MILWAUKEE -- If the Cardinals' goal during Thursday's series opener against rival Milwaukee was to get Michael Wacha ready for the future without slowing their present ascent in the division then the Cardinals got more than planned.
And possibly more than they had a right to expect.
Wacha provided the Cardinals three strong innings in his first major-league appearance in 2 1/2 months, and the Cardinals staked him to an early lead before holding on tight to several waves of possibilities from Milwaukee. The Brewers loaded the bases one inning and didn't score. They stranded two on base in the next. To escape Miller Park with a 3-2 victory the Cardinals then needed Peter Bourjos to track down a fly ball at the wall in deep center field and rob the Brewers of what would have been a lead-taking extra-base hit. Jon Jay had two equally essential catches in right field to muzzle Milwaukee rallies.
The Brewers, who have lost nine consecutive games and fallen four games behind the first-place Cardinals, left nine runners on base in the final four innings. It took the Cardinals six pitchers after Wacha to secure the win, beginning with rookie Marco Gonzales (2-2) and ending with closer Trevor Rosenthal (42nd save).
Rather than have Wacha start Thursday for Class AAA Memphis in the postseason and get one more rehab game on his arm before throwing in the pennant race, the Cardinals threw him straight into the heat. Not only was Wacha going to build his strength and stamina on the job, his first appearance would come against the team closest to the first-place Cardinals in the standings -- the Brewers, who had only led the division for 150 days this season. Wacha would be limited to around 60 pitches and officials said if he showed signs of troubles they could quickly "pull the plug" and turn to an armada of relievers.
Wacha used 50 pitches to get through three innings and hold the Brewers to one run on three hits. He struck out three and did not walk batter. Three of his first four pitchers were 94 mph, 94 mph, and 96 mph. He sandwiched a 74-mph curve in between the last two. The velocity faded as he got later into his start, but not enough that he wasn't effective.
Wacha's final pitch was a 93-mph fastball that became a double play.
His most efficient inning was his final inning when he needed only nine pitches to squeeze three outs from three batters.
The Cardinals intend for Wacha to aim for around 75 pitches in his next outing and within a couple weeks they expect him to be ready to start without limitations – on the eve of October.
In the eighth inning, the Brewers had two runners on and no outs before Pat Neshek pitched around an error to keep Milwaukee scoreless. The Brewers helped. A botched bunt gave Neshek the first out. Bourjos stole the second one. With the tying run at second and go-ahead run at first, Logan Schafer tagged a ball to the deepest point of Miller Park. Bourjos dashed straight back from his mid-range starting spot and caught the ball over his shoulder at the wall. A lineout to left followed and the inning was over.
The Cardinals dared Milwaukee to overtake them in the sixth inning, and it took three pitchers to navigate through turbulence partially of the Cardinals' own making.
Gonzales started the inning and allowed a solo homer to Rickie Weeks on his first pitch. The rookie lefty then retired Gerardo Parra on a called strike three and then walked off the mound as if he got another one from No. 3 hitter Jonathan Lucroy. The pitch was ruled a ball and Lucroy got another offering. The All-Star catcher, fooled on a changeup, rolled a slow grounder to shortstop that he beat out for an infield hit. That the pitch that knocked Gonzales from the game and brought, surprisingly, Jason Motte into one of the highest-leverage spots he's seen all season.
The former closer only recently returned from a time on the disabled list with a back strain and he had just one rehab inning in the minors to prove his readiness. He had not thrown a pitch in the majors since Aug. 1. The first batter he faced, Aramis Ramirez, a noted troublemaker for the Cardinals, entered the at-bat 1-for-11 with no strikeouts in his career against Motte. He singled to right. Motte retired only one of the three batters he faced, and it was clear the fireballer was not operating at full strength. He would not have avoided allowing a run had Jon Jay not raced down a line drive in the right-field corner for the only out Motte did get.
Of his 13 pitches, only three sped home at more than 90 mph.
His top speed was 94 mph, and he walked Lyle Overbay on four pitches that registered less than 90 mph on baseball's official Pitch F/x system. With the Cardinals holding to tenuously to a one-run lead, Motte left the bases loaded to Seth Maness.
The Cardinals' double-play righty needed only out to escape the inning and he got it from Schafer on a fly out down the line and into foul territory. Matt Holliday caught it to keep the Brewers from tying the game and to keep Motte's appearance clean of damage.
Maness would need his own rescue an inning later when singles by pinch hitter Matt Clark and Parra put the tying run at third base with two outs. Carlos Martinez entered and got Lucroy to pop up to first baseman Xavier Scruggs to end the threat.
(c)2014 St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Visit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at www.stltoday.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services