PITTSBURGH — Michael Wacha says the biggest game he had pitched before joining the St. Louis Cardinals was two years ago when he held Florida State to three hits, sending Texas A&M to the College World Series.
“It was an elimination game,” he said. “So that was pretty nervous.”
The right-hander improved on that Monday, holding the Pittsburgh Pirates to one hit in 71/3 innings of a 2-1 victory that sent the best-of-five National League division series back to St. Louis tied, 2-2 .
It was a masterful performance by a 22-year-old rookie who was in the minor leagues two months ago. Yet, it was one that surprised no one on the Cardinals.
“This sounds like hindsight here, but he’s just somebody that shows tremendous composure,” General Manager John Mozeliak said. “We had a lot of faith in him to do this.”
Said Manager Mike Matheny: “We did a lot of gushing about him before we even got him out there and I think everybody sees why. I don’t know if you can put a kid in a tougher spot. He came out and just made pitches all day long.”
All faith and gushing aside, a week ago the Cardinals weren’t even sure Wacha would be in their playoff rotation. And less than 24 hours before Monday’s first pitch, Matheny was ready to give the ball to 19-game winner Adam Wainwright instead.
But once he got to the mound Wacha rewarded his manager’s confidence, retiring the first 15 Pirates and taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning before Pedro Alvarez hit a home run, his third in four games.
No rookie had carried a no-hitter deeper into a postseason game. Yet, that wasn’t even the deepest Wacha had carried a no-hitter in his last two starts. In his final regular-season game, he lost a no-hitter with one out to go on an infield single by Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman.
“I just kind of took the confidence from the last start into this one,” said Wacha, who struck out a career-high nine batters in each game. “Whenever I went back and looked at the film, I was able to see some of the positives from the game and one of them was just getting ahead of the hitters and being able to make my pitch.”
Pitches that include a fastball that touches 97 mph, a devastating changeup and just enough of a curveball to keep hitters guessing.
Pittsburgh right-hander Charlie Morton nearly matched Wacha through five innings, giving up two singles. But after Carlos Beltran walked to open the sixth inning, Matt Holliday followed with a home run into the Cardinals’ bullpen.
Wacha gave up a walk and a home run in his final inning as well, but they came in the opposite order, allowing him to turn a lead over to the bullpen. It was a lead 22-year-old Carlos Martinez and 23-year-old Trevor Rosenthal protected by setting down five of the six batters they faced to send the series to St. Louis.
“We have one game to win,” said Pittsburgh Manager Clint Hurdle, who will start rookie wunderkind Gerrit Cole against Wainwright on Wednesday. “We need to do the best we can to win that one game.”