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At 22, Wacha just scratching the surface

Impressive since Spring Training, rookie continues to dazzle at such a young age

ST. LOUIS -- A lot of people may be surprised at what right-hander Michael Wacha has been able to accomplish over the last six weeks. None of them, though, reside in the Cardinals' clubhouse.

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Wacha was once again dominant as he tossed 6 2/3 scoreless innings while striking out eight as the Cards beat the Dodgers, 1-0, in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series. Watching him pitch, it's hard to believe that Wacha is just 22 years old and was battling college hitters while pitching for Texas A&M in the spring of 2012.

The Cardinals selected Wacha with the No. 19th overall pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. The pick had belonged to the Angels, but the Cards got it as compensation after slugger Albert Pujols decided to take his talents to Anaheim.

Wacha was invited to big league camp this year and instantly impressed his teammates.

"Just with the spring he had and how he came in as a 21-year-old at the time and the poise he showed ... as a 21-year-old going into a big league camp, you don't know what to expect no matter how good your stuff is," veteran right-hander Jake Westbrook said. "You don't know what you're going to see. He stepped up and acted like he had been there for a while. That was impressive from the get-go."

If they thought that was impressive, well, they hadn't seen anything yet.

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 NL Division Series, and his impressive start in a must-win Game 4 thrust him into Saturday's start.

Veteran Chris Carpenter, himself a bona fide big-game pitcher, has been impressed not just with the fact that Wacha has been able to pitch well under the hot lights of a pennant race and postseason, but that he relishes doing so at such a young age.

"This is a tough spot to be in when you're 22 years old, and he's done a fantastic job and it's so much fun to watch," Carpenter said. "You watch the emotion, you watch the excitement of what he's doing, the poise. His talent is there, and to watch the mound presence and the things that he's doing throughout the game and in situations has been fantastic. It's been a lot of fun to be a part of it."

Wacha took the ball Saturday and outdueled arguably the best pitcher in baseball in Clayton Kershaw.

In his start against the Pirates in the NLDS, Wacha allowed one run on one hit over 7 1/3 innings, and he is just the second Cardinals pitcher to toss back-to-back postseason games of eight-plus strikeouts while allowing one run or fewer. The other St. Louis hurler to accomplish the feat? Bob Gibson in 1968.

That is what is known as dominance. Well, at least that's what most people not named Wacha would call it.

"I wouldn't say that," the rookie said. "I just go out there and try to pitch to contact."

Consider that one of his few failings, because opposing hitters are certainly not making much contact.

"Yeah, he's been dominant, no question about it," Cards ace Adam Wainwright said. "Mikey's 22 years old. He wasn't up here all year. Last year he was playing at Texas A&M. Last year. I mean, what in the world?"

Here's a scary thought if you play for one of the other 29 teams in baseball: If Wacha is this good at 22, what's going to happen when he matures even more and gains additional experience to go with his natural talent?

"The ceiling is as high as he wants to go," Carpenter said. "It's going to depend on health and continuing to learn."

The learning aspect should not be a problem. Rob Johnson, who caught Wacha this year at Triple-A Memphis and in the big leagues, has seen the rookie's thirst for knowledge firsthand.

"I've never experienced his temperament with his kind of stuff," Johnson said. "The guy is amazing. He's obviously very confident in his stuff, but his ability to stay focused and stay humble and continue to learn and process the stuff other guys are teaching him and then go out to the field and execute it, is quite amazing."

That it could be just the tip of the iceberg is also pretty amazing.

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

St. Louis Cardinals, Michael Wacha