ST. LOUIS — Beating the Red Sox at Fenway Park on back-to-back nights poses a challenge even greater than trying to get David Ortiz out in the World Series, but the Cardinals will send the right man to the mound for Game 6 Wednesday night.
Based on the past month, no pitcher in the land stands a better chance of slowing down the Red Sox than young right-hander Michael Wacha. Not Adam Wainwright, not David Price, not Justin Verlander.
While five starts certainly don’t provide a large enough sample size to project Wacha’s long-term outlook and next year he might pitch like someone who’s made only 13 career starts, after the past month’s performances, there is absolutely no reason to believe he won’t continue the success in his sixth.
His teammates like his chances.
“We have all the confidence in the world in him,” Wainwright said after Monday night’s 3-1 loss that put the Cardinals one loss from the end of their season.
The same refrain was heard throughout the Cardinals’ clubhouse as Matt Carpenter, Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig and Matt Holliday all echoed the same sentiments:
Wacha will not be blown away by the moment. He will not be swayed by a packed house breathless to see their Red Sox clinch a championship in Fenway Park for the first time in 95 years. And, oh yeah, the kid is pitching pretty well, too.
Look at what he’s accomplished in the past 35 days:
* He came within one out of no-hitting the Nationals in his final regular-season start, and the infield bouncer that eluded his reach by inches wasn’t much of a hit. Afterward, he was asked when he realized he was working on a no-hitter: “First inning,” he said.
* With his team facing elimination at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, where the Cardinals say the crowd was louder than at Fenway, Wacha took a no-hitter into the eighth inning and pitched the Cardinals to a 2-1 victory. Walking with his parents on the way back to the clubhouse, Wacha could be overheard talking about the crowd chanting his name in derision. “It’s a good name to chant, two syllables,” he said.
* In Game 2 of the NLCS, Wacha out-dueled likely NL Cy Young winner Kershaw by working 6 1/3 scoreless innings in a 1-0 victory that put the Cardinals in control of the series. But he wanted little to do with talk about how great he had been pitching. “I wouldn’t say I was dominating,” he said. “I was just trying to pitch to contact and it’s been working out pretty well.”
* Five days later, he clinched the pennant for St. Louis by again out-pitching Kershaw. Wacha worked seven shutout innings this time, allowed just two hits and then joined the Cardinals’ big shots on the podium to accept the trophy for being named the NLCS Most Valuable Player.
“A lot of the talk goes back to last year whenever they were up three games to one (and lost to San Francisco in the NLCS), and how they kind of let it slip away,” Wacha said. “I kind of took it in my own hands where I wasn’t going to let that happen this year.”
* In Game 2 of the World Series last Thursday, with the Cardinals needing a win to stay out of a 2-0 hole, Wacha pitched six innings, allowed two runs and earned the win after the Cardinals rallied in the seventh for a 4-3 victory. Afterward, he chided his performance because he walked four batters. “I made too many mistakes,” he complained.
Hardly. Put the five-start run together and the numbers are incredible: 5-0 record and a 0.76 ERA. In 35 2/3 innings, Wacha has allowed only 12 hits and held the opposition to a .103 batting average.
And the most impressive aspect of all this is that the tall Texan has handled the rising hype and hoopla like it’s no big deal. This is how he expects to pitch, no matter who it surprises or how much it surprises them. Completely confident without a trace of arrogance.
Wacha was totally at ease when reporters rushed to his locker after the Cardinals lost Game 5 Monday night and put him in another elimination start. When he was asked how it would feel to pitch in such a pressure situation, he shrugged.
“I’ll just try to stay composed on the road, try not to ride too high,” he said.
He also threw in a few of his favorite responses: “I’m going to attack the zone” and “I’m just going to go out there and try to make effective pitches” and “It’ll be a lot of fun to go out there and try to get a win for the club.”
How will he deal with Ortiz, who has reached base 15 times in a performance that will leave his name all over the World Series record book?
“He’s a great hitter having a great series. I’m going to have to battle him and execute my plan,” Wacha said, before politely declining to disclose his plan because “it probably would get out.”
Well, the word on Wacha is out. At this point, in a World Series that has been full of the unexpected, one thing you can count on for Game 6 is that a 22-year-old rookie will pitch a heckuva game.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.