Rookie Wacha not one to shy away from big situations
Fresh off NLCS MVP honors, young righty tabbed to pull Redbirds even in Game 2
BOSTON -- The idea of easing right-handed pitcher Michael Wacha into big games and big moments -- which wasn't part of the Cardinals' plan, anyhow -- brought a Texas-sized smile to the face of his old college coach that could almost be seen through the phone.
Texas A&M baseball coach Rob Childress is not the least bit surprised Wacha, 22 and just one season out of college, quickly ascended to the No. 2 slot in the Cardinals' rotation and earned Most Valuable Player honors in the National League Championship Series. After an 8-1 loss to the Red Sox on Wednesday night in the World Series opener, St. Louis turns to Wacha for Thursday night's Game 2 (6:30 p.m. CT air time on FOX/7:07 p.m. first pitch) at Fenway Park.
From the outside, it appears the Cardinals are throwing Wacha into deep waters. But Childress noted that Wacha is the type who can handle it. Childress' own ease-in plan had to be quickened.
"At the start of his freshman year, we used him as our Tuesday starter and our X-factor out of the bullpen," said Childress, who recruited Wacha out of Pleasant Grove High School in Texarkana, Texas. "Then he'd go out there in the fifth or sixth inning, not give up a hit and strike out six or something like that. He worked his way into our rotation, and never looked back."
Wacha breezed through Rookie, Class A and Double-A levels of the Minors last year after the Cardinals selected him 19th overall. The Cards did resist putting him on the Opening Day roster after his strong Spring Training, but it was clear he wouldn't be at Triple-A Memphis long.
After calling him up for three starts in late May and early June, the organization liked him so much they it took the unusual step of returning him to Memphis and limit him to four starts in a two-month period. An arm like Wacha's, the Cards figured, should be limited during the regular season so it could be of use in the postseason.
The plan, which in addition to banking innings allowed him to hone a breaking ball that has become a complement to his fastball and put-away changeup, proved prudent. Wacha took a no-hitter into the eighth inning of Game 4 of the NL Division Series against the Pirates. He held the Dodgers scoreless in 13 2/3 innings of the NLCS. Big situations are natural for Wacha.
Key stat: At 22, Wacha became the youngest National League Championship Series MVP Award winner since a 21-year-old Steve Avery won it with the Braves in 1991.
Key stat: The only two St. Louis batters Lackey has faced -- Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday -- are hitless against him in 16 combined at-bats with four strikeouts.
At Fenway Park
2013: n/a Career: n/a
2013: 13 GS, 6-3, 2.47 ERA Career: 57 GS, 26-20, 4.69 ERA
Against this opponent
2013: n/a Career: n/a
2013: n/a Career: n/a
Loves to face: n/a, n/a Hates to face: n/a, n/a
Loves to face: Matt Holliday, 0-for-7, BB, K Hates to face: Carlos Beltran, 0-for-9, RBI, 2 BB
Why he'll win: Since his last regular-season start, in which he carried a no-hitter for 8 2/3 innings, Wacha is 4-0 with a 0.30 ERA, having allowed just one earned run and nine hits in his last 29 2/3 innings.
Why he'll win: Though Lackey struggled on the road (4-10, 4.48 ERA), he fared much better from the comforts of Fenway Park, where he went 6-3 with a 2.47 ERA.
Pitcher beware: Wacha was considerably less effective on the road than at home this season (a .316 opponents' batting average compared with a .174 mark at Busch Stadium), and the Red Sox hit .285 at Fenway Park in the regular season.
Pitcher beware: The Cardinals hit at a historic pace with runners in scoring position during the regular season, posting a .330 average, which is the best Major League mark on record and obliterated the previous high of .311 set by the 1996 Rockies and the 2007 Tigers.
Bottom line: Eighteen months ago, Wacha was a junior at Texas A&M; last week, he was named the MVP of the NLCS. Wacha is only 22, though his age and inexperience have yet to show this postseason, where he has allowed just one earned run in three starts (21 innings).
