Wacha (0.84 ERA in May) for NL Pitcher of the Month?

May 27th, 2023

NEW YORK -- OK, so maybe this wasn’t exactly how the Padres drew up their starting-rotation plans in late February. When they signed during Spring Training, the veteran right-hander was viewed as the final piece in what was already a fairly complete rotation.

But Michael Wacha: stopper and temporary staff ace? Hey, that works, too.

Again, Wacha was excellent in the Padres’ 3-2 loss to the Yankees in 10 innings on Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium. He pitched two-run ball over seven innings, allowing five hits and no walks. In the seventh, Wacha surrendered what was perhaps a ballpark-aided game-tying homer to DJ LeMahieu. But otherwise, Wacha hardly put a foot wrong.

It’s been that way all month, too. Perhaps surprisingly, Wacha has been the rotation’s most reliable starter, and he’ll finish May with a 0.84 ERA and a 0.72 WHIP. (National League Pitcher of the Month, anyone?)

“He’s been economical with his pitches, he’s mixed them up really well, he’s had hitters off-balance,” said Padres manager Bob Melvin. “A lot of the similarities in today’s game have showed up most of the year for him.”

Atop the Padres' rotation, of course, are Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove. All three have shown flashes of excellence this season. But it’s been up and down. Musgrove dealt with an injury in the early part of the year. Darvish had an altered build-up following the World Baseball Classic. Snell has been early-season Snell at times.

On the whole, San Diego's rotation has been fine. But amid inconsistency elsewhere, Wacha has been an utterly reliable force.

“I just try to keep it rolling,” Wacha said. “Keep building off each start. Realize what I was doing the previous start, and hey, keep building off of that.”

Wacha worked quickly and efficiently on Saturday, requiring only 92 pitches to get through seven innings. And, to be sure, his defense did its part.

Ha-Seong Kim, who returned from a left-knee bruise, was excellent at shortstop. He made a perfect relay throw in the first inning, a spinning play in the fifth and a smooth double-play turn in the eighth.

Brett Sullivan was just as dazzling behind the plate. He made a ridiculous leaping catch into the backstop netting in the fourth -- “I’ve never seen anything like that,” Wacha said -- before throwing out Harrison Bader trying to steal later in the frame.

Juan Soto made two nice plays in the left-field corner. Rougned Odor and Jake Cronenworth were rock-solid in the infield. Afterward, Wacha wanted to make one thing clear: 

“Literally everybody -- outfielders, infielders -- were making plays all day,” he said. “That was the reason why I was so efficient.”

Kim quickly sent the credit right back to Wacha.

“He’s a great pitcher,” Kim said. “Obviously, he works fast, and that adds that extra concentration to our defense. It leads to those great plays.”

Indeed, the Padres played a crisp game on Saturday afternoon -- but they didn’t hit enough. Fernando Tatis Jr. launched a solo homer into the left-field bullpen in the fourth, tying the game at 1. Kim gave the Padres a lead with a go-ahead single in the seventh.

But the major breakthrough never came, and LeMahieu’s home run -- out in just three of 30 big league ballparks, according to Statcast -- tied the game in the seventh.

“Definitely that homer in the last [inning], it makes your outing kind of have a bad feeling, coming out of it,” Wacha said. “It stings, for sure.”

Right-hander Nick Martinez covered the eighth and ninth innings admirably, but the Padres were held scoreless through the 10th. From there, Melvin opted to stick with Martinez, who has proven very capable of handling multi-inning relief outings.

Martinez did little wrong in the 10th, too. But after a bunt got Greg Allen, the automatic runner, to third base, the Padres drew their infield in. Isiah Kiner-Falefa, a ground-ball hitter, did what Melvin hoped he might do -- hit a grounder.

It snuck through the drawn-in infield and down the left-field line. On a day the Padres’ defense got to seemingly everything else, Odor couldn’t get to this one, and San Diego fell to 0-5 in extra-inning games this season.

“It was going to come down to one play at the end,” Melvin said. “We’ve got a guy with a [high] ground-ball rate up there. He hits a ground ball. It just finds the line.”