ST. LOUIS — As the St. Louis Cardinals warmed up at Busch Stadium on Friday morning, Michael Wacha headed to the bullpen and Shelby Miller played catch with teammates. One of the Cardinals rookie right-handers was preparing for a possible next start, and the other was just getting loose in case his team needs him to pitch in relief during the NLDS.
By that time, the pitchers knew what Cards manager Mike Matheny had decided: Wacha would get the call if the best-of-five series needs a Game 4 on Monday at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. Wacha follows Adam Wainwright, who had 10 strikeouts in Game 1 on Thursday afternoon, right-hander Lance Lynn who struggled in Game 2 on Friday and right-hander Joe Kelly in Game 3 on Sunday.
"I mean, it's a great opportunity," Wacha said. "I wish we could have won today — maybe I wouldn't have to pitch. I just look forward to pitching in Pittsburgh."
Whom to start in these playoffs probably has been one of Matheny's toughest decisions since becoming manager. Based on raw talent, the combination of Miller and Wacha even might seem better choices than Lynn and Kelly. But Lynn's experience, along with a hot finish to the regular season, and the Cards going 11-4 in Kelly's starts, were determining factors there.
In deciding on Game 4, Matheny said he was swayed by Wacha's final start of the regular season, when he nearly pitched a no-hitter.
"When it comes down to it, it's hard to ignore what Michael did on his last start, and I really like the way that he finished and that really was, kind of, the deciding factor."
Wacha wasn't sure about that, but said he could envision pitching in a playoff game for the Cardinals even two months ago when he was playing at Triple-A.
"I think I could have," Wacha said. "That's the goal, whenever when you're down in Memphis, you're trying to get up here and compete with the Cardinals. Trying to make the postseason roster. That's always the goal, to get up here and play in the postseason."
Wacha had a 2.83 in nine starts, with 46 strikeouts and 17 walks in 54 innings, though he had a clunker in his next-to-last start (at Coors Field), plus a little wildness in the start before that. Still, Matheny seemed to have an epiphany Sept. 24 when Wacha dominated the Nationals: "Wacha Wacha Wacha Wacha," is how it likely came to him.
Even if Wacha never saw the mound during this round, it is a sign that he has jumped Miller going forward in the playoffs. It probably was a tough conversation with Miller, too:
"Anytime anybody's roles are changed when they get to the postseason, whether it's a guy not being on the active roster or whether it's somebody moved into a different role, that's never a conversation that they necessarily want to have," Matheny said. "These guys are competitors. They believe in what they do, and the conversation is very candid and honest with Shelby — that we had a lot of faith in all of our starters, especially how all the guys finished up at the end of the season."
Miller, one of the elite prospects in the majors coming into the season, finished with with a 3.06 ERA and 169 strikeouts in 173 1/3 innings, and the Cards went 21-10 in his starts. Miller really was hot stuff in May when he retired 27 straight Rockies for a one-hit shutout, with only a single by Eric Young Jr. leading off the game preventing perfection. But he wasn't pitching as well toward the end of the season as he was at the beginning. Miller did OK down the stretch, posting a 3.63 ERA in his final 11 starts, but he also walked 25 in 57 innings and allowed a .426 slugging percentage. Not terrible, but not elite.
Miller's future still is as bright as ever, probably, but Wacha (himself a first-round pick in 2012) is more evidence that the Cardinals' organization is loaded. They have an abundance of pitching, but you can never have too much, Matheny said.
"Yeah, I would never call it a surplus," Matheny said. "We made the mistake early this season talking about depth and then next thing you know we were tested, so we don't want to be tested anymore. We're fortunate that our starters have been really throwing the ball well towards the end. They gave us a lot of flexibility.
"But whether you're making that decision for Game 2 with Lance Lynn or 3 with Joe Kelly, we're very comfortable throwing any guy out there."