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The Strike Zone

Wacha delivers gem in Game 4 win over Pirates to keep Cardinals' season alive

Michael Wacha, Cardinals Michael Wacha took a no-hitter into the eighth inning and struck out nine in St. Louis' 2-1 victory. (Don Wright/AP)

He could have started Adam Wainwright on three days of rest. He could have turned to a different rookie, Shelby Miller, a 15-game winner in the regular season. The Cardinals’ season was on the line, and manager Mike Matheny had options when it came to his starter in Game 4 of the National League Division Series, and he opted for a 22-year-old rookie with nine career major league starts to his resume. It was the gutsiest call of this young postseason -- and it turned out to be the best.

Less than two weeks after he became the third pitcher in 2013 to lose a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning, Michael Wacha threw another masterpiece, taking a no-hitter into the eighth before losing it on Pedro Alvarez’s solo home run in the eighth. Let’s remember: This wasn’t a regular season game in late September against a team out of contention like that Sept. 24 game against the Nationals was. The Cardinals were facing elimination Monday afternoon, down 2-games-to-1 in the NLDS and facing the Pirates at hostile PNC Park. Wacha’s start was, simply put, one of the most astonishing postseason performances in recent history. He pitched 7 1/3 innings, allowing just that lone hit to Alvarez and the one run, striking out nine against two walks in St. Louis' series-tying 2-1 win.

You have to go back exactly seventy years -- to Oct. 7, 1943, when Al Brazle started in Game 3 of the World Series -- to find a Cardinals postseason starter with less experience than Wacha. He also became the first pitcher since 2000 to start a postseason game less than two years after being drafted -- and he went out and pitched the game his life.

With St. Louis facing elimination, Matheny turned to three rookie pitchers: Wacha, who turned 22 in June; reliever Carlos Martinez, 22, who came on to replace Wacha after he walked Russell Martin following Alvarez’s home run; and 23-year-old closer Trevor Rosenthal, who walked one in a scoreless ninth and got Andrew McCutchen to pop out to end the game. Wacha had 64 2/3 total innings in the majors before Monday. Martinez, who was pitching at Triple A Memphis in late August, had logged a total of 28 1/3 innings for the Cardinals. Rosenthal had three career regular season saves. The three rookies combined to allow one run, one hit, three walks and 11 strikeouts.

Remember: Wacha is a Cardinal because Albert Pujols is no longer one. The departure of Pujols gave St. Louis the 19th pick in the 2012 first-year player draft from the Angels. The Cardinals used the pick on the pitcher from Texas A&M, who signed for slot value, $1.9 million, and just 11 months later, Wacha was slinging his mid-90s fastball in the majors. The righty is now on an insane run: he has two hits allowed and 18 strikeouts over his last 54 batters faced going back to that final regular season start against Washington.

On Monday, he got rid of his curveball and dominated the Pirates with just two pitches: a fastball that topped out at 97 mph and a Bugs Bunny changeup that was utterly unhittable. The Cardinals needed just three hits, the biggest of all Matt Holliday’s two-run home run over the centerfield wall off Charlie Morton. “I got a couple sinkers that I was able to keep the bat inside of and hit through them,” Holliday said in an interview with MLB Network after the game. “I got one that was elevated just a little bit, and I’m thankful enough to it get out of here.”

We’d heard so much about how the Cardinals owned Morton this year: the righthander posted a 7.90 ERA in three starts, and on Sept. 8 lasted just 1 2/3 innings against St. Louis. Morton pitched well against the Cardinals, allowing just Holliday’s two-run homer in 5 2/3 innings. But Wacha was better. He is suddenly one of the hottest pitchers on the planet, and if the Cardinals advance to the NLCS, will be a huge X-factor for the NL Central champs.

Something about St. Louis and elimination games: With their win in Pittsburgh the Cardinals are 7-1 in elimination games since 2011. Matheny’s decision to save Wainwright (who has a 2.53 ERA at Busch Stadium) now gives St. Louis an edge in the series: The Cardinals are going home with their ace, Adam Wainwright, taking the mound in Game 5. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle will start Gerrit Cole over veteran and Game 1 loser A.J. Burnett.
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