Wacha comes full circle with defeat of Halos

June 22nd, 2019

ST. LOUIS -- The pitcher who faced Albert Pujols in his much-anticipated return to St. Louis was the one who came to the Cardinals because of Pujols’ departure.

Michael Wacha was one of the compensation picks that the Cardinals received when the Angels signed Pujols ahead of the 2012 season. Wacha made his Major League debut a year later, and on Friday night, he faced Pujols for the first time.

It was Wacha who gave the Cardinals a solid outing before the offense exploded for three runs in the seventh inning in the 5-1 win over the Angels at Busch Stadium.

“I guess [Pujols] is the reason why I’m here,” Wacha said. “It’s pretty crazy.”

In six innings, Wacha walked just one batter -- Pujols, to which Wacha received boos from the crowd of 48,423 in attendance, the second-largest crowd in Busch Stadium III history.

That sellout crowd gave Pujols a long standing ovation when he stepped to the plate in the first inning, but the atmosphere -- which Cardinals manager Mike Shildt called “playoff-like” -- didn’t bother Wacha, who has pitched in loud atmospheres before.

“He will show up on a big stage,” Shildt said.

When Wacha made it to first base in the fifth inning on a single to right field, Pujols apologized to him for the delays. But Wacha knew what Pujols meant to the Cardinals and didn’t think twice about the delay.

“I just told him it’s a pleasure getting to play against him,” Wacha said. “He probably deserved about five more minutes of that ovation. Yadi did a real good job of coming out and stopping, letting the crowd do its thing.”

Wacha made quality pitches when he needed to get out of traffic on the bases. His walk of Pujols was erased when he struck out Luis Rengifo and Yadier Molina caught David Fletcher stealing second base to end the frame.

And in the top of the third inning, after Wacha allowed back-to-back singles, Kole Calhoun grounded into a double play in which Paul Goldschmidt threw to second and Wacha made it to first to finish the play.

In a season of struggles for Wacha, who at one point was sent to the bullpen to work on his velocity and command, the solid outing helped to establish himself again. He struggled in his last start against the Mets because of a five-run first inning and a fastball without much life to it. But he settled in during that game with his changeup, and Friday, he gave up just one run in the first inning.

His changeup was more effective on both sides of the plate Friday, and he was able to command the ball down in the zone more than he’s done all season.

“It was good to see Michael being back to himself,” Shildt said. “He looks in sync with everything he’s doing. He’s making quality pitches. Good for him, good for us.”

The 1-0 deficit was something that the Cardinals could work with, and after they tied it in the fourth, they took the lead on Marcell Ozuna’s 19th home run of the season in the sixth and tacked on with situational hitting in the seventh.

As the Cardinals finish up a 20-game stretch without a break, they’ll have three off-days coming up before the All-Star break, allowing them to roll into a four-man rotation, giving some guys rest. With the way that Daniel Ponce de Leon pitched Wednesday -- six scoreless innings against the Marlins -- and the way Wacha pitched Friday, Shildt said that the Cardinals can look at the schedule and be “judicious” with who starts when.

Wacha didn’t look at Friday’s game like an audition to continue to start, though.

“I don’t think of it like that,” he said. “I try to go out there trying to compete my tail off and get a win.”