ST. LOUIS -- Michael Wacha had plenty of time to reflect on Wednesday, as he made the four-hour drive north on Interstate 55, beginning in Memphis, Tenn., and ending at the site where his big league aspirations will no longer be mere dreams a day later.
He thought about his own expectations and about the hype surrounding his arrival. It is hype, Wacha said, that, as a user of social media, he hasn't been able to avoid.
Wacha dwelled, too, on all the support he received in his climb from Texas high school standout to first-round Draft pick to prized prospect. To his delight, many of those family members and friends have already secured their tickets for the Cardinals' game against the Royals on Thursday night.
And he reflected on how much has happened and how quickly his life has changed over the past 12 months. On this date last year, Wacha, then the junior ace at Texas A&M, was preparing to face Dayton in a June 1 regional game. Three days after that start, the Cardinals used their first selection -- and the 19th overall -- on Wacha in the First-Year Player Draft.
Ten days after being drafted, Wacha officially joined the organization. Pitching in relief in order to limit his innings, he climbed three levels in a two-month period last summer, ending his first pro season as a member of a championship club at Double-A.
Wacha, ranked as the Cardinals' No. 4 prospect according to MLB.com, then parlayed an invitation to Major League Spring Training into a showcase of how advanced he already was. His push toward St. Louis continued with a strong nine starts in Memphis.
And on Thursday, the year-long whirlwind will culminate with his much-anticipated Major League debut.
"It's been a crazy past year, that's for sure," Wacha said on Wednesday during his first meeting with the media. "But I look at every spot I go as another opportunity to take advantage of."
Wacha described the drive to St. Louis as passing by "faster than I expected." His ascension here could be described in similar terms.
The quick climb is not unprecedented, though it's still far from common for a player to make his debut less than a year removed from pitching in college. Wacha is set to become the quickest Cardinals pitcher to make his debut following the Draft since Cris Carpenter in 1987.
St. Louis simultaneously tried to temper external expectations as well on Wacha's arrival, but was not successful in either attempt. The excitement surrounding the 21-year-old ballooned during a Spring Training stint where Wacha allowed no earned runs and was so impressive that after one outing, catcher Yadier Molina anointed him Major League-ready.
The organization, however, wanted to be deliberate in watching Wacha's workload, cognizant that this is his first experience starting every five days. That was one of the reasons Wacha was not summoned sooner. It's also why the Cardinals have made it clear that they won't push Wacha too far, too fast even at this level.
"We've got a lot of things to think about when it comes to a young pitcher like this," manager Mike Matheny said. "We have to think about the amount of innings over the long haul here and how we can help put him in a good situation to help us still be on track with the right amount of work. There are some thoughts and concerns as we go forward, but right now we did need a quality starter and he was pitching very well and has an opportunity to play and help us here."
After throwing 21 innings at three lower levels in 2012, Wacha opened the 2013 season as a member of the Triple-A rotation. He allowed no more than two earned runs in any of his nine starts and finished seven innings three times.
Wacha used the time to further develop his curveball, a pitch that can complement an advanced fastball-changeup combo.
"Those guys aren't swinging at pitches that are balls outside," Wacha said of his the lessons learned in Triple-A. "I got in trouble a little bit in my first two starts down there and walked a few people. But the last two starts, I was able to fill up the zone and started to get some swing and misses. It started working out better for me."
The Cardinals have several moving pieces with their roster, as starters Jake Westbrook, Chris Carpenter and John Gast are all looking to return from the disabled list with plenty of time to contribute this season. How that affects Wacha's place in the rotation will be determined by how well he pitches and how comfortable the Cardinals are with the workload demands.
Wacha isn't thinking in such terms just yet, noting that he looks at himself as "here to stay."
But before he can stay, Wacha first has to start. He'll do that by opening his career against the Royals, opposed by veteran Jeremy Guthrie on Thursday night. Wacha spoke of taking the mound with a simple game plan, one that begins with following Molina's lead and throwing strikes.
"I'm just looking at it as another opportunity," Wacha said, "to come up here and showcase what I have."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less