Rookie pitchers taking the mound in a must-win game has been a reoccurring theme in the early stages of the 2013 Major League Baseball Postseason.
On Monday, it was Michael Wacha’s turn—and the 22-year-old right-hander certainly didn’t disappoint.
With St. Louis trailing Pittsburgh 2-1 in the best-of-five series, it came as a surprise when manager Mike Matheny tapped the rookie right-hander as the team’s Game 4 starter with the season on the line.
Though he bounced between Triple-A and the majors over the next month, the right-hander was called up for good by mid-August and quickly became another weapon in the Cardinals bullpen. Appearing in six games as a reliever, the right-hander posted a 2.53 ERA with 19 strikeouts in 10.2 innings.
As a result of Wacha’s overwhelming success, the Cardinals inserted him back into the starting rotation for the final month of the season. And along with fellow right-handers Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn, he played a major role in the team’s remarkable 19-8 September record and NL Central Division title. Making five September starts, Wacha was 2-1 with a 1.72 ERA, .198 opponent batting average and 28/10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 31.1 innings.
Wacha ended his impressive rookie campaign in spectacular fashion, coming within one out of a no-hitter before allowing an infield single to Ryan Zimmerman. The right-hander threw 112 pitches (77 strikes) in the outing, walking two batters and posting a career-high nine strikeouts.
Many expected Matheny to go with fellow right-hander Shelby Miller, who spent the entire season in the team’s starting rotation and emerged as one the baseball’s better rookie pitchers. However, the second-year Cardinals skipper was confident that Wacha was best suited for the challenging assignment.
In discussing his decision to start Wacha with Joey Nowak of MLB.com, Matheny extolled the moxie and overall confidence of his 22-year-old right-hander:
"It does say a lot about his talent," manager Mike Matheny said. "I also believe it says even more about his makeup. As you spend a little bit of time around him, you can see that he's mature beyond his years and beyond his experience. We put him to the test, pitching late in the season. Watching him take a no-hitter into the ninth inning and kind of watching how he's handled every step along the way, we learned that early about him in Spring Training.”
But the decision wasn’t solely based on Wacha’s performance in September and near no-hitter—he also was successful against the Pirates this season. Between two appearances against their NL Central rivals (one start), the right-hander logged nine scoreless innings in which he allowed only two hits and struck out six batters.
On Monday, Wacha furthered his success against the Pirates in a big way, allowing one earned run on one hit and two walks with nine strikeouts over 7.1 impressive frames. He carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning before surrendering a solo home run to Pedro Alvarez with one out.
Here’s an inning-by-inning breakdown of his start.
Wacha was composed on the mound from the onset of the game and did an excellent job establishing his 92-97 mph fastball against both right- and left-handed hitters. The right-hander needed only 11 pitches (eight strikes) to retire the side in order, including the strikeouts of both Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen.
Wacha vs. Walker: Strikeout swinging on 86 mph changeup.
Wacha vs. McCutchen: Strikeout looking on 96 mph fastball.
Working primarily off his fastball once again, Wacha sat down the Pirates in order using only 17 pitches (11 strikeouts). After bumping 97 mph once during the first inning, the right-hander was noticeably throwing harder in his second inning of work and registered three fastballs at 97. And as he did to open the game, Wacha fanned two of three hitters in the frame.
Wacha vs. Marlon Byrd: Strikeout looking on 97 mph fastball.
Wacha vs. Pedro Alvarez: Strikeout swinging on 97 mph fastball.
Wacha’s third inning of work featured more curveballs than the previous two frames, as the right-hander used it almost as often as the fastball. Specifically, he threw two knee-benders for a called strike against Russell Martin—a notorious fastball hitter—before setting him down with a fading changeup. Meanwhile, Wacha’s curveball also generated a pair of groundball outs to second base.
Wacha vs. Russell Martin: Strikeout swinging on 88 mph changeup.
Wacha was equally effective against the top of the Pirates’ order the second time through the lineup, turning in another 1-2-3 inning as part of 12 straight hitters retired to begin the game.
Although he didn’t register any strikeouts as he did in each of the previous three innings, Wacha registered another pair of groundball outs to second base as well as a weak fly-out to right field off the bat of Andrew McCutchen.
