ST. LOUIS -- He was wearing a gray fleece jacket and blue jeans and looked like he was on his way to class on a college campus -- which, of course, is where he was just 18 months ago. Michael Wacha was actually on his way to Boston and Fenway Park. He was on his way to save the Cardinals (again), to make history and to stake his claim as the best young pitcher the postseason has ever seen.
The kid is ready for his moment. "Of course I'm excited," the 22-year-old Wacha said as it was nearing midnight in the St. Louis clubhouse after its 3-1 loss to the Red Sox in Game 5 of the World Series on Monday night. There was no time for the Cardinals to dwell on their missed opportunities over the last two games in Busch Stadium. They head back to Fenway down 3-games-to-2 in the series, one win from elimination but also two wins from a championship.
Already in this World Series we've seen an umpire's reversed call define one game, an obstruction call end another and a pick-off end yet another. We've seen four straight games decided by two-runs or less. We've seen a legendary October performance by the Red Sox' David Ortiz, perhaps the greatest postseason hitter of all time.
All that has just been a set up for what is to come next in Boston. A great World Series -- one that thus far has drawn the event's highest TV ratings since 2009 -- is about to get better. The Red Sox are one win from a championship, but the series is not over, far from it. A Game 7 seems inevitable for one reason: the kid in the fleece and the blue jeans. The 2013 season has been the year of the young pitcher, from Matt Harvey to Jose Fernandez to Gerrit Cole, and so it's only fitting that everything now comes down to the arm of a 22-year-old who made all of nine regular season starts.
Wacha is already the biggest breakout star of October, with a 4-0 mark and a 1.00 ERA in 27 postseason innings. Three of his wins have come after St. Louis losses. Opposing teams are hitting .127 against him this month, the fourth-lowest average in a single postseason against pitchers with at least 20 innings. The last Cardinals pitcher to throw at least 20 innings and allow one run or less was Harry "The Cat" Brecheen in 1946.
Now Wacha has a chance to become an October immortal by becoming the first pitcher ever to win five starts in one postseason. He took a no-hitter into the 8th inning in Game 4 of the Division Series in Pittsburgh, which he won to keep St. Louis' season alive. He beat Clayton Kershaw twice in the NLCS, including the clinching Game 6. He beat the Red Sox in Game 2 of the World Series at Fenway Park. Now all he has to do is beat the Sox at Fenway again, this time in an elimination game.
Late Monday night Wacha said he learned some lessons from his first start against Boston, when he carried a shutout into the sixth inning before allowing a two-run home run to Ortiz. "I left some pitches up," he said. "I wasn't real sharp command-wise. I need to sharpen things up. I'll learn from my experience." Having faced Boston already "helps, but this will be different because it's an elimination game. Win or the team goes home, it's that simple."
On Monday Wacha watched his mentor, Adam Wainwright, take the loss in Game 4. "I was just watching, seeing how he attacks them," he said. "It's going to be tough, but I just have to treat it like it's another game. They've seen me, I've seen them."
He also did not sound like a pitcher who plans to back off of the hottest hitter on the planet, Ortiz (though Mike Matheny may have other ideas). "What can you say, he's a good hitter," said Wacha of the Boston slugger, who is hitting .733 in the Fall Classic, "but you just keep attacking, and you keep battling."
The Cardinals have been here before. That's what they were saying in the clubhouse after Game 5, and they were right. They needed to win two elimination games against Pirates in the Division Series, and they did. They needed to win Games 6 and 7 against the Rangers in the World Series just two years ago, and they did.
"Last time we were coming home [for the last two games] so that's a little bit different," said first baseman Allen Craig, "but our guys are going to see it as a good challenge."
And so in Game 6 it will be an epic showdown between a phenom and a one-time scapegoat. Wednesday night is the next stop on the John Lackey Redemption Tour. The veteran pitcher who has more postseason experience than any other Boston hurler -- he was a 23-year-old rookie when he made four starts for the Angels in the 2002 postseason and won Game 7 of the World Series against the Giants -- has suddenly become a pitcher the Red Sox are comfortable with in the big game.
While Wacha has a chance to become a Cardinal immortal at age 22, Lackey has a chance to become a Red Sox hero at 35. This, of course, was simply unimaginable just months ago considering that he missed the entire 2012 season because of Tommy John surgery and was viewed as a symbol of the chicken-and-beer team that choked away a playoff spot in 2011.
Game 6 will be about Lackey's redemption and Ortiz's greatness. It will be about the slumping Cardinals hitters awakening from their slumber. But most of all it will be about a young pitcher from Texarkana, Texas, who just two years ago was taking classes at Texas A&M, and now will be taking the mound in a World Series game, with everything at stake.
And that's why this series is far from over.