Thursday, October 24, 2013

Cardinals Have Plenty Of Confidence in Wacha

Wacha may look 16, but he pitches like a veteran ace.

Entering the 2013 season the St. Louis Cardinals knew they were going to have to rely on their highly touted young right-hander to help them win the NL Central or capture one of the two National League wild card spots.

Not only did the rookie help win the division, but the Cardinals would not have advanced to the World Series without him. Oh, you though I meant Shelby Miller. While Miller's regular season performance was a big factor in the Cardinal's 2013 success, it was the pitching of fellow rookie Michael Wacha that got them to the fall classic for the fourth time since 2004.

Wacha (pronounced wok-kuh - think Fozzy Bear - wok-kuh wok-kuh) was the 19th overall selection out of Texas A&M University in the 2012 amateur draft and made his Major League debut on May 30 of this year. Passed over in the draft during his high school days, it is remarkable Wacha made it to the 19th pick when he was drafted after a stellar three year collegiate career. His numbers as an Aggie were a 27-7 record, a 2.78 ERA, 8.6 K's per 9 innings, and a 1.06 WHIP. He came into this season with a fastball that topped out at 95-mph, a strong curveball, and a low 80's changeup. Wacha also knew how to pitch.

Coincidentally, Miller was the 19th overall pick out of Texas' Brownwood High School in 2009. After six appearances, all but one in relief, in 2012, Miller made 31 starts for the Cards this year. He finished 15-9 with a 3.06 ERA and a 1.206 WHIP. But with about a 180 regular season innings limit, Miller made his last start on September 25 and was moved to the bullpen for the post-season.

Meanwhile, Wacha made three starts for the Cardinals between his May debut and June 11 before he was returned to Triple-A Memphis (PCL). He put together an outstanding season for the minor league Redbirds, going 5-3, 2.65 in 15 starts with an average of 7.7 K's per 9 innings. The Cardinals took note and recall him in the second week of August.

The 22-year old made six starts and six relief appearances down the stretch to finish 4-1, 2.78 with 9 K's per 9 innings and a 1.098 WHIP. With Miller moved to the pen, Wacha was the logical selection to take the baseball in Game 4 of the NL Division Series.

The Pirates held a 2 games to 1 lead in the best of five, but a Wacha-led victory meant St. Louis had ace Adam Wainwright for the fifth game. To say that Wacha was successful is an understatement.

The former Texarkana, TX high schooler (he and Miller lived equidistant from Dallas in opposite directions.) retired the first 15 men he faced. Pirates’ catcher Russell Martin finally drew a walk to lead off the 6th inning, but Wacha retired the next six hitters in order and took a no-hitter into the 8th inning.

Wacha retired Marlon Byrd to start the next to last "regular" inning, but National League home run leader Pedro Alvarez broke up the no-hitter and the shutout with a solo shot to halve the lead. Matheny only pulled his starter when Wacha followed it up with another walk to Martin. The bullpen closed out a 2-1 win and then took the night off to watch Wainright's complete game victory in Game 5 to advance to the NLCS.

After an exciting 13-inning, 3-2 win in Game 1, the Cardinals went back to Wacha to face the best pitcher in baseball, Clayton Kershaw in Game 2. The Dodgers left-hander held the Cards to two hits...and lost thanks to Wacha's performance.

It only took LA two batters into their lineup before they got their first hit, but the next 12 Dodgers went down in order. A.J. Ellis broke the string with a 2-out double in the 5th inning, but was stranded there. John Jay's sacrifice fly gave the Cards a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the inning, but it looked like Wacha's magic had ended when the Dodgers loaded the bases in the 6th.

Kershaw and Carl Crawford reached on back to back singles and one out later Adrian Gonzalez was given an intentional free pass. Wacha battled phenom Yasiel Puig to a full count before he struck out his fellow rookie for the second out. Wacha then got veteran Juan Uribe swinging at a third strike to escape the jam. Wacha was pulled after he allowed a 2-out hit in the 7th, but once again the rookie pitched deep into the game and the Cardinals held on for a 1-0 triumph.

The Cardinals held a 3 games to 2 advantage when Wacha and Kershaw met for a rematch in a crucial Game 6. If you had no knowledge of the outcome and just heard the statistics, you would have been crazy not to think the Dodgers had evened the series up and forced a seventh and decisive game. But you would have been wrong.

Wacha may have been even better than in his first two post-season appearances. Crawford reached on an infield single to start the game, but was quickly erased by a double play. Outside of a 4th inning walk, no Dodgers’ batter would reach safely via a base hit until Ellis led off the 6th with a double. He was stranded there of course, and Wacha retired the next six hitters to finish with seven innings of 2-hit, shutout baseball.

The Cardinals jumped all over Kershaw and went on to a 9-0 win though they probably would have won the game had they managed just one run, thanks to Texas' Michael Wacha.

World Series Game 2 Note

Wacha faces John Lackey with the Cardinals in desperate need of a good performance after Game 1's poor pitching, poor hitting, and poor fielding performance. The rookie has allowed one earned run in 21 innings pitched (0.43 ERA), with 9.4 K's per 9 innings, a 0.57 WHIP and just eight hits allowed.

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