Toss 22-year-old Michael Wacha onto a pitcher’s mound where he has to keep the Cardinals’ season from ending. Add 40,000 screaming fans who want nothing more but to see him fail, and tauntingly sing his name from the first pitch.
“I kind of like it,” Wacha said. “It kind of gives me adrenaline. I kind of use it in my favor.”
St. Louis’ starter retired the first 15 Pirates hitters he faced, six via strikeouts. He took a perfect game bid into the 6th inning and a no-hit bid into the 8th, the first rookie pitcher to ever do so in the postseason. And oh yeah, he kept the Cards alive for an NLDS-deciding Game 5 at Busch Stadium.
“I don’t know if you can put a kid in a tougher spot,” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. “The place was loud. My ears are still ringing. The kid stayed the course.”
How Did Wacha Do It?
If Pirates fans only previously knew Michael Wacha from hackneyed Fozzie Bear references, now they know he’s much more. The Texas A&M alum was one out away from a no-hitter in his previous start, capping a five-start September in which he posted a 1.72 ERA to help the Cardinals clinch the NL Central.
Until his no-hitter was snapped in the 8th, Wacha had allowed only one hit over his previous 16 innings.
“I’ve been impressed with him since Spring Training when I saw him,” said Pirates right fielder Marlon Byrd. “I feel like he’s the next coming of Adam Wainwright.”
Byrd struck out all three times against Wacha despite entering the game hitting .320 as a Pirate. Each strike three came on a fastball of at least 95 miles per hour.
“All you really had to do was watch how he threw Marlon today. It was pretty damn impressive,” said Pirates second baseman Neil Walker. ”The changeups that were very good that kept you off of his fastball. And when you’re throwing 95, 96 and throwing to the corners, it’s gonna be challenging.”
Wacha tossed a gem today because he pounded the strike zone, the hitters said. Over his five perfect innings, more than 67 percent of his pitches were strikes. The right-hander did not allow a three-ball count until his 15th hitter of the game.
“He definitely attacked guys and came right at us,” said Pirates shortstop Clint Barmes. “When you get a good pitcher on the mound and he’s attacking the zone like that, you can’t really go up there and take.”
The perfect game attempt ended when Wacha walked Martin on four pitches to start the 6th inning. PNC Park awoke with chants again after Matt Holliday’s home run in the previous half-inning had given the Cardinals a 2-0 lead.
“It got pretty rowdy,” Wacha said. “So [third baseman David] Freese came up there and he said, ‘Hey, take a couple of deep breaths. Keep attacking the zone like you have been.’”
The result? Strikeout, flyout, strikeout. Martin did not advanced past first base.
The One Mistake
After his third strikeout of Byrd, Wacha faced Pedro Alvarez and was five outs from a no-hitter and leading 2-0. Wacha’s pitch to Alvarez in a hitter’s count was a pretty good one, a fastball in the lower half of the strike zone.
Alvarez knocked it out of the ballpark — literally. The Pirates’ slugger clobbered the pitch over the stands in right-center field for his third home run of the NLDS. It bounced off the riverwalk and out of the stadium. No-hitter over. One-run game.
“I wouldn’t say it was a great feeling,” Wacha said.
He exited after walking next batter Russell Martin on five pitches, but even Pirates fans behind the St. Louis dugout applauded Wacha’s stellar performance.
Now the Pirates’ World Series dreams rest on their ability to beat starter Adam Wainwright, who allowed just three hits and one run over seven innings in Game 1.
“Wainwright’s one of the best pitchers in the game,” Byrd said. “I think Wacha’s on the path to be another Wainwright.”