Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 8/21/12

Eleven innings after his departure Jaime Garcia‘s return to the Cardinals’ rotation was buried by the absurdity of one of the season’s longest games. After battling back from one run down in the 16th inning, the Cardinals scraped one across to keep the game going, but a Pedro Alvarez home run in the 19th sealed a victory for the Pirates.

But as we look long-term for the Cardinals – now tied with the Pirates and Giants for the second National League Wild Card – it could be Garcia’s excellent start that carries the most meaning of anything from Sunday’s action. The lefty lasted eight innings in his first start since June 5th, striking out 10 and allowing just two unearned runs on five hits and no walks.

Garcia hit the disabled list on June 5th after a truncated start against the Astros, easily his worst of the season — just two innings, five hits including just his second home run allowed of the season, and six runs scored. His ERA ballooned to 4.48, a misleading number no matter what perspective you view it from. Garcia carried a 2.56 FIP into that start as well as a 3.78 ERA. The surface results may not be what the Cardinals were hoping for, to call Garcia’s first two months a disappointment would be misleading.

Still, it’s always difficult to project what will happen when a starting pitcher returns from an arm injury. Even though the Cardinals’ rotation has been performing especially well in the second half — a 3.65 ERA and an excellent 2.82 K/BB across the rotation, led by Adam Wainwright‘s stellar 2.40 ERA and 5.50 K/BB — a healthy Garcia could be key for St. Louis to run to the postseason. Teams like the Athletics and Braves have shown us how valuable depth can be. The Cardinals were already relying on one rookie in Joe Kelly (3.41 starter ERA but 4.01 FIP; 5.17 ZiPS-projected FIP); should Garcia have proven unreliable the Cardinals staff could have been on shaky ground.

Garcia’s velocity picked up a tick — he averaged 88.9 MPH on his fastball against 88.1 for the season and 89.4 career — but his spot-on location was the story Sunday:

Garcia’s excellent command of the bottom of the strike zone led to six ground ball outs (10 total) and four looking strikeouts (again, 10 total). This command — present all season, as the background shows — is the driver behind his 54.5% ground ball rate and his 2.30 BB/9 — the two pieces of his performance that push him ever-closer to ace status. And it’s the best indicator that Garcia is as ready as he could be to anchor the rotation behind Wainwright for the stretch run.

And the benefits for the Cardinals don’t end there. Just look at Kelly, who turned in his own excellent performance in relief, allowing just one run (not the one that would sink the Cardinals) in 5.2 relief innings, striking out four and walking two. Kelly likely moves into the bullpen full time, giving the Cardinals reinforcement in their weakest area — their 4.32 FIP is better only the Cubs; their 4.13 ERA ranks 22nd in baseball.

With Garcia’s return, the Cardinals now have just three players on the disabled list: Chris Carpenter, Lance Berkman and Kyle McClellan. Although Carpenter and Berkman are no doubt key players, they are both in their late 30s, and even the rosiest outlook couldn’t fully count on them. The Cardinals are about as healthy as a team can reasonably be in mid-August, and Garcia’s return only further bolsters the Cardinals’ rotation and bullpen alike, a happy takeaway from Sunday’s grueling defeat.

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