Bottom line: Lackey will need to be at his best to outduel the Cardinals' rookie sensation, but experience is on his side as he's no stranger to pitching in October. The veteran righty has tossed 90 postseason innings, posting a 3.10 ERA in 16 career playoff appearances (14 starts).
"I'm just trying not to think too much about it, just trying to approach every game the same," Wacha said. "Trying not to get too caught up in the moment. I'm sure after the season, I'll be able to look back and think about, 'Hey, I pitched in the World Series,' and that kind of stuff. So, you know, right now just trying to get focused on the next start coming up [Thursday] and just go from there."
Wacha has proven the realization of the Cardinals' new-age approach to talented young players.
"The modern approach sometime with players today, at least from the Cardinal perspective, is we're not afraid to push him," St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak said. "In the past, a lot of times you wanted them to go over a few hurdles before they advance. We take the approach now that if you do well, you keep going.
"At all of those levels, he checked the box. He continues to surprise us. Every time we have needed him to step up, he has. So hopefully he can give us that outing we need [Thursday]."
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny is happy with Wacha's preparation level.
"He executes pitches, that's really what it comes down to," Matheny said. "He's a guy that can throw into the high 90s, which puts him in a different group all by himself. But he locates. He's got a good feel for when he needs to use different portions of the plate, when he needs to expand the zone. And those are things that are really tough to teach a young pitcher."
Wacha always has produced beyond his years. Growing up in Texarkana, Wacha was just a sophomore at Pleasant Grove when he caught the eye of Will Middlebrooks, who now is a Red Sox infielder but then was a senior star at Liberty-Eylau High School. The pair would end up playing summer baseball together, while coached by Wacha's father, Tom.
"He was 16 or 17 years old the last time I faced him," Middlebrooks said before Game 1. "I was a senior and he was a sophomore. When I faced him, he was throwing like 86, 87 [mph], but he always could pitch. He could spot up and he knew how to pitch. That's the thing that got him to the D-1 level, and then he got bigger and stronger and started pumping 95. He grew three or four inches."
In college, Wacha learned to use his height to his advantage.
"We just worked with him on not cllapsing his back leg -- basically going from 6-6 to about 6-foot, and he took to is quickly," Childress said. "He was able to adapt quickly to his coaching. I can see that even when I watch him now. In the last game against the Dodgers [a 9-0 victory at Busch Stadium, when he gave up two hits in seven innings], you saw him using the changeup to both right-handed and left-handed hitters, and the breaking ball he was working on, he was getting outs with it. In the past, he was just throwing it for strikes, but now he's trying to get outs with it -- that shows confidence."
Wacha is even adapting to his new level of celebrity, which comes with any level of success in baseball-mad St. Louis. One restaurant, Fozzie's Sandwich Emporium in Richmond Heights, Mo., has developed a milkshake, the Wacha-Wacha. Like its namesake carries an interesting repertoire to the mound, the milkshake brings a rather impressive mix of flavors -- vanilla, with Cracker Jack, caramel and white chocolate.
Not even the dark beard that now decorates his formerly baby face has prevented him from being recognized, but it doesn't faze him.
"It's a little different for him than me -- everyone's picking up on who he is, and then they look at me and say, 'Oh, yeah, you play, too,'" said Cardinals left-handed reliever Kevin Siegrist, Wacha's friend and frequent dining partner. "But he handles it well. When you have a good mentality along with good stuff, you relax and don't let the moment get too big."
On Tuesday, the Red Sox will get their first look at the new St. Louis celeb.
"He throws hard," Boston outfielder Shane Victorino said. "That's about all I know. I'll watch some video, see what he features. I understand he's good. That's why he was NLCS MVP, not for any reason besides the fact that he's good."
Wacha hopes to further his Q factor with a strong start in Game 2.
"I want the ball in big situations," he said. "There's none bigger than the World Series."