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Pressure? Rookie Wacha won't be rattled by NLCS

After near no-no in NLDS in Pittsburgh, righty to oppose Kershaw in Game 2 vs. LA

ST. LOUIS -- Not much has changed in Michael Wacha's world over the last six weeks.

"I still go to Target, go to the grocery store," the Cardinals right-hander said. "Nobody really notices me or anything like that."

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The perception of Wacha throughout the baseball industry, though, has certainly shifted. No longer is he a rookie with a world of promise. Instead Wacha is regarded as someone who is advanced for his age, both in terms of his stuff and his ability to pitch in pressure situations.

Wacha compiled a 1.72 ERA over five September starts, and he finished the regular season by coming one out away from a no-hitter against the Nationals. That earned him a start during the National League Division Series.

Not just any start, mind you. It was Game 4, and the Cardinals were facing elimination in front of a raucous PNC Park crowd that desperately wanted to see the Pirates advance to the NL Championship Series for the first time since 1992. Incredibly, Wacha was nearly as good against the Bucs as he was in the near no-hitter, throwing 7 1/3 innings of no-hit ball as the Cards won, 2-1, to send the series back to St. Louis for a Game 5 they would win, 6-1.

Tale of the Tape: Game 2
2013 regular season
Overall: 33 GS, 16-9, 1.83 ERA, 52 BB, 232 K Overall: 9 GS (15 G), 4-1, 2.78 ERA, 19 BB, 65 K
Key stat: 0.92 WHIP led Majors in regular season Key stat: 5 outs shy of no-hitter in last start
At Busch Stadium
2013: 1 GS, 0-1, 3.00 ERA
Career: 6 GS, 2-3, 3.65 ERA
2013: 6 GS (10 G), 2-1, 2.15 ERA
Career: 6 GS (10 G), 2-1, 2.15 ERA
Against this opponent
2013: 2 GS, 0-2, 4.15 ERA
Career: 12 GS, 4-5, 3.75 ERA
2013: Did not pitch
Career: Did not pitch
Loves to face: Matt Carpenter, 2-for-12, 2K
Hates to face: Matt Holliday, 10-for-33, 1 HR
Loves to face: Has not faced Dodgers
Hates to face: Has not faced Dodgers
Game breakdown
Why he'll win: Allowed just one earned run over two starts in NLDS Why he'll win: Rookies gave Dodgers trouble in regular season
Pitcher beware: Has struggled against Cardinals Pitcher beware: First career postseason start at home
Bottom line: Take the crowd out of the game early Bottom line: Build on momentum from last outing

What can Wacha do for an encore? We'll find out Saturday afternoon (3 p.m. CT on TBS) when he gets the start in Game 2 of the NLCS against arguably the best pitcher in baseball -- Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw. The Cardinals lead the best-of-seven series 1-0 after a 3-2 win in 13 innings Friday night.

"Why he's been able to be successful so far is that he has trusted himself," Cards manager Mike Matheny said of his rookie hurler. "He's trusted the game plan that's put in front of him. He's trusted his catcher. He's trusted his stuff. Then it comes down to taking the distractions and minimizing them."

When it comes to handling big-game pressure, Wacha has a couple of experts in the clubhouse to lean on. The injured Chris Carpenter has pitched many a big game for St. Louis, as has ace Adam Wainwright, who dominated Pittsburgh twice in the NLDS. Wacha sought out Carpenter before his Game 4 start.

"It's accepting that situation, first of all," Carpenter said. "Not being afraid to compete in that spot -- you want it. When you do that, it makes it that much more fun to go out there and compete. It makes it that much easier to go out there and compete. He does a nice job of doing that."

Wacha's poise in pressure situations belies his youth and inexperience. After all, he was facing college hitters while pitching for Texas A&M in the spring of 2012. Taken with the 19th overall pick in that summer's First-Year Player Draft -- a compensation pick the Cardinals received from losing Albert Pujols to free agency -- Wacha appeared in just 26 Minor League games.

"He's got great maturity, and when you have that, you have the ability to handle those [pressure] situations well," Carpenter said. "He's shown that he belongs here. And he's done a great job, one, listening, but, two, you can only listen so much until you have to go out there and have to compete and execute your game plan and do what you need to do and use your abilities. He's done a real nice job of doing that."

While on the one hand, veterans like Carpenter and Wainwright can offer sage advice, the fact that the Cards have six rookies on their postseason roster provides a different type of support for Wacha. From the rookies, Wacha derives camaraderie as they go through together the learning experience of being in the big leagues for the first time.

In 15 games (nine starts), Wacha faced 11 teams. One team he did not see? The Los Angeles Dodgers.

Whether the unfamiliarity benefits the hitters or the pitcher in a situation like that depends on who you ask.

"I'm not real sure," Wacha said. "I'd sometimes like to see a lineup a couple of times, then you really know if they struggle against a certain pitch or not."

Matheny said he doesn't think either side has the edge, because both will study video of the other and have plenty of information from advance scouts.

"A lot of it is going to be adjusting on the fly when they get in the box for them or us," Matheny said.

If he has another few starts like his previous two in October, Wacha may find himself far less anonymous on his next trip to Target.

Steve Gilbert is a reporter for Read his blog, Inside the D-backs, and follow him on Twitter @SteveGilbertMLB.

St. Louis Cardinals, Michael Wacha