PITTSBURGH — You saw more than an amazing performance from Cardinals right-hander Michael Wacha on Monday afternoon.
You saw more than a 22-year-old rookie step into a postseason elimination game and make sure that his team would carry the momentum into the decisive fifth game Wednesday afternoon.
You saw more than a 6-foot-7 right-hander dominate the Pirates with a 97-mph fastball, changeup and curve that he was throwing wherever catcher Yadier Molina put his mitt.
What you also saw was the beginning of the changing of the guard on the St. Louis pitching staff.
As Wacha showered, changed into his suit and made his way to a postgame news conference, the two best Cardinals starters since Bob Gibson were left in the clubhouse to talk about their young teammate. Though this was only his 10th big-league start, Wacha certainly has the physical and mental tools of a pitcher who someday could take his place alongside Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright in the Cardinals’ record book.
Carpenter and Wainwright could not have been more gracious talking about Wacha and his ways, either, even if it tested their memories.
“When I was 22, I was terrible,” Wainwright said. “He’s doing pretty good.”
“At the age of 22, I can tell you I wasn’t pitching like this,” Carpenter said. “I had to learn a lot from that time forward. He is overly mature and very confident, but he keeps it in the way he’s supposed to. He respects the game and he goes out and competes. It was so much fun to watch him.”
Just think, Wacha was not named the Game 4 starter until three days ago. Even though he had come within one out of pitching a no-hitter in his final regular-season start, the Cardinals’ brain trust made it seem like he was less than a lock to get the ball instead of fellow rookie Shelby Miller. General manager John Mozeliak, however, indicated the decision to go with Wacha was not exactly difficult.
“Coming in here, we knew he was ready for this,” Mozeliak said. “(Because of) the way he threw (his last start) and the fact that he was fresh because we did manage his innings throughout the season.”
The Cardinals’ handling of Wacha this season could not be paying off much better. They called him up as a starter in May and sent him down two weeks later to work on his breaking ball. Then they gave him a couple of extended breaks over the ensuing two months. When he returned to the majors Aug. 10, he made one start and then worked out of the bullpen for two-plus weeks. Once he went into the rotation, where he figures to stay for a while, he proved to be more than ready.
Except for a clunker start in Colorado, Wacha gave up a total of two runs in his other four September starts.
In the past 13 days, he merely has become the first pitcher since Dave Stieb in 1988 to throw at least seven no-hit innings in consecutive outings.
“We’re sitting there like, ‘Holy crap, is he going to do this again?'” Carpenter said. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I was like, ‘This guy just doesn’t want to give up any hits.'”
The Pirates didn’t even come close to a hit until Pedro Alvarez pulverized a 93-mph fastball for a 438-foot homer with one out in the eighth.
“I kind of took the confidence from the last start into this one,” Wacha said. “Whenever I went back and looked at the film, I was able to see some of the positives, and one of them was getting ahead of the hitters. I took that into this one and tried to get that first pitch over for a strike.”
Wacha threw a ball to leadoff hitter Starling Marte but then delivered a first-pitch strike to 12 of the next 13 Pirates, all of whom he retired. He did not allow a base runner until the sixth when he walked Russell Martin on four pitches. After a visit from third baseman David Freese — “He told me to take a couple of deep breaths and keep attacking the zone,” Wacha said — he retired six more Pirates in a row.
Unlike his previous no-hit bid, which ended on a close play at first, there was no doubt when this one was over. As Alvarez’s blast sailed far overhead, right fielder Carlos Beltran turned around, took a few steps and watched it soar over the right-center wall. When Wacha walked the next batter, his day was done.
Despite the gem, the Cardinals led only 2-1, their runs coming on Matt Holliday’s homer in the sixth that followed a walk to Carlos Beltran. St. Louis turned to two other rookies, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal, to close out the victory. Martinez was assisted big-time by Molina, who threw out pinch-runner Josh Harrison when he tried to steal second.
“I didn’t like giving up the home run,” Wacha said. “That was a little too close to comfort for me. But Carlos and Trevor came in and shut the door. It was a lot of fun watching them.”
Not quite as much fun as it was for his teammates watching him control the game and neutralize the record crowd at PNC Park. At times throughout the afternoon, the 40,493 chanted “Wac-ha! Wac-ha!”, hoping they could rattle him as they did Johnny Cueto in the Wild Card game last week (or believe they did). Virtually every time the noise level went up, Wacha delivered a strike or an out.
“I kind of like it,” Wacha said. “It gives me adrenaline. I use it in my favor.”
One reason Carpenter and Wainwright like talking about Wacha is because of the professional way he has carried himself since arriving in spring training. Though all of the Cardinals’ rookies have impressed with how they go about their business, Wacha has separated himself.
“It’s the persona,” Carpenter said. “Going out there with his chest up, his attitude and his body language, making pitches like nothing bothered him. It was such a pleasure to watch him do that, watching reactions of the hitters on the other side, the reactions of him, dealing with the crowd noise.”
“He’s got great stuff and he knows it,” Wainwright said. “He goes out and challenges people, so you’re working pitcher’s counts instead of hitter’s counts. He’s pitching like the complete pitcher we know he is.”
His manager, Mike Matheny, was just as impressed with the poise shown by the 19th pick in the 2012 draft, a selection the Cardinals gained in compensation when Albert Pujols left for the Angels.
“This place was loud,” Matheny said. “My ears are still ringing. The kid stayed the course. He trusted himself. He trusted his catcher and the game plan. And then it comes down to execution. It was impressive to watch how he executed.”
No doubt, this was a game that will be remembered for a long, long time by the Cardinals. The changing of the guard is under way.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.