The St. Louis Cardinals have something special in Michael Wacha.
The 22-year-old rookie introduced himself to a national audience earlier this week when he flirted with a no-hitter and saved the Cardinals from elimination in a must-win Game 4 of the National League Division Series against the Pirates.
And now, with Wacha set to take the mound Saturday in Game 2 of the NL Championship Series, it’s seemingly only a matter of time until the right-hander becomes a household name.
Boasting a unique combination of electric stuff, mature command and veteran-like poise, Wacha arguably has been as important of a big-game pitcher for the Cardinals as Adam Wainwright. Basically, if Wainwright is the team’s staff ace, then Wacha should be considered the ace-in-training.
After joining the starting rotation in early September, Wacha was 2-1 with a 1.72 ERA, .198 opponent batting average and 28/10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 31.1 innings (five starts) over the final month of the season. More importantly, he played a vital role in the club’s incredible 19-8 record in September and eventual clinching of the NL Central title.
Meanwhile, Wacha ended his impressive rookie campaign in dominating fashion, coming within one out of a no-hitter before allowing an infield single to Ryan Zimmerman. As a result of his overwhelming late-season success, the right-hander was named to the Cardinals' starting rotation for the NLDS.
NLDS Game 4: A Quick Review
Facing a potential elimination with a loss in Game 4 of the NLDS, Wacha’s performance was everything the Cardinals could have asked for and then some. The right-hander allowed one run on one hit and two walks with nine strikeouts over 7.1 impressive frames, and he carried a no-hit bid into the eighth inning before surrendering a solo home run to Pedro Alvarez with one out.
Wacha’s command of his entire arsenal was superb, as he registered a strike with 60 of his 96 total pitches and threw a first-pitch strike to 16 of 25 hitters.
As I noted after that start, Wacha’s effectiveness with the fastball was the key to his success against the Pirates. Per Brooks Baseball, the right-hander used it 72.5 percent of the time in the outing, throwing 44 of them for a strike. Due to his advanced command and feel for locating the pitch throughout the strike zone, Pittsburgh’s hitters were unable to sit on 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.
Wacha’s effectiveness with his secondary arsenal also played a major role in the rookie’s historically good postseason debut. The right-hander used his plus-plus changeup 11 times (12.1 percent) in the game, throwing it for a strike seven times and inducing one swing-and-miss. However, Wacha’s breaking ball proved to be an even greater weapon, as he threw nine of his 14 curveballs for a strike while generating three whiffs (all strikeouts).
NLCS Game 2: Preview
After flirting with a no-hitter in each of his last two outings, manager Mike Matheny wisely elected to go with Wacha for Game 2 of the NLCS over Lance Lynn.
However, Wacha will have a more challenging assignment when he takes the mound Saturday against a red-hot Dodger offense that collectively posted a .962 OPS with 18 extra-base hits and 26 RBI over four NLDS games against the Braves.
Of the potential NLCS starters for St. Louis, Wacha was the only one not to face the Dodgers during the regular season. For a young pitcher with his combination of stuff and command, that’s usually an advantage.
Wacha kept his response simple when asked at Monday’s press conference whether his lack of experience against the Dodgers might serve as an advantage, via MLB.com.
"I'm not real sure," he said. "I'd sometimes like to see a lineup a couple of times, then you really know if they struggle against a certain pitch or not."
Though the Dodgers will be forced to rely on advance scouting reports and video as they prepare for Wacha in Game 2, the team can find solace in the fact that it hit the ball well during its only trip to Busch Stadium during the regular season. Taking three of four games from the Cardinals in early August, the Los Angeles offense batted .306/.373/.396 with 44 hits and 22 runs scored in 164 plate appearances.
Additionally, by designating Wacha as the Game 2 starter, Matheny will have his young right-hander available to start Game 6 (also at home) if necessary. And it would only be fitting to see Wacha take the mound for the Cardinals with a World Series berth at stake.
What Wacha’s Success Means for the 2014 Season
At this point, it’s a foregone conclusion that Wacha will open the 2014 season in the Cardinals rotation. The only question is whether he’ll be their No. 2 or No. 3 starter.
Other than Adam Wainwright, the rookie has been the Cardinals' hottest pitcher over the last six weeks, continually thriving on the big stage and with the season on the line. For a pitcher with only 71.3 innings of experience at the major league level, Wacha’s lack of an exploitable weakness is remarkable. While there have been countless young pitchers to reach the major leagues this season behind big fastballs and nasty secondary pitches, none have matched his polish and pitchability.
The fact that Wacha has already figured things out at a young age is scary in the sense that he’s only going to get better moving forward. And if his performance this year during both the regular season and playoffs is a truly sign of what’s to come, the right-hander should enjoy a long and illustrious career at the front of the Cardinals' starting rotation.