If the Cardinals intended to put some space between themselves and the Pirates, they failed to do so by losing two out of three to Pittsburgh, capped off by a 3-1 loss at PNC Park on Wednesday.
More troubling for St. Louis, however, could be the status of No. 1 starter Adam Wainwright. The Cards’ ace told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s Derrick Goold after Wednesday’s game that he’s been dealing with a tired arm.
“I’ve been going through a dead arm phase,” Wainwright said to Goold. “Everybody does that. You have to find a way to get outs. Most of the time today I found ways to get outs. It’s not pretty. But I found ways to get outs. One of these days it’s going to click in and it’s going to be real nice.”
“Dead arm” would be a reasonable explanation for Wainwright’s recent performance. On Wednesday, he gave up three runs and eight hits in six innings. In Wainwright’s six starts during August, he’s compiled a 2-4 record and 5.17 ERA. In 38.1 innings, Wainwright has allowed 44 hits and 11 walks, while striking out 28 batters. Opposing batters have a .289 average
After five months of baseball, it seems like plenty of pitchers would be fighting tired arms. Yet “dead arm” is usually something you hear about during spring training, when pitchers are building their arm strength and stamina back up after resting through the offseason. It’s not typically something you hear from an ace starting pitcher on a playoff contender.
However, Goold believes that Wainwright wouldn’t have mentioned his arm feeling tired or acknowledged any sort of physical reason for poor performance unless he felt like he was on the way out of it and his condition was improving.
For the Cardinals’ sake, that better be true. Their team ERA for August is 4.48, second-worst in the NL. Only the Rockies have been worse. In his five starts for the month, John Lackey has a 4.50 ERA with an .808 opponents’ OPS. Justin Masterson is lugging a 7.48 mark, with a .311 opponents’ batting average and .876 OPS. Shelby Miller’s ERA is 4.88.
Are the Cards in trouble? Not in the standings. At least not yet. If the Brewers beat the Padres Wednesday night, St. Louis will be 2.5 games back. If Milwaukee loses, the Cardinals will still be 1.5 games behind. They still hold the NL’s top wild-card spot by 1.5 games.
But by losing two of three to the Pirates, the Cards have given Pittsburgh life as September approaches. The Bucs are now 4.5 games out of first place, two games behind St. Louis. And in the wild-card standings, Pittsburgh is just a game away from the Giants for that second bid.
If there was any belief that the Pirates were out of contention after losing seven in a row and nine of 12 during the past two weeks, that’s now been dispelled. Andrew McCutchen leaving Tuesday’s game with a rib injury was obviously a concern, but he was back in the lineup on Wednesday and batted 1-for-3 with a RBI.
Any suggestion that Pittsburgh should consider becoming sellers at the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline have been quieted down as well. General manager Neal Huntington might even be interested in buying during the next four days.
Though the Cardinals could get a respite by playing the Cubs in their next four games, the Pirates will get another crack at St. Louis in a three-game series to begin September. That will be the last time these two teams play this season, unless they meet in a one-game wild-card playoff.
Help could be arriving soon for St. Louis. Michael Wacha would certainly help the starting rotation, and he’s making a rehab start with Double-A Springfield. If all goes well and he’s able to make one or two more rehab starts after that, Wacha could rejoin the Cardinals in mid-September.
Even better would be the return of Yadier Molina, who’s also on a rehab assignment with Springfield beginning Wednesday. He could be back behind the plate in St. Louis by the end of the week. In Molina’s absence, A.J. Pierzynski has a .672 OPS and Tony Cruz is batting .145. The Cardinals’ lineup has shown some life in August, but Molina coming back would provide a significant boost.
Up to this point, the Cards have arguably been a disappointment, staring up at the Brewers in the NL Central all season. But despite not playing up to expectations, St. Louis is still in playoff contention. The Cardinals have the month of September to get their pitching right, continue hitting, work their magic and start playing like one of the best teams in the league.