot.

From July 6 to September 6, he made 11 starts as a member of the rotation. The Cardinals won 10 of those starts. In the lone loss during that two-month span, Matheny's "Ferrari" threw 6 1/3 innings of shutout ball against the Atlanta Braves before being removed in the seventh.

To put that in perspective, the Cardinals lost a total of 25 games during that same time frame on days when Joe Kelly did not pitch. That's an average of 6.25 losses for each of the other four starting rotation spots.

After starting the season as a rarely used, sporadically effective relief pitcher, Joe Kelly seemed to emerge as the rotation savior the Redbirds sorely needed.

But then Jake Westbrook hit the disabled list. The Cardinals called it a back injury -- perhaps they were actually referring to the location of their own pain when Jake pitched? -- but the rest of us called it simple ineffectiveness. Whatever the reason, Westbrook's DL stint cleared the way for Michael Wacha.

Not right away, of course. First, we had to endure a five-inning, four-earned run appearance by Tyler Lyons. But eventually Matheny came around, and Wacha was handed a chance to start on September 3. He threw six innings of shutout ball against the Cincinnati Reds and never looked back.

From September 3 through September 24, Wacha has thrown 31 1/3 innings over five starts and has posted a 1.72 ERA. He's held opponents to a measly .198 batting average, struck out 28 and allowed just one home run. And, of course, nearly thrown a no-hitter.

By comparison, Joe Kelly has amassed 29 innings, 15 strikeouts and a 2.48 ERA over his last five starts. Opponents have hit .254 against him during that span.

Kelly's numbers are by no means deserving of a demotion, but they do help illustrate which St. Louis pitcher is currently throwing better. Just three games from the start of the postseason, that may make all the difference.

Of course, Matheny's sense of loyalty could lead him to hand the job to Kelly in recognition of his contributions when the team was struggling, or maybe Kelly's 7 2/3 innings of two-run ball out of the bullpen during last year's playoffs will convince Matheny he's perfect for the same role in 2013.

Or maybe the job will come down to this weekend.

The Cardinals' magic number currently stands at one to clinch the division. A Pittsburgh Pirates loss or a Cardinals win will hand St. Louis the NL Central title for the first time since 2009. If that happens Friday or Saturday (September 27 or September 28), Adam Wainwright is likely to be bumped on Sunday, September 29 in favor of Michael Wacha. The move would be aimed at saving Wainwright for the first game of the pending National League Division Series (NLDS), but it could also be seen as a last-ditch audition for Wacha and that fourth rotation spot in October.

Joe Kelly is set to pitch Saturday, September 28.

This weekend may very well become a two-game showdown between two outstanding young arms for the St. Louis Cardinals battling it out for a starting-pitcher role in the 2013 playoffs.

After numerous pitching injuries and nearly unprecedented rookie pitching contributions, who would have expected the St. Louis Cardinals to finish the season with one too many pitchers?

Kevin Reynolds is the author of Stl Cards 'N Stuff and host of The State of the Nation Address podcast at Cards 'N Stuff. He's been writing and podcasting about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2007 and can be found chatting about baseball on Twitter (@deckacards).

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