Despite lost no-no, Wacha's effort no less impressive
Despite lost no-no, Wacha's effort no less impressive
By Mike Bauman
PITTSBURGH -- This was a very Cardinals thing to do.
They were about to be evicted from the postseason premises by the Pittsburgh Pirates. They were on the verge of being pushed over the cliff into the abyss of playoff elimination.
And so Monday, they started a 22-year-old rookie. That doesn't automatically look like a recipe for extending the October lifespan of your baseball team.
But it was fine. In fact, it was much better than that. It was great. That is no overstatement. It was one hit away from being epically great, from being legendary, but it still qualifies as great.
The Cardinals won, of course, 2-1, thus tying this National League Division Series at two games apiece and setting up the decisive Game 5 matchup with the Pirates at Busch Stadium on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on TBS. Adam Wainwright vs. Gerrit Cole, a can't-miss matchup for the right to play for the NL Championship Series.
Michael Wacha, the 22-year-old rookie in question, didn't allow a hit for 7 1/3 innings. If you combine this with his last regular-season start against Washington, when he flirted with a no-no for 8 2/3 innings, he has now given up two hits in 16 innings. This kid is still two no-hitters away from being Johnny Vander Meer, but in a game of real importance, Wacha did some extraordinary work.
What was most impressive about Wacha on Monday?
"The whole package," Bucs manager Clint Hurdle said. "Fastball velocity, obviously there. A little extra when he wanted to, needed to. The changeup we knew going in is a very, very good pitch for him. The curveball he sprinkled in as well. But the command, the location, the sharpness, all of it was there."
But think of it, a postseason rookie, in a game of this magnitude, with his team on the brink of elimination, coming up with this kind of performance.
"For Michael to come out and pitch like that in his first time pitching in the postseason, I think that's a testament to him personally," said Matt Holliday, who provided the offensive edge for the Cards with a two-run homer.
Was Wacha nervous, anxious, tense? It was only the biggest game of the year for his team, with its postseason future riding on the outcome.
Fewest hits allowed by a team in the postseason
"I think it was a little bit of anxiety before the game, just sitting around waiting for the game to start," Wacha said. "But once I was out there, once I threw the first pitch, all the nerves went away. I tried stay locked in with [catcher Yadier Molina] right there."
The record PNC Park crowd of 40,493 tried to unnerve Wacha by chanting his surname in a singsong, mocking manner. The locals believe that this is what beat Cincinnati's Johnny Cueto in the NL Wild Card Game last Tuesday, although a closer analysis might give the edge to the Pirates' hitters.
The fans picked on the wrong opposing pitcher in this case. Asked about the chanting, Wacha smiled and said: "I just tried to use that. I kind of like it. It kind of gives me adrenaline. I kind of use it in my favor. Just tried to stay locked in with Yadi, and it worked out pretty well."
Maybe the Pittsburgh crowd could have tried a variation on what it tried: "Waaaakaaa, Waaaakaaa." Perhaps the tagline from the Muppets' would-be standup comic, Fozzie Bear, would have worked. You know, "Wocka, wocka, wocka!" At least it would have been funnier.
With one out in the eighth, Wacha finally gave up a hit, a home run by Pedro Alvarez. Wacha walked Russell Martin after that, and manager Mike Matheny did the right thing by removing Wacha.
Matheny replaced Wacha with Carlos Martinez, who is, of course, a 22-year-old rookie. The threat ended after Molina threw out pinch-runner Josh Harrison and Martinez struck out pinch-hitter Jose Tabata.
For the ninth, the Cardinals called on their new closer, Trevor Rosenthal, who is the oldest of the St. Louis pitching trio on Monday, because he is 23. Rosenthal got a strikeout on a 99-mph fastball, and then got a grounder to short on another fastball at 99. Rosenthal walked Neil Walker to inject some increased tension into a situation that was already dripping with it. When Rosenthal fell behind Andrew McCutchen, Matheny visited the mound.
"It was basically just an opportunity to breath," the manager said. "Made a couple of light comments, and then reinforced to him the fact that he's got the whole group of guys behind him and just trust himself, trust the team behind him and he's going to get us through it. And he did. He did a great job."
Exactly. Rosenthal got McCutchen on a popup to second. The game was over. The Cards still had life, and they were headed for home where they play the final game of the NLDS, with the ace of their staff, Wainwright, getting the ball. But to get back there, Wacha and his friends first had to win this game.
"Look, Martinez -- another kid in there comes in in a big situation and does a terrific job," Matheny said. "You look at the three young players we threw out there in situations they weren't real accustomed to and how they produced. It's a pretty impressive day for them."
After the game, you didn't know whether to be more impressed with Wacha's talent or his poise. They're both world-class.
"The kid stayed the course," his manager said. He did that.
There ought to be a small reminder somewhere that Wacha was the 19th pick in the first round of the 2012 Draft. He came to the Cardinals as compensation for losing Albert Pujols to the Angels in free agency. After Wacha's last two starts, this is looking like gem-quality compensation.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.