ST. LOUIS -- The popular theory among the Dodgers, as they prepared to face Michael Wacha in Friday night's Game 6 of the NLCS, was that the 22-year-old Cardinals starter's recent brilliance stemmed not just from his 97 mph fastball and his baffling changeup, nor from his precocious composure, but from the fact that his opponents were unfamiliar with him.
Wacha only entered professional baseball two Junes ago, after the Cardinals drafted him 19th overall out of Texas A&M. He only made his major league debut in May. And he only became a regular in the St. Louis rotation in September. Yes, he had shut out the Dodgers over 6 1/3 brilliant innings in Game 2 last Saturday -- his third straight dazzling outing, after he'd allowed a single hit in each of his previous two -- but that was the first time Los Angeles' powerful lineup had faced him. Surely, the second time around would be different. "Now that we've faced him, and we can have an idea how he's going to attack us, we can make our adjustments and feel more confident, definitely, seeing him a second time," explained Adrian Gonzalez.
In Game 6, Wacha proved that particular theory to be based not on fact, but on wishful thinking. The reason for Wacha's success was not that he was unfamiliar but that he was, simply, dominant. This time, the Dodgers produced just two hits -- a single and a double -- over seven innings in which Wacha struck out five and walked one. By the time he departed, he had a 9-0 lead, which proved the winning margin in a game that clinched the Cardinals' fourth World Series appearance in ten years. Wacha was named the NLCS' deserving MVP.
For its first two and a half innings, the game seemed destined to be a reprise of last Saturday's, in which Wacha and Clayton Kershaw, who will on Nov. 13 likely win his second Cy Young award, matched each other out for out. The Cardinals won their first matchup thanks to a single unearned run. Kershaw's postseason ERA, displayed in yellow lights on a board above the Dodgers' bullpen in left field, ticked down inning by inning: from 0.46 entering the first, to 0.44 entering the second, to 0.43 entering the third. Everything changed with one out in the bottom of that frame, when Cardinals leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter completed an 11-pitch at-bat in which Kershaw gave him his best stuff -- his 95 mph fastball, four biting sliders -- by doubling to right field. It was as if Carpenter had opened the first nick on the face of a champion prizefighter, and proven that he can bleed, too.
Soon, Kershaw was hemorrhaging, in a way that he hadn't for a very long time. Ten Cardinals came to the plate in the third, and they produced five hits and four runs. It was Kershaw's worst inning since July 24, 2012, when he allowed six runs, also to the Cardinals in St. Louis. By the time Kershaw struck out Wacha with his 48th pitch of the inning -- he was already up to 81 for the game -- the damage had been done.
Kershaw ended up yielding seven runs on ten hits and was pulled before he'd recorded an out in the fifth. It is tempting to blame the Dodgers' loss on Kershaw's mystifying and wholly unexpected struggles, and also to blame it on the more predictable struggles of Yasiel Puig, whose exuberant and sometimes erratic play always makes him a target when things go wrong.
Puig did not have a good evening in right field. He missed the cut-off man on the single by Carlos Beltran that drove in Carpenter to open what would become that third inning onslaught, allowing Beltran to take second and then score on Yadier Molina's subsequent single. Later in the inning, he threw a ball several feet over the head of catcher A.J. Ellis on a two-run single by Shane Robinson. In the fifth, he turned a leadoff single by Molina into, effectively, a leadoff double, by carelessly trying to corral it with a flip of his glove and knocking it toward foul territory, thereby helping to spark a five-run inning.
But to focus on Kershaw's misfiring and Puig's miscues would be both misleading, in a game so lopsided, and unfair to the Cardinals. It was the Cardinals -- a team that hit just .238 against left-handed pitchers during the regular season and went 19-23 in games against a left-handed starter -- who so thoroughly battered the 25-year-old who has become not only the game's best southpaw, but the game's best pitcher, full stop.
And it was the Cardinals' sensational rookie, Wacha, who turned in the most important performance of all. His postseason ERA, displayed on a board above the Cardinals' `pen, kept decreasing -- all the way down to 0.43 -- even as Kershaw's jumped. As he collected his crystal MVP trophy, on a stage that had been rolled on to the field and as a light rain had begun to fall in St. Louis, he was sure to credit his teammates. "Whenever they put up nine runs for me, it makes my job easier," he said. Once again, though, with Wacha on the mound, one would have been enough.
Minutes later, the Cardinals held their de rigueur champagne celebration in their clubhouse, a ritual that has become familiar for their veterans. Adam Wainwright momentarily extricated himself from the mass -- "I've got to get out of the line of fire," he said -- before thinking better of it and rejoining the fray. The first song that blared out of the clubhouse's speakers was the deejay Avicii's current hit, "Wake Me Up," with its theme of youthful insouciance: "They tell me I'm too young to understand / They say I'm caught up in a dream," the vocalist intones. Michael Wacha, standing tall in the midst of his similarly celebrating teammates, was living a dream, but it was one firmly based in the reality of his own skills, his own stuff, his own poise. His win on Friday not only sent the Cardinals to the World Series, but ensured Wainwright will be able to start Wednesday's Game 1 -- and that Wacha will be waiting, after five days' rest, in Thursday's Game 2. Neither the Tigers nor the Red Sox have ever before seen Wacha throw a live pitch. That might be the least of their concerns.