When the St. Louis Cardinals dealt for John Lackey at the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline from the Boston Red Sox, it was as much about shaking things up as adding a frontline starting pitcher.
General manager John Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny felt the Cardinals had gotten stale after winning the National League pennant last season. Despite being the big favorite to win the NL Central again this season, St. Louis fell behind the Milwaukee Brewers early and still trails with a month left in the season.
However, an interesting offshoot of the trade is that Lackey would be the Cardinals' No. 1 starter if the postseason started today because ace right-hander Adam Wainwright is having a poor second half since starting for the NL last month in the All-Star Game at Minneapolis.
Lackey is 2-1 with a 4.50 ERA in five starts for the Cardinals. However, giving up nine in five innings to the Baltimore Orioles in his second start skewed his ERA. He has allowed two earned runs or fewer in his other four outings.
The Cardinals know what Lackey can do in big-game situations after being closed out by him in Game 6 of last season's World Series as he gave up one run in 6 2/3 innings.
"Winning big games was part of the plan when we traded for him," Matheny said.
Lackey had spent his entire 12-year career in the American League but has made a smooth transition to the NL.
"I'm still learning the lineups over here but my game plan is to go with my strengths first then adjust from there," Lackey said.
Conversely, though he has spent his entire nine-year career in the NL, it would be difficult to ask Wainwright to win a big game in October with the way he is pitching. He is 3-5 with a 4.68 ERA in eight starts since the All-Star break after going 12-4 with a 1.83 ERA in 19 first-half starts.
Wainwright turned in a quality start Wednesday against the Pittsburgh Pirates, allowed three runs in six innings, but still took the loss. Afterward, he acknowledged he hasn't been feeling right in recent weeks.
"I've been going through a 'dead arm' phase; everybody does that," Wainwright said. "You have to find a way to get outs. Most of the time I found ways to get outs. It's not pretty. I know I'm close. This month is over for me. I'm ready to move on to September and build off the few good pitches I threw."
If he doesn't, the matter of who pitches first game of the postseason for the Cardinals will be moot.
AROUND THE HORN
--Gregory Polanco was supposed to boost the Pittsburgh Pirates' chances of returning to the postseason for a second straight year when he was called up June 10 from Triple-A Indianapolis.
He did at first, hitting .344 in 14 games. However, he gradually went into a slide that grew to the point that it forced the Pirates to send him back to Indianapolis on Monday.
Polanco's slump extended to 1-for-30 over his last nine games Sunday when the 22-year-old went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts in a 4-3 loss to the Brewers at Milwaukee. That dropped his batting average to .241 through 64 games after he hit .347 in 62 games with Indianapolis before being called up.
The plan is for Polanco to return to the Pirates on Sept. 2, the day after Indianapolis' season ends.
"The timing is off on his swing, and I don't think the best way for him to spend the next week is sitting on the bench," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "This is an opportunity for him to get down, get some at-bats and get out of the spotlight that has been here for a week and find his way. I believe he will, and he will come back and help this ballclub in September in a positive way."
--Another highly touted rookie right fielder who cooled after a hot start, though he still hit for power, is the Houston Astros' George Springer, who batted .268 with 10 home runs in his first 38 games after being called up from Triple-A Round Rock on April 16.
Springer then hit .192 with 10 homers in his next 42 games and has been on the disabled list with a right quad strain since July 20. The Astros hope he will be able to play again this season, though there are no guarantees.
"I want to get to the point where he has no limitations," manager Bo Porter said. "You don't want to get into September and him have a setback and then you're talking about something that lingers into the offseason and then next year because you're talking about a guy who can be an MVP."
Springer admits that going from the cover of Sports Illustrated to more than a month of inactivity in the same season has been difficult.
"I feel like I'm missing out on everything," he said.
--The Cleveland Indians have not given up hope of making a repeat appearances in the postseason but they are trying to pull off the unique feat of contending and retooling simultaneously.
The Indians traded right-hander Justin Masterson and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera last month. The player they got back from the National for Cabrera, shortstop Zach Walters, has hit six home runs in 14 games while serving primarily as the designated hitter.