ST. LOUIS -- After 11 weeks of rest and rehab to address a stress reaction in his right shoulder, Michael Wacha is set to make his return to the Cardinals' rotation when the team opens a key intradivision series in Milwaukee on Thursday.
The Cardinals announced Wacha as the series-opening starter on Tuesday, two days after Wacha threw 34 pitches in a two-inning rehab start with the organization's Double-A affiliate. Instead of having Wacha continue to build up his pitch count in the Minors -- which he could have done since Triple-A Memphis qualified for the postseason -- the right-hander will continue that process in the center of the Cardinals' postseason push.
"As you look at what we're trying to accomplish, he fits perfect into that," general manager John Mozeliak said. "He's been working diligently for the last two months. From a physical standpoint, we had to make sure that his shoulder was where it needed to be. This guy is as strong as he's ever been."
Left-hander Marco Gonzales will be ready to come in behind Wacha on Thursday, as Wacha will be limited to a pitch count of about 50-60. The Cardinals are hopeful that Wacha is efficient enough to be able to cover four innings with that allotment.
From there, the Cardinals plan to have Wacha pitch every fifth game, increasing his pitch count by increments of 15-20. That means that by the end of the month, he will be at full strength if the club qualifies for the postseason.
"I wanted to be back a month ago, but I'm happy with where I am coming back right now," said Wacha, whose last Major League start came against the Mets on June 17. "I'm ready to get it started again. The command is still on its way with offspeed pitches. But other than that, I felt like the velocity was there. Everything else will come."
Before settling on Wacha, the Cardinals had considered both Gonzales and Tyler Lyons for the start after determining that Justin Masterson would not make another. It was Wacha's performance on Sunday -- the crispness of his pitches, the velocity, the fastball command -- that convinced the Cardinals that he could immediately be effective against Major League competition.
"We've made no question about the fact that when he's ready to go, we want him on the mound," manager Mike Matheny said. "That's something we're excited to see. His stuff was right. We'll take that."
Starting Wacha on three days' rest was not a concern for the Cardinals because of how short Wacha's outing was on Sunday. The condensed schedule did require Wacha to forgo throwing his normal in-between-starts bullpen session this week.
It is not forgotten what Wacha meant down the stretch for the Cardinals last season and, as the team hopes, the boost he could provide again. In his rookie season, Wacha allowed nine earned runs in 62 innings covering September and October.
"I think his resume speaks for itself," Mozeliak said. "When he was throwing, he could be dominant. And frankly, he's very fresh."