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Wainwright's struggles still an issue

The good news for the St. Louis Cardinals: They secured an important 6-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Combined with the Milwaukee Brewers' seventh straight loss, the Cardinals now lead the NL Central by two games over the Brewers and four games over the Pirates. Until taking the division lead on Monday, the Cardinals had been tied for first place for seven days, but hadn't had sole possession of the top spot. Now they do -- even though they've been outscored on the season (last team to win a division while being outscored: the 2007 Diamondbacks) -- and they may not look back.

The bad news for the Cardinals: Adam Wainwright got the win but struggled once again, and the concerns about his dead arm or fatigue or whatever are going to get more serious with each mediocre outing.

Wainwright lasted six-plus innings but gave up three home runs for just the fifth time in his career and first since 2010. I was actually a little surprised manager Mike Matheny brought him back out for the seventh inning with the Cards up 5-2 and Wainwright already at 91 pitches. He hadn't really dominated up to that point with three strikeouts, but the two home runs he allowed had been solo shots. Why not call it a night, chalk up his best performance in several weeks and turn the game over to the bullpen with a good feeling? Instead, Wainwright walked Ike Davis, and Starling Marte crushed a 2-1 slider to left field, leaving the Cards still worrying about their ace.

They have to, don't they? At the All-Star break, Wainwright was a legitimate Cy Young contender, maybe even the favorite over Clayton Kershaw since he had pitched more innings. But it's been a Jekyll and Hyde two halves for Wainwright:

First half: 12-4, 1.83 ERA, .201 average, .258 BABIP, 4.26 SO/BB ratio

Second half: 4-5, 4.82 ERA, .282 average, .315 BABIP, 2.0 SO/BB ratio

Besides the ERA, the important number here is the strikeout-to-walk ratio. In the first half, he averaged more than four K's for every strikeout, but that rate is down to just two K's for every strikeout since the All-Star break.

There had been speculation about Wainwright suffering from a dead arm or fatigue, and he did finally reluctantly admit to an issue a few days ago -- again, leading me to wonder why Matheny didn't pull him after six innings. That fatigue hasn't shown up in the velocity readings -- his fastball averaged 89.8 mph on Tuesday, right near his season average of 90.1, and he's averaged 89-91 every start this season -- although it's possible he's exerting more effort to create the same velocity.

Of course, the other thing that happened right before the All-Star break was the injury to Yadier Molina, who went down on June 29. There was speculation that maybe Wainwright just missed Molina and his game-calling and artful pitch framing of Wainwright's offerings. You can read the piece from Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs for some evidence in that regard. As a team, the Cardinals' ERA on the season is 3.31 with Molina catching, 4.24 with Tony Cruz and 4.29 ERA with A.J. Pierzynski. Sabermetricians dislike catcher ERA due to concerns about sample size and personal catchers and so on, but successful pitch framing should show up in fewer runs allowed, right?

But Molina was back there Tuesday and that didn't seem to help. It just hasn't been the same Wainwright. Witness the three home runs. The pitch to Marte was a flat slider with no bite. Russell Martin homered on a 2-0 fastball that was down the middle. The 2-1 pitch to Jordy Mercer was a 90 mph inside fastball at the belt with no movement. Three bad pitches when behind in the count. Big league hitters don't miss those kinds of pitches too often.

The Cardinals can certainly win the division even if Wainwright continues to scuffle. But if he doesn't show signs of getting back to something resembling what he was in the first half or the past two seasons, Matheny will have a difficult decision: Does he still make Wainwright his No. 1 starter in the postseason? Is he still the guy you want to line up for two potential starts in a five-game series, to potentially match up against Kershaw?

Maybe Matheny turns to Lance Lynn, who has a 2.85 ERA ... but has also never made it through six innings in five career postseason starts. Maybe he turns to John Lackey, who hasn't been that great since coming over but pitched well in the postseason for the Red Sox last year. Maybe Michael Wacha manages to get healthy and join the rotation (he just pitched two innings in his first rehab stint).

Put it this way: I don't think it should be automatic that Wainwright will be the No. 1 starter come the postseason, from what we're seeing right now.

Of course, you do have to get there first.