Before Thursday night’s game against Kansas City, Cardinals reliever Mitchell Boggs had allowed at least one run in seven of 18 games he’d been in this season, or 39 percent of the time. He had saved two games, blown two saves and lost two games. Yet manager Mike Matheny saw fit to bring him into the ninth inning of a 2-1 game, a lead which Boggs promptly coughed up.
In the space of 12 pitches, that 2-1 Cardinal lead turned into a 4-2 deficit. Jeff Francoeur hit a second-pitch rocket for a homer that tied the game, and then Boggs walked Alex Gordon on five pitches. Victor Marte came in and immediately hit Alcides Escobar, then made a bad throw to third base on David Lough’s bunt back to the pitcher.
After going 1-1 on Eric Hosmer, the Royals’ first baseman chopped a grounder down the first-base line that scored two and put K.C. up 4-2.
I understand Edward Mujica being unavailable because of pitching in four straight games, and I understand protecting the ubiquitous Trevor Rosenthal from overuse. We see him all the time. However, before a game every coach and manager has to identify the things that can beat him in that contest, and right now Mitchell Boggs is such an item for the Cardinals. If the options were Boggs, Joe Kelly and Marte to start the ninth, Boggs would have been my last choice.
In fact, I was hoping to see Seth Maness, who needed five pitches to record the final out of the eighth, in the ninth. It was stunning to see Boggs trotting in from the bullpen. Everyone in my section had a bad feeling, and for good reason. If the Reds and Pirates keep the heat on, and the Cardinals stumble at some point, let’s hope that Matheny’s loyalty to Boggs and his desire to see him succeed doesn’t cost the club a playoff spot.
Everything else about the game was wonderful, especially the debut of 2012 first-round draft choice Michael Wacha. He went seven stellar innings, allowing a run on just two hits, while striking out six and walking none. Wacha threw first-pitch strikes to 14 of 23 hitters, and getting ahead was a huge key as he used an effective changeup to offset a terrific fastball to handcuff the Royals.
Compared to other highly hyped Cardinal pitching prospects, Wacha’s debut stands out. I don’t include John Gast, Tyler Lyons or even Lance Lynn in this discussion, because we didn’t talk about those guys as potential aces as they made their way through the system. Last year, Shelby Miller pitched six shutout innings of one-hit ball to beat the Reds in his first start, so he impressed as much as Wacha. Miller struck out seven and walked two. In fairness, he did have five relief appearances to get his feet wet, and his first start was in the season finale, so it wasn’t really pressure-packed.
In 2008, Jaime Garcia’s first start – against San Diego – lasted five innings and he gave up three runs. He didn’t begin to start regularly in the big leagues until two years later.
Fellow lefty Rick Ankiel had a similar line in his first start in 1999. Ankiel allowed three runs in five innings to Montreal on Aug. 23, and the Cardinals lost the game 11-7.
One other highly regarded Redbird first-rounder, Allen Watson, made his major league debut on July 8, 1993, with a 7-1 win over the Braves. Watson went six innings, and allowed one run on four hits as he won the first of his career-starting six straight wins. As a note of caution, Watson lost his last seven to end that year, and went on to a career record of 51-55 with a 5.03 ERA, winning more than eight games just one time.
Wacha had a remarkable, high-quality debut against a struggling Kansas City offense. He has a chance to have a terrific career. But let’s allow it to play out and enjoy the journey before we put him at the top of the rotation. If he’s for real, we’ll have plenty of time to watch him dominate in the major leagues.