ST. LOUIS — Steven Matz ripped a sinker down in the zone to Salavador Perez, forcing the long-time Kansas City catcher to pop up to first base to end the bottom of the sixth Saturday night at Kauffman Stadium. It served as the final out of the frame, and as Matz walked off the mound and into the visiting dugout, it all but ensured the left-hander’s fourth consecutive quality start.
It turns out that sinker might also have served as the final pitch Matz throws this season. After a remarkable second-half campaign — sparked by a return to the rotation just before the All-Star break — Matz was placed on the 15-day injured list with a left lat strain on Monday afternoon prior to the Cardinals’ series opener against the A’s. He will be shut down from throwing for at least two weeks, and with just six weeks remaining in the regular season, it is unlikely he pitches again this season.
“He was throwing really well for us,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said to reporters. “I think he was building some momentum, and then for this to happen, he’s certainly disappointed and we’re disappointed. We’ve taken a lot of kicks this year and this is just another one.”
After starting the season with an 0-6 record in 10 starts, Matz was relegated to the bullpen for nearly a month, working to fine-tune command. Since his return to the rotation on July 9, he had registered a 1.86 ERA over seven starts, walking just seven batters while striking out 38. He was a different pitcher, both in terms of control and composure, and was steadily becoming an arm the Cardinals could trust as a starter as they shift their focus towards next season.
“Sometimes when you take something away from somebody that they really want, they come back with a little more conviction in wanting to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” manager Oli Marmol explained. “I think part of it for (Matz) was he was tired of watching from the bullpen. He wanted to start again. He came back with a little more edge and the stuff played up.”
Steven Matz on his increase in confidence: “I think I just simplified things in the bullpen. I had a little bit of success out there and recognized I could go right after guys and you don’t have to try to be too perfect all the time.” #STLCards pic.twitter.com/BYnKb9Jjhi
— Bally Sports Midwest (@BallySportsMW) July 30, 2023
Matz first felt tightness in his left side after finishing the sixth inning and did not come out for the seventh inning, though that decision wasn’t all that controversial given that Matz was at 93 pitches. He underwent imaging Sunday, which revealed the strain. With Matz’s next start not scheduled until Friday, the Cardinals won’t make a corresponding roster move until Tuesday. Zack Thompson will take over Matz’s role in the rotation going forward.
The Cardinals, who entered play Monday with a last-place record of 52-66 in the division, will not rush Matz back. He, along with Miles Mikolas, are the only two starting pitchers under contract for 2024, and the organization won’t risk further injury this season by speeding up his timeline. Based on the calendar timing of the season, it would be hard to imagine Matz having enough time to return to a starting pitcher’s workload by the end of the season anyway.
“Things change, but I think for the immediate future we know he’s going to be shut down for a minimum of 15 days,” Mozeliak said. “I would imagine it’s probably no-throw for at least three weeks, and then we’ll re-evaluate it. Obviously, we’ll seek a second opinion and put all that together and determine what’s best for (Matz). Clearly 2024 is most important when you’re looking at the rotation and where we are to know that we can count on him.”
Steven Matz, Nasty 85mph Changeup. 👌
4th K thru 2 pic.twitter.com/jze39p746p
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 5, 2023
Matz’s injury further clouds an already murky rotation, especially with Adam Wainwright’s status as a starter in jeopardy. The Cardinals plan on starting Dakota Hudson on Tuesday and Matthew Liberatore on Wednesday to close out their series against Oakland. Wainwright will make his next scheduled start on Thursday against the Mets, but the Cardinals have a looming decision to make if the long-time franchise icon (who owns a 8.78 ERA over 66 2/3 innings this year) continues to struggle.
Wainwright was not able to record an out in the second inning in his previous start on Friday, with the Royals tagging him for eight runs on nine hits. It was the fifth start in his last seven where he did not record more than three innings of work. Still, the Cardinals pledged Wainwright would make at least one more start. With Thompson taking over for Matz — and the available starting pitching options in Triple A lacking — Wainwright’s runway might be extended even more. Wainwright will skip his bullpen session this week, a concept he mused over after his last start.
“It’s tough because we all have great respect for Adam and what he means to the franchise, but we also have to give ourselves a chance to win every time we send someone out there. The last couple of starts have been troubling, difficult. … It’s difficult to navigate but I think the best thing we can do is communicate with him,” Mozeliak said.
“We’re giving (Wainwright) the trust that you might not normally give another player,” he added. “He’s earned that right. But at some point, even someone like him runs out of that. Yes, we have plenty of data that screams that this is probably not going to work. But this time he’s not going to throw a bullpen. I think he’s going to try to reserve his pitches for his next outing and we’ll see how that goes.”
Thompson, who has spent the majority of this season shuffling between the majors and minors and has been used in all roles between both levels, should see substantial time as a starting pitcher for the remainder of the year. His last two outings were especially encouraging. He opened a bullpen game for St. Louis against Colorado on Aug. 6 and struck out a career-high eight batters in four innings. He relieved Wainwright on Friday and notched another four innings, allowing f0ur hits and one earned run and racking up five more strikeouts.
“(Thompson) was drafted as a starter,” Mozeliak said. “I think a lot of times we give starters opportunities around the bullpen when they’re coming up through the minor leagues. I think his best position or role going forward would be as a starter.”
All season long, the Cardinals starting pitching (or lack thereof) has been a prominent storyline. With Matz hitting the shelf for the foreseeable future, the lack of formidable rotation depth has once again become forefront in St. Louis.
(Photo: Ed Zurga / Getty Images)