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Ace-Off under the Arch

Wacha, outstanding in Game 2, duels again with Kershaw in Game 6

LOS ANGELES -- Michael Wacha was a cheerleader in the dugout for the Cardinals during Game 5 of the National League Championship Series.

But after the Cards lost, 6-4, to the Dodgers on Wednesday, the spotlight shifted to Wacha, who will get the start in St. Louis on Friday night in Game 6 (7:30 p.m. CT on TBS), with his team holding a 3-2 advantage and hoping to clinch a trip to the World Series.

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Wednesday was a tough balancing act for Wacha. On the one hand, he wanted to believe that his team would win Game 5, which would have meant there would be no Game 6 for him to pitch. On the other hand, Wacha knew he needed to stay focused on Friday, just in case.

"You have to get mentally prepared, just in case," Wacha said. "Like today, we got beat, so I got a little bit of a head start on [preparing for] it."

Make no mistake, while Wacha would have been happy to not pitch because it would've meant his team had won the NL pennant, he is just itching for the chance to perform on the big stage.

"Obviously," Wacha said, when asked if he was looking forward to the opportunity. "This is a fun time of the season. It's going to be fun, for sure."

Tale of the Tape: Game 6
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: No earned runs in 6 innings in Game 2 Key stat: 6 2/3 scoreless innings in Game 2
At Busch Stadium
2013: 2 GS, 0-2, 1.50 ERA
Career: 7 GS, 2-4, 3.14 ERA
2013: 7 GS (11 G), 3-1, 1.88 ERA
Career: 7 GS (11 G), 3-1, 1.88 ERA
Against this opponent
2013: 3 GS, 0-3, 2.84 ERA
Career: 13 GS, 4-6, 3.47 ERA
2013: 1 GS, 1-0, 0.00 ERA
Career: 1 GS, 1-0, 0.00 ERA
Loves to face: Jon Jay, 1-for-7, 3 K
Hates to face: Matt Holliday, 10-for-35, 10 BB
Loves to face: Yasiel Puig, 0-for-3, 3 K
Hates to face: A.J. Ellis, 1-for-3, 1 2B
Game breakdown
Why he'll win: Arguably the best pitcher in baseball Why he'll win: Unbeaten in his first postseason
Pitcher beware: Has struggled against the Cardinals this year Pitcher beware: Most important start of his career
Bottom line: Don't let the crowd get into the game Bottom line: Maintain momentum from last two outings

Wacha got the start in Game 2 of the NLCS, and the rookie showed he was ready for prime time, as he outdueled Clayton Kershaw for a 1-0 win.

Once again, it will be Kershaw who will start against Wacha. The Dodgers certainly feel confident starting the lefty, who likely will win his second NL Cy Young Award next month, but the Cardinals feel every bit as good about Wacha.

"You saw what he's done the past few times," shortstop Pete Kozma said. "Going out and throwing pretty much no-hitters, one-hitters here and there. It's just self-explanatory. He's done a great job for us."

Even more important is the fact that Wacha has plenty of confidence in himself. He looked puzzled when it was suggested to him that there was no way he could have envisioned himself pitching in this situation earlier this season.

"I tried to think like that," Wacha said. "If you have doubts in your mind that you're not going to be a good pitcher in the postseason, you're not going to do any good out there. Just try to think you're going to have a spot in this rotation in the postseason, and prepare yourself for that."

Wacha finished the regular season on a roll, compiling a 1.72 ERA during September. In his final start of the year, he came within one out of a no-hitter against the Nationals.

That led the Cards to give Wacha a start during the NL Division Series against the Pirates. It was not just any start either; it was a win-or-go-home Game 4 in front of a raucous PNC Park crowd that desperately wanted to see its team advance to the NLCS for the first time since 1992.

Wacha was nearly as good in that start against the Bucs as he was in the near no-no against the Nats. He tossed 7 1/3 innings of no-hit ball, and the Cardinals won, 2-1, to send the series back to St. Louis for a Game 5 they would win.

Then came the start in Game 2 of the NLCS against Kershaw. The Dodgers lefty allowed just one unearned run in that game, but Wacha was even better in tossing 6 2/3 shutout innings before turning things over to the bullpen, which closed things out.

It was quite an accomplishment for the 22-year-old Wacha, who in the spring of 2012 was battling college hitters while pitching for Texas A&M.

"He's been fantastic," veteran reliever John Axford said. "Obviously, stepping up in big situations and on this scale in the playoffs, he's really kept his composure and done things very, very well. It's been great to see out of such a young guy that he has been able to do that."

Wacha was taken with the 19th overall pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, a compensation pick the Cards received for losing Albert Pujols to free agency.

To make up for his inexperience, Wacha picked the brains of veteran Chris Carpenter and St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright. The pair has plenty of experience pitching in the playoffs, and Wacha sought their counsel on how to best deal with the bright lights.

Now that he's got some postseason games under his belt, Wacha feels more prepared than ever for what will come his way Friday.

"The adrenaline's still there, for sure," Wacha said. "Just try and approach it like the last two or three starts. That's the plan right now."

Sounds like a good one.

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

St. Louis Cardinals, Michael Wacha