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Pirates heap high praise on rookie Wacha

PITTSBURGH -- It took an inning or so Monday afternoon for the record PNC Park crowd to harness its enthusiasm for taunting Cardinals rookie right-handed pitcher Michael Wacha. By the second inning, the singsong "Waaaaaa-kaaaa" was ringing pretty well.

Pirates hitters, however, struggled to a much greater degree -- almost at a historic level -- to solve Wacha in their 2-1 loss, which forced a deciding fifth game at St. Louis' Busch Stadium on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET on TBS).

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Wacha held the Bucs without a baserunner until Russell Martin drew a walk to open the sixth. The first and only hit against the Cards rookie in 7 2/3 innings was Pedro Alvarez's home run to right-center field with one out in the eighth. The 7 1/3 innings before Alvarez's homer marked the longest hitless beginning of a game for a rookie in postseason history.

As the hitless innings went by, the chant grew quieter. By the sixth, it was more like a plea. The seventh, with the Pirates swinging desperately, just trying to put the ball in play rather than become buried by the pitches Wacha piled up in the strike zone, went by with the throng barely able to clear its collective throat.

"I've been impressed with him since Spring Training when I saw him," said Pittsburgh outfielder Marlon Byrd, who struck out three times -- in the second inning looking at a 97-mph fastball to end a nine-pitch at-bat, and in the fifth and eighth swinging at fastballs traveling at 95 and 96 mph, respectively. "I feel like he's the next coming of Adam Wainwright."

Of course, it doesn't get any easier. The Pirates will face the real Wainwright on Wednesday in Game 5. But Wacha, 22 and just a year out of Texas A&M, was every bit as good as the ace on Monday.

The changeup is Wacha's putaway pitch, and he used it to fan Neil Walker in the first inning. But Wacha's fastball, which can be effective whether he puts it across in the 97-mph range or takes a little off, was as pinpoint as Bucs hitters have ever seen. He also pulled out a nice curveball -- one he used to fan Starling Marte to end the sixth.

After the Alvarez homer, Wacha walked Martin for the second time and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny removed him.

Wacha stayed ahead and simply didn't let Pittsburgh work counts. Alvarez tried to ambush a 94-mph four-seam fastball with the count 3-0 and ended up flying out to center field.

"It was almost, what, 66-67 percent strikes to balls until the last walk?" Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "So you look at a couple of situations where you take a pitch, now you're down 0-1. Some fastballs were in the zone that we weren't able to barrel early.

"But you just get in there and you do the best you can. ... It didn't look like a day where you were able to work walks, because he just kept pounding the zone with all his pitches. We weren't able to get anybody on and get any motion created. That is some kind of postseason outing for a young man in his first postseason game."

Walker led off the seventh, when the Bucs tried to put the ball in play as quickly as possible. The strategy resulted in flyouts to left by Walker and Andrew McCutchen, and a grounder to short by Justin Morneau.

"You knew he was going to work to the corners, you knew he was going to work down," said Walker, who went 0-for-3 with a walk and fell to 2-for-21 in five postseason games. "It was just a matter of whether he was going to throw strikes, and he was throwing strikes, all game. The ball Pedro hit out was a pretty good pitch down in the zone."

The Pirates had a chance mainly because starter Charlie Morton pitched well for 5 2/3 innings. Morton gave up Matt Holliday's two-run homer immediately after walking Carlos Beltran to open the sixth. It would have been good enough to win if not for what Wacha was doing to Pittsburgh's hitters.

"He was hitting his spots throughout the course of the game," McCutchen said. "He pitched a good game, kept them in the game."

Although Wacha flirted with a perfect game and a no-hitter, Byrd said he swung through a few mistakes that could have changed the Pirates' plight.

"He had electric stuff out there," Byrd said. "Just tip your cap to what he did."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Michael Wacha