ST. LOUIS -- Around the time the crowd began to rise in support of Michael Wacha, his catcher realized he had a chance. Mike Matheny checked the chart and turned to Mike Maddux. The two swapped numbers, Wacha's chance at history largely in their hands.
No bargaining would've been required had Wacha spent Sunday merely dominating, adding merely another strong start to a season full of them. But instead, he flirted with history for much of Sunday's 5-0 win over the Pirates. As his pitches added up -- 95 after seven, 107 after eight -- Wacha tugged a string of eight hitless innings in their wake. When he jogged out for the ninth, he left behind a dugout stirring with anticipation -- and anxiety.
"We were extremely nervous at that point," Matheny said. "We had a max [pitch-count] number in mind. Maddux gave me one, but I told him I didn't like it. I felt it needed to be a bit higher, only because of how unique the opportunity is."
The number, Matheny said, will remain "a mystery." All he would divulge is that it was "north" of where Wacha was when he allowed a pinch-hit single to Colin Moran to lead off the ninth. The only hit tallied off Wacha all day came on his season-high 111th pitch, an 0-2 changeup he left up for Moran to loop safely onto the right-field grass. That was enough to leave history dangling three short outs away, ending the right-hander's stellar afternoon.
Wacha exited to the roar of a sellout crowd of 44,432, all standing at Busch Stadium.
"He smelled it," Matheny said. "He had it in his sights. Special day."
"Special" was the adjective Matheny used to describe what Wacha did on the mound, as well. Spotted a four-run lead courtesy of Marcell Ozuna's grand slam in the first, Wacha retired his first 15 hitters in order and 13 in a row after issuing two walks in the fifth. Those free passes were all that separated him from perfection for much of the afternoon.
"We came out with a thump with the grand slam," Wacha said. "My mentality after that was just try not to let them breathe."
Relying heavily on his signature changeup and playing it off his cutter, Wacha struck out eight and induced 12 groundball outs. Now two seasons removed from the arm trouble that interrupted his ascent into the game's top tier of starting pitchers, Wacha improved to 7-1 with a 2.41 ERA across 12 starts. He has not lost since the season's opening week.
"He's our horse right now," catcher Francisco Pena said. "I wish he would've gotten the no-hitter and I know he wishes he had it as well. … The way he was throwing today, you can tell he's going to throw one at some point down the line."
Though they've spent much of the past two decades winning with a stable of strong, reliable starters, no-hit bids have largely eluded the Cardinals, even as their frequency has risen across baseball. Bud Smith was the 10th and last pitcher in franchise history to throw one, back in September 2001. Only two of those 10 came in St. Louis, where no Cardinals hurler has tossed a no-no since 1983. Matheny and Maddux kept in mind the rarity of Wacha's would-be achievement.
"We understand how rare it is," Matheny said. "You realize that could be a once-in-a-lifetime thing for a young player. He's still young. Very accomplished -- but still very young. We're trying to always balance what line we tow with his health, and try to do the right thing for him."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Long before Wacha earned his standing ovation, Ozuna earned a curtain call -- his first as a member of the Cardinals -- after lining a first-inning grand slam into the left-field seats. After Pirates shortstop Sean Rodriguez booted a double-play ball to load the bases, Ozuna swatted a hanging, first-pitch slider from Pirates starter Nick Kingham. The fourth grand slam of Ozuna's career measured as a 425-foot shot struck at 111.3 mph, according to Statcast™. It also marked his second homer in as many days.
Though he's yet to complete one, Wacha has made a habit of carrying no-hitters into the late innings. Sunday marked the third time (including the postseason) he's held an opponent hitless through at least seven innings. No other Cardinals pitcher has taken a no-hitter into the sixth since Wacha debuted in 2013.
HE SAID IT
"I was in there more nervous than he was about it. I wanted to see it happen. Just an amazing start." -- Matheny
Both ends of the Cardinals' all-world battery are set to return Tuesday, when the club plans to reinstate Carlos Martinez and Yadier Molina for its series-opener against the Marlins. Martinez will oppose right-hander Jose Urena (0-7, 4.41 ERA) in his first start since May 8, with first pitch set for 7:15 p.m. CT from Busch Stadium. But first, Cardinals players have an off-day Monday while the front office wades into the amateur ranks on Day 1 of the MLB Draft.