Michael Wacha was off to the sort of start that was likely to garner serious All-Star consideration, but the right-hander must now await further testing to determine whether he'll even be back on the mound by the time that game takes place.
Wacha's start against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park came to an abrupt end on Wednesday afternoon when he walked off the mound in the fourth inning with a left oblique injury. A velocity dip telegraphed that something was awry. Wacha then confirmed as much when pitching coach Mike Maddux visited him on the mound.
"I went out there to slow him down, and we got more than we bargained for," Maddux said after the club's 4-3 loss. "You could see his last few pitches were a little sloppy. … He's been our horse, our bell cow. Oblique strains are not good. Hopefully it's more of a cramp."
Wacha has had previous seasons interrupted by shoulder troubles, but an oblique strain is a first. He will travel with the club to Milwaukee, where he will undergo an MRI on Thursday to confirm the severity of the strain. Wacha is hopeful that his absence will be measured in weeks, not months, but such injuries have been known to linger.
It appears likely that Wacha is headed to the disabled list.
"I'm hoping for the best," Wacha said. "It feels like a little stitch or a cramp or something in my left side. It didn't feel very good pitching."
This becomes the latest test of the Cardinals' rotation depth. Veteran Adam Wainwright has been out since May with a right elbow injury. He's not expected to resume a throwing program for at least another two weeks. The club also doesn't have Alex Reyes as a rotation reinforcement, as a right shoulder injury ended his year after one appearance.
The setback also comes during what's been a challenging stretch for the team's starters. After anchoring the club early, the rotation is winless with a 6.55 ERA over the past seven games. It's been eight days since St. Louis had a starter finish six innings.
Tthe Cards can go in one of several directions to find a replacement for Wacha. They've already utilized John Gant for three spot starts this season. Dakota Hudson and Daniel Poncedeleon are also turning heads with what they're doing in Triple-A Memphis' rotation
Poncedeleon was with the big league team last week, though he has yet to make his Major League debut. A year after sustaining a devastating head injury, he has a 2.57 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) with Memphis.
Hudson has been even better. He's allowed one run over his past 20 innings and leads all Pacific Coast League starters with a 2.13 ERA. Though Hudson is not already on the Cardinals' 40-man roster, he'd be an easy add. The club could transfer Reyes or Ryan Sherriff, who is also out for the year, to the 60-day DL to open up a spot.
Austin Gomber, who is currently in the Cards' bullpen, could also be a spot start candidate.
Whomever steps in will have large shoes to fill. Wacha was off to the best start of his career as he entered the day 8-2 with a 3.24 ERA.
Things got complicated for Wacha in the fourth inning, which is when he started feeling some discomfort. After allowing a two-out homer to Cesar Hernandez, Wacha walked Rhys Hoskins on five pitches. That drew Maddux out for a mound visit. Manager Mike Matheny and athletic trainer Adam Olsen were summoned soon after.
"Whenever I first felt [the strain], I didn't really think too much of it," Wacha said. "I was still making pitches and getting outs. Then, toward the end of that inning, it kept getting gradually worse."
That was evidenced not just by Wacha's command, but also by his velocity. After averaging 93.4 mph on his four-seam fastball through the first three innings, he averaged 91.7 mph on that pitch in his final inning.
St. Louis was fortunate to escape the afternoon without additional personnel loss. Mike Mayers, who replaced Wacha, took a line drive off his hand, and Jose Martinez sustained a left shoulder injury during a collision at first base. But both stayed in the game.