Wacha stakes claim as greatest young pitcher in postseason history
BOSTON -- True greatness announces itself with a shout, not a whisper. So it was in Jupiter, Fla., this spring when Michael Wacha, the first-round pick of the Cardinals just eight months earlier, began his first professional spring training. The wonder of Wacha was obvious.
"This kid," veteran catcher Yadier Molina told teammates, "can pitch in the big leagues right now."
"There was a game in Port St. Lucie," said outfielder John Jay. "I was in center field. He was pitching. I remember thinking, This is incredible."
"We were playing at home," said pitching coach Derek Lilliquist. "During the game, Angel Hernandez, the umpire who was working the plate that day, came over to our dugout and said, 'In my life I have never seen a better changeup than that one.'"
Today the entire baseball world knows of the wonder of Wacha. He won his fourth straight postseason start last night, beating the Red Sox 4-2 in Game 2 of the World Series at Fenway Park, thanks to six stout innings and his teammates' resourceful three-run rally in the seventh.
Move over Fernando and Livan. Wacha, 22, is stating his case as the greatest young pitcher in the history of the postseason. He is 4-0 with a 1.00 ERA in four starts in the playoffs and the World Series. He tied the major league record Thursday night with his fourth win as a starter in one postseason -- and he is the youngest to do so. He has yet to allow a hit with a runner in scoring position this month.
If the series reaches a Game 6, Wacha would get the ball again in what would either be a possible clincher or an elimination game for his team. He already has half of St. Louis' eight postseason wins this month.
Now consider what the Cardinals did to secure the victory for Wacha: Manager Mike Matheny gave the last nine outs to two more rookies, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal. On a total of 35 pitches, the pair struck out six of the 11 Boston batters they faced. So remarkable was it as a display of power pitching by young arms that you can put this game in a time capsule, a keeper for posterity.
The World Series, now in its 109th edition, has never seen anything like this. St. Louis, trailing 1-0 in the series, went into little Fenway Park to face the highest-scoring team in baseball and used three rookies -- none older than 23 -- to beat the Red Sox with a four-hitter. Only once before had Boston been held to fewer hits in a World Series game, in Game 7 of the 1967 series by the iconic Bob Gibson.
"The future is so strong," said Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak. "The here and now is important, but when you sit in my seat, you think a lot about what's possible with these arms down the road."
Wacha went undrafted in high school. He was 6-foot-3, weighed about 175 pounds and he threw between 86 and 89 miles per hour. He went to Texas A&M and quite literally grew into a top pro prospect. He is now 6-6, 210 pounds. St. Louis, drafting with the 19th pick in 2012 -- the compensation for losing Albert Pujols to the Angels the previous offseason -- was certain that Wacha would be gone by then. But 18 teams passed on him, including seven that took a pitcher they liked better than Wacha.
"I didn't know anything about him in spring training," pitcher Adam Wainwright said, "except he was supposed to be some stud pitcher and top prospect. I tend to think Yadier is a real good judge of talent, so when he said he could pitch in the big leagues right now, that gets your attention."
Said reliever Randy Choate, "The thing about Michael is that he is just such a humble, down-to-earth kid. His attitude is better than his pitching."
Do not forget: Wacha had started only nine major league games before this postseason. He already has won three times after Cardinals losses this month, including an elimination game on the road in Pittsburgh in the Division Series. What sets him apart is his fierce mid-90s fastball and his changeup, that rare gift. His change is so good that he can throw it for a strike in the middle of the plate with no movement -- almost no sink, and no run or fade -- and still get hitters to swing and miss. Wacha fools hitters on his changeup entirely with his arm speed -- they swing at his overhand delivery, which moves as fast as when he is throwing 97 mph. The ball, however, slips out of his hand at 85 mph, making fools of the best hitters. The only pitcher of recent vintage who could fool hitters with middle-of-the-plate changeups was Johann Santana in his prime.
Wacha trailed 2-1 last night after six innings because of one mistake: a high changeup to David Ortiz, who drilled it for a two-run homer. Such is the confidence that Wacha has in his changeup that it was the fourth straight time he threw that pitch to Ortiz, the last one on a full count.
"I was watching the game on TV," Wainwright said, "and there was an [earlier] at-bat when he threw a real nasty 3-and-2 changeup to somebody. I remember thinking, What 22-year-old kid has the guts to throw a 3-and-2 changeup -- in the World Series? That's Michael."
Said Wacha of the Ortiz blast, "With this lineup that Boston has, you can't make mistakes or they'll [make] you pay. A good hitter like Ortiz, I made a mistake, 3-2 changeup up in the zone, and he made me pay. I was pretty mad coming in, but Yadi came up and was like, 'Don't worry. Just hold them here. We're going to score in the top of the 7th.' Sure enough we put up a big three spot."
Down 2-1, St. Louis proceeded to bail out the man who has been bailing it out all month. Red Sox manager John Farrell stuck with his starter, John Lackey, too long in the seventh. Lackey walked David Freese and then gave up a single to a left-hander, John Jay. Pinch-runner Pete Kozma, in for Freese, changed the game --and perhaps the series -- by starting a double-steal against reliever Craig Breslow, who had allowed only four steals of third base in his career, none in the past two years. A walk, a sacrifice fly, two errors and a single followed, and suddenly the Cardinals led 4-2 on Kids Night at Fenway.
"Nerves weren't too bad," Wacha said. "Just kind of anxious to get out there. It's the World Series, big time game. So I just tried to use it to my advantage to go out and pitch with some adrenaline, and just try to block out the fans and the crowd."
Said Lilliquist, "Meeting expectations. That's all this is now."
It has happened so quickly. The postseason has its breakout star. Already, St. Louis has come to expect greatness from a kid who was pitching in college last year. And now Wacha's shadow looms over this entire series. The next three games will be played in Busch Stadium, with both teams knowing that a Game 6 belongs to Wacha. He has been unbeatable this postseason, and at times he has been unhittable. Not everybody heard the shouts of greatness coming from Jupiter, Fla., last spring. But they are unmistakable now, coming as they do in the World Series. This is Wacha's World Series. This is his time.