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Rookie Wacha ready for road challenge in Game 4

Righty makes playoff debut on strength of near no-no, also dominated Bucs on Sept. 8

PITTSBURGH -- Much of the reason behind the Cardinals' decision to go with Michael Wacha to start Game 4 of the National League Division Series on Monday (2 p.m. CT on TBS) was the rookie's fantastic most recent start. Among Wacha's greatest challenges at PNC Park will be to channel the momentum from that great outing, which took place nearly two weeks ago.

The first start in 13 days for Wacha figures to be the biggest of his brief career, as he gets the nod against Pirates righty Charlie Morton in an elimination game. A 5-3 loss on Sunday night put the Cards in a 2-1 series hole, and it placed Wacha in yet another high-leverage situation.

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In his latest outing, the 22-year-old Texas A&M product held a powerful Nationals lineup hitless through 8 2/3 innings before Ryan Zimmerman broke up the no-hit bid with an infield single in the ninth. Wacha's full arsenal was on display in that game, including his lethal changeup.

"The kid's changeup is very, very good," Bucs manager Clint Hurdle said. "That [near] no-hitter game, I think ... he threw Zimmerman four straight changeups, right on right. You have to have a good changeup to go with that [strategy], and the changeup is a very good pitch."

Weapons like that changeup -- which Wacha throws 24.4 percent of the time, second only to his fastball (68.8 percent), according to FanGraphs -- have allowed him to fly through the organizational ranks to the big leagues and into the playoffs. It's a tall order -- making your 10th career big league start in the postseason -- but one the Cardinals are confident Wacha can stand up to.

Tale of the Tape: Game 4
Michael Wacha
Charlie Morton
2013 regular season
Overall: 15 G, 9 GS, 4-1, 2.78 ERA, 19 BB, 65 SO Overall: 20 GS, 7-4, 3.26 ERA, 36 BB, 85 SO
Key stat: In five September starts, Wacha posted a 1.72 ERA and held opponents to a .198 batting average. Key stat: Morton has posted a 2.14 ERA (eight earned runs in 33 2/3 innings) in his last five starts at PNC Park.
At PNC Park
2013: N/A
Career: N/A
2013: 9 GS, 2-2, 2.85 ERA
Career: 42 GS, 12-19, 3.56 ERA
Against this opponent
2013: 2 G, 1 GS, 1-0, 0.00 ERA
Career: 2 G, 1 GS, 1-0, 0.00 ERA
2013: 3 GS, 0-2, 7.90 ERA
Career: 14 GS, 2-9, 6.52 ERA
Loves to face: Neil Walker, 0-for-4, 2 K
Hates to face: Jordy Mercer, 1-for-3, 2B
Loves to face: Daniel Descalso, 0-for-10, 3 K
Hates to face: Yadier Molina, 8-for-19, 4 2B, 6 RBIs
Game breakdown
Why he'll win: In nine scoreless innings against the Pirates this season, Wacha allowed two hits and struck out six. Why he'll win: Eight of Morton's last 11 outings have resulted in quality starts.
Pitcher beware: In five road appearances this season (three starts), Wacha posted a 4.34 ERA (nine earned runs in 18 2/3 innings). Pitcher beware: The Cardinals hit .397 against Morton in his three starts against them this season.
Bottom line: Wacha is a rookie making his first career postseason start in what promises to be an electric road ballpark. The right-hander will need to keep his composure and trust his veteran catcher, Yadier Molina, to guide him through. Bottom line: Morton needs to establish a rhythm early and preserve it. In first innings this season, his ERA is 1.80 and opponents are hitting .182. But in the second inning, his ERA goes up to 4.12 and opposing hitters are batting .260.

"I think his confidence gives us confidence," third baseman David Freese said. "He obviously wasn't in the Minors very long, and rightfully so. He came up and kind of fell short on commanding his offspeed, and [he] went back down and [now] you see a different guy. He went down and understood what he needed to do to improve on. We're ready to roll with him. We feel like we have a good shot."

Just over a year ago, Wacha was finishing his college career at Texas A&M, where he went 27-7, ranked fourth all-time in program history with 336 career strikeouts and helped lead the Aggies to the 2011 College World Series. He made his pro debut on July 11 last year and was with Double-A Springfield by Aug. 19.

The righty struck out 53.3 percent of 75 batters faced last season, and he began this year with Triple-A Memphis. Wacha debuted with the Cards on May 30 -- taking a no-decision despite pitching seven innings of two-hit, one-run ball -- and split time this year between the bullpen and the rotation.

"It's definitely been a crazy past year," Wacha said. "Whenever I came to Spring Training this past season, the goal was to get up here to St. Louis and help them win some ballgames. So I wouldn't really say whenever I was in college my junior year that I would ever have thought of this. But I just look at it as an opportunity to take advantage of. I'm really excited about being able to pitch in the postseason."

"It does say a lot about his talent," manager Mike Matheny said. "I also believe it says even more about his makeup. As you spend a little bit of time around him, you can see that he's mature beyond his years and beyond his experience. We put him to the test, pitching late in the season. Watching him take a no-hitter into the ninth inning and kind of watching how he's handled every step along the way, we learned that early about him in Spring Training.

"We were excited to watch just not his stuff, but how he handled a big league clubhouse, how he handled the distractions that do come with this job, and we've been very impressed."

Because of injuries and other unforeseen circumstances, the Cardinals are leaning on plenty of young hurlers this postseason. Game 3 starter Joe Kelly is 25, and late-innings relievers Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal are 22 and 23, respectively. Shelby Miller, who started 31 games this year but has been used out of the 'pen this series, is 22.

Being able to contribute quickly, and often at a young age, is something the Cards -- position players and pitchers -- say is ingrained early in their development.

"I think it does start in the Minor Leagues," Wacha said. "Every single Minor Leaguer, they're kind of preached [to] that whenever you get up to St. Louis, you're expected to win. So they preach that down in the Minor Leagues, that we're here to win ballgames. And whenever you go up there, you're expected to be able to contribute and be able to be prepared for the big stage and be able to help them win some ballgames."

After Wacha started in his first four appearances this summer, he moved to the bullpen from Aug. 14-28. He moved backed to the rotation Sept. 3 and had a 1.72 ERA over his final five starts (31 1/3 innings). Among those outings was seven shutout innings vs. the Pirates at Busch Stadium on Sept. 8. Pitching Monday, in front of what is sure to be a sold-out and raucous crowd in Pittsburgh, should be yet another challenge.

"Just trying to approach it just like any other start and just trying to do the same stuff," Wacha said of his outlook for Monday. "Just go out there and attack the zone, get in pitcher's counts. That way, I can make my pitch. That way, I'm not falling behind. Really, just go out there and attack them."

Joey Nowak is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @joeynowak.

St. Louis Cardinals, Michael Wacha