Wacha’s theme of tossing perfect innings carried over into the fifth inning, as the 22-year-old sat down the side in order using only 10 pitches. It also meant that he had retired the first 15 hitters of the game. As he did in the second inning, Wacha used his secondary offerings to get ahead against Marlon Byrd before notching a strikeout with a fastball. Besides that, it was more of the same with two weakly hit outs to the right side.
Wacha vs. Marlon Byrd: Strikeout swinging on 95 mph fastball.
Wacha had pitched into a three-ball count only twice heading into the sixth inning. So, of course, the right-hander went 3-0 on Russell Martin before issuing a four-pitch walk to open the frame. Goodbye perfect game.
However, Wacha quickly bounced back to strike out pinch-hitter Garrett Jones on three pitches, followed by a first-pitch fly-out from Jordy Mercer (also pinch hitting). Wacha finished the inning with a swinging strikeout of Starling Marte on one his better curveballs of the afternoon.
Wacha vs. Garrett Jones: Strikeout swinging on 88 mph changeup.
Wacha vs. Starling Marte: Strikeout swinging on 78 mph curveball.
No-hitter intact, Wacha had thrown only 74 pitches through the first six innings. More importantly, with a 2-0 lead, the right-hander needed to be at his best the heart of the Pirates’ lineup due up.
After going 2-0 to Neil Walker to leadoff the inning, Wacha induced a weak fly-out to left field on a 92 mph fastball, and was then aided by Andrew McCutchen who hit a first-pitch fly-out to right. Wacha closed the frame by retiring Justin Morneau on a groundball to shortstop.
No-hitter still intact, Wacha began the inning with a dominating three-pitch strikeout of Marlon Byrd, who fanned in each of his three at-bats against the Cardinal right-hander. However, Wacha’s fun would end there.
After falling behind 3-1 to Pedro Alvarez, Wacha surrendered his first hit of the contest: a booming, 438-foot solo home run to right center field. And after he issued a five-pitch walk to Russell Martin, Mike Matheny emerged from the dugout to lift Wacha from the game.
It was an outstanding postseason debut for Wacha, who became the first pitcher to have a no-hit bid of seven-plus innings in consecutive starts since Dave Stieb (Blue Jays) in 1988.
Between both starts, Wacha owns a 0.56 ERA with two hits allowed and a 18/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio through 16 innings.
Wacha’s effectiveness with the fastball was the key to his success on Monday against the Pirates. According to Brooks Baseball, he used it 72.5 percent of the time in the outing (66 of 91 pitches), throwing 44 of them for a strike. Due to his ability to locate the pitch, seemingly at will, to each quadrant of the strike zone, Pittsburgh’s hitters were unable to sit on the pitch in a specific location. As a result, Wacha’s fastball generated 11 whiffs over the course of the game, and was responsible for five of his nine strikeouts.
However, it’s doubtful that Wacha would have enjoyed such overwhelming success with the fastball had it not been for his efficiency with his secondary offerings. The right-hander used his changeup 11 times (12.1 percent) over the course of the outing, throwing it for a strike seven times while inducing one swing-and-miss. Meanwhile, Wacha’s curveball was an even greater weapon; he threw 9-of-14 curveballs for a strike while generating three whiffs (all strikeouts).
Obviously, Wacha’s command of his entire arsenal was superb on Monday, as he registered a strike with 60 of his 96 total pitches. More significantly, he was aggressive early in the count throughout the game, throwing a first-pitch strike to 16 of 25 hitters.
Between his final regular-season start and Monday’s outstanding performance in Game 4 of the NLDS, Michael Wacha has nothing left to prove in terms of pitching at the major-league level. Though he has only 11 career starts to his name, the 22-year-old’s mound presence and feel for his craft is already mature beyond his years.
With his ability to command three plus pitches for a strike in any count, Wacha’s combination of stuff and polish has led to his emergence as the Cardinals’ best big-game pitcher after staff ace Adam Wainwright. And if they can beat the Pirates in Game 5 and move on to the NLCS, don’t be surprised if Matheny names Wacha as the team’s No. 2 or No. 3 starter for the next round.