Cardinals Rookie Michael Wacha Handling Postseason Pressure Like Savvy Veteran

Mike Rosenbaum@GoldenSombreroMLB Prospects Lead WriterOctober 25, 2013


As if out-dueling Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers twice and winning the NLCS MVP wasn’t enough, Michael Wacha added a World Series win to his sterling 2013 postseason résumé on Thursday.

Getting the start in Game 2 after the Red Sox thrashed St. Louis 8-1 in the series opener on Wednesday night, the 22-year-old rookie allowed two runs on three hits over six innings.

Although he wasn’t as sharp as he had been against the Dodgers in the NLCS, Wacha pitched well enough to keep the Cardinals in the game. They went on to score three unanswered runs—courtesy of two Boston errors—in the top of the seventh inning to win 4-2 and tie the series at one game apiece.

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Wacha acknowledged how difficult it is facing a Red Sox lineup that can drive you crazy if you let them, telling the Associated Press, via ESPN: "They don't swing at bad pitches, really. They did a good job tonight grinding out at-bats with me and got the pitch count up."

The only blemish in the right-hander’s impressive outing came in the bottom of the sixth inning when he surrendered a two-run, opposite-field home run to David Ortiz on a 3-1, outer-half changeup.

Ortiz’s home run put an end to Wacha’s impressive postseason scoreless innings streak at 18.2—the most ever by a rookie and one-third of an inning shy of Bob Gibson’s franchise record.

Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina added, "He pitched outstanding. Just one pitch, to a great hitter like 'Big Papi.'"

More significantly, despite the pressures of pitching on baseball’s biggest stage in the Fall Classic with his team already facing a 1-0 series deficit, Wacha once again was unflappable on the mound.

As I wrote about following his start in Game 6 of the NLCS against the Dodgers, Wacha has “it.” “It,” of course, is commonly used to describe a pitcher who shows outstanding poise and moxie. Someone who wants the ball with the game on the line and thrives in the most pressure-filled situations.

A perfect example of this quality can be seen in Wacha’s mindset and approach when pitching with runners on base—which is increasingly rare these days.

Most young pitchers in the major leagues are comfortable pitching from the windup. I mean, who isn’t? But when they’re forced to suddenly work from the stretch and pitch out of trouble, things can fall apart quickly.

However, that’s never the case with Wacha. He never seems to panic on the mound and always works quickly regardless of the situation.

Similarly, he doesn’t overpitch with guys on base, meaning he understands the importance of executing pitches rather than gunning for a strikeout. As a result, he’s able to avoid game-changing innings and, in general, minimize damage.

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On Thursday night, Wacha found himself in a jam in the fourth inning after giving up a leadoff double to Dustin Pedroia and then walking David Ortiz. However, he rebounded to get Mike Napoli to ground into a 6-4-3 double play and then induce a Jonny Gomes pop out to second base to end the threat.

After failing to retire Pedroia and Ortiz on 10 combined pitches, Wacha needed only five pitches to record three outs against Napoli and Gomes.

Through four postseason starts, he’s yet to allow a hit with runners in scoring position. In fact, Wacha hasn’t allowed a hit with runners in scoring position since Sept. 19.

While he obviously was still very good, Wacha was noticeably less sharp in Game 2 of the World Series compared to his previous starts against the Dodgers and Pirates.

Overall, the Red Sox’s hitters’ patient approaches forced Wacha to throw a season-high 114 pitches in the outing as he tied his regular-season high with four walks. Of those pitches, only 65 were strikes (57 percent), which marked the first time in the postseason that Wacha registered a sub-60 percent strike rate in a start.

Perhaps the chilly Boston air had something to do with it, but as Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan notes, Wacha didn’t throw a single curveball in the first two innings:

Of course, as if he knew everyone on the Internet was talking about it, he threw one on the first pitch to Stephen Drew to start the third inning. However, it turned out to be only one of 10 curveballs he’d throw in the outing. Instead, Wacha relied on the sequencing of his dynamic fastball-changeup combination even more so than usual.

There isn’t a test that Wacha hasn’t passed this October, as he’s now 4-0 with a 1.00 ERA, .122 opponent batting average and 28 strikeouts in 27 innings. And if the series reaches a Game 6, the rookie will have the opportunity to further his historic postseason with an encore performance at Fenway Park.

If not, then I think I speak for every baseball fan when saying it has been a pleasure to watch him pitch this October.