Wacha impresses Molina, Matheny in shutout outing

PORT ST. LUCIE -- The compliment came unsolicited from Yadier Molina, who, after catching only three of Michael Wacha's five Grapefruit League innings, offered a bold assessment on Wednesday.

"I think that guy, right now, can pitch in the big leagues," Molina said of Wacha, the team's first-round selection from last year's First-Year Player Draft. "That's the way I look at it. He has great stuff. He has a great presence on the mound. He has great command, a great attitude."

Molina is only the latest in a growing list of evaluators who have been highly impressed by Wacha, a right-hander with a pro resume that includes only 21 Minor League innings.

"That is quite a compliment," said Wacha, when told of Molina's evaluation. "I trust him behind the plate. I don't shake off when he's calling pitches back there. I felt confident throwing anything I wanted in any count."

As a first-time participant in big league camp, Wacha followed a scoreless two-inning debut with three shutout innings against many Mets regulars on Wednesday.

His efficiency and strike-zone command positioned him to become the first Cardinals pitcher to finish three innings in a game this spring. After striking out three in Saturday's game, Wacha fanned five on Wednesday. He's allowed a combined two hits and no walks in five innings.

"We had heard a lot and absolutely wanted to see it for ourselves. He's done a nice job," manager Mike Matheny said. "Michael has been the same guy for two outings, and he's done well."

Wacha has shown an advanced changeup and fastball movement that when paired with mid-90s velocity has given hitters trouble. His curveball is a work in progress, though he got a called third strike with one on Wednesday. The fact that he is beginning to throw that curveball deeper in counts is, alone, progress.

"The fastball is what I love," Molina said. "The fastball is great. He commands it and can throw strikes with it. That's a plus. And with the changeup, it's a good pitch for a strikeout pitch."

While Wacha has been among the Cardinals' most impressive performers so far this spring, he's still not pitching to win a Major League rotation spot out of camp. That said, the impression he leaves now won't be forgotten midseason if a need does arrive on the big league team.

That was the case last year with Trevor Rosenthal, who, after shining in spring, earned a summer callup from Double-A to assume a bullpen role.

"The Rosenthal comparison, to me, really fits in that he's just doing the little things right," Matheny said. "[Wacha] is going about it how you would design for a young player coming in here. He's doing his extra work. He seems to have a plan. He's not doing eye-wash work trying to make us all look at him. He's got a maturity to him, and regardless of however many innings he has as a pro, he has a [good] disposition. That's a good compliment to him and the people that have invested in him in the past."