By Jeff Jones
Twitter – @jmjones
JUPITER — Miles Mikolas had a stunning year in his return from Japan that made him one of the National League’s most reliable starters. Carlos Martínez, electric as ever, was up and down as he bounced from the rotation to injury to the bullpen. Jack Flaherty is a blossoming star with a bulldog mentality and the precise self-assurance a team desires in its future rotation ace. Adam Wainwright is a Cardinal legend who closed out a World Series and is seeking to prove his worth in order to close out his career as triumphantly as it began.
Wait, who’s missing?
Don’t feel bad if it took you a minute. Michael Wacha promises he doesn’t have any idea if he’s being talked about enough or not.
“I have no clue,” he said with a laugh on Friday in Jupiter. “I don’t read [the coverage]. I don’t know.”
Somehow, the towering right hander who burst on to the scene with an electric postseason in 2013 and subsequently battled a series of nagging arm injuries while fighting to be a mainstay in the rotation, has slipped under the radar. As of this writing, Michael Wacha threw the last pitch any Cardinal has thrown any later in the playoffs than the Division Series. San Francisco’s Travis Ishikawa put it into the right field seats just short of McCovey Cove and the Cardinals, on the dawn of their fifth season since, are still trying to make it back.
Wacha knows the feeling.
“You’re fighting to go out there and prove you deserve to be in that situation and deserve to be in that rotation and in that staff,” Wacha said. “The mentality hasn’t changed over the years in that aspect.”
Last season, Wacha looked like he had finally turned a corner and gotten back to the performance level he expects of himself. He opened the year with an 8-2 win-loss record and a 3.20 ERA in his first fifteen starts. He came within three outs of his first career no-hitter in a June 3rd victory over the Pirates and appeared to be on track to make his second career All-Star appearance and his first since the summer after that fall in San Francisco.
Then, on June 20th in Philadelphia, a pull in his side. A strained oblique was a matter of weeks, and then months, and then the season was done. Despite some abortive attempts at in-season rehab, Wacha couldn’t get back to feeling like himself.
“I was feeling really good last year and getting good results out there on the mound,” he said. “Winning a lot of games and stuff. More importantly I was feeling good and felt like I was in a rhythm.”
That rhythm was shifted, which is not new to Wacha. A stress reaction in his right shoulder, identified late in the 2014 season, altered the path of the career and put his health at the forefront. Just 23 then, he turns 28 this summer. His hair is longer and his confidence is stronger, but he’s still has the same caution when he talks about managing his body. He finds himself now with more to take care of.
“One year it’s the shoulder, now it’s the oblique,” Wacha explained. “It’s a little different program on how I get ready for each day and what I need to get activated and what I need to get warmed up. So I get a little more conscious of how I go about my business and what I need to be prepared each day.”
“It’s a little different plan but still all the shoulder stuff and all the other stuff I had been doing is still in there.”
Wacha’s brother Lucas was a standout football player at the University of Wyoming who now plays for the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats. He traveled to Toronto several times this winter to see his first CFL games and marveled at some of the differences. Wacha, an alumnus of Texas A&M and a passionate Aggie football fan, was taken aback by the extended field (110 vs. 100 yards) and limited number of downs (3 vs. 4).
In between trips to the great white north, Wacha spent his time staying warm while rehabilitating in his native Texas. Houston native Jordan Hicks lived close by and the two threw several bullpen sessions together.
He also kept up communication with both manager Mike Shildt and pitching coach Mike Maddux. The team’s winter accountability initiative included exchanges with Wacha from both, and in Maddux’s case, even a visit to see what Wacha and Hicks looked like while throwing.
“Mad Dog,” said Wacha, using the nickname for Maddux preferred by the pitchers, “he even came and watched one of our bullpens with me and Hicks. We threw down in Texas. He was in the area so he was able to come down and watch the pens.”
“Just the communication. You see the want and them wanting to get better. That’s all you can ask for out of them.”
Shildt’s communication skills have been roundly praised in the early days of spring training. Several players have commented that he perhaps has the sharpest set of those skills that they’ve been around in the game. It was Maddux, though, who forged a particular connection with Wacha and was able to get through with simple honesty.
“[Maddux] is 100% on our side and so he’s gonna be up front with you if you need something to work on, you need something to get better in your game, he’s gonna let you know,” Wacha said.
“In the long run, I would want him to. He’s not gonna hurt my feelings. And he knows that if I get better in a certain area or someone else gets better in a certain area, it can only help the team.”
The long run, for Wacha, may not include St. Louis. He’s eligible for free agency at the conclusion of this season and while he says he’s not worried about it – “that stuff will be here whenever it’s here” – it’s easy to see the rise of young pitchers and the coming innings crunch as challenges to his future with the Cardinals. Wacha says he’s ready for those challenges.
“Just getting on the mound and being able to let it eat and not feel anything in your side is a really good feeling,” he said. “It’s just that confidence that you need to go out there and play at 100% and feel like nothing’s gonna happen.”
If Michael Wacha can show 100% of himself in 2019, the percentage of attention paid to him will certainly shift. Rapidly.