Wacha 'still trying to win a job' as he takes first start in Jupiter

Michael Wacha went from promising prospect to postseason hero with the speed of one of his fastballs. But the 22-year-old right hander remains as grounded as ever, and continues trying to improve as a member of the Cardinals bullpen.

Michael Wacha was able to record only five outs before reaching his pitch count (39) and having to exit the mound during his first start of the practice season.

Steve Mitchell / USA TODAY Sports


JUPITER, Fla. -- Michael Wacha's world changed more than a little between spring training a year ago and his 2014 exhibition debut Sunday. As you might recall, he went from promising prospect to postseason hero with the speed of one of his fastballs.

But you know what hasn't changed? The demeanor of the 22-year-old right-hander.

He remains as grounded as your front yard and as solid as the oak tree in the back.

So if you think he was bothered by a spring start during which he walked two and loaded the bases in the first inning, you'd be wrong.

"I was happy with it," he said after the Cardinals' 7-1 victory over the Mets. "Arm felt great, body felt great."

But if you think he truly was satisfied that he was able to record only five outs before reaching his pitch count (39) and having to exit the mound at a packed Roger Dean Stadium, you'd be even more wrong.

"Fastball command wasn't where I wanted it to be," he said. "I threw a couple of pitches I was happy with. I didn't control the counts the way I wanted and ended up walking a couple of guys. If I can start controlling the counts a little better, it'll be a lot better for me."

While that sounds overly critical, especially considering this was merely his first start of the practice season, it wasn't. Wacha was just being matter-of-fact Michael, the guy who pitched the Cardinals into the World Series last October and basically shrugged, like what did you expect me to do.

Now four-plus months later, the tall Texan is playing the part of a young pitcher just trying to make the club.

"I'm still trying to win a job," he said, trying to sound convinced that he hasn't already secured his spot in the rotation.

"That's exactly the right answer," Matheny said, undoubtedly pleased with his young ace's attitude. "We should probably put that on a poster out there somewhere, or a T-shirt."

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Wacha actually admitted he might have been "a little too amped up" for his spring debut, which is surprising considering how coolly he operated last postseason. He said the extra adrenaline led to him putting a couple of fastballs where he didn't want them in a 30-pitch first inning that, as Matheny pointed out, would have been 15 or so pitches less if a couple of borderline pitches had gone his way.

"I just had to settle down in the second inning," Wacha said. And he did, getting two fly outs before departing. 

Wacha continues to work on his curveball, and he mixed in a few against the Mets that he said he was pleased with. As successful as he was last October relying on a fastball and change-up, he knows he needs a third pitch to succeed for the long haul.

While his humility is healthy, Wacha knows how different this spring is from last.

"Last year, I was obviously trying to make the club," he said. "That's everyone's goal up here in big-league spring training. This year, I just have to get better with the command and I think it will take care of itself."

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See, he really knows he doesn't have much to worry about.

"He's got a shot," said his manager, with a grin that let you know how pleased he is to have Michael Wacha on his side.


-- Prized prospect Oscar Taveras has been cleared to run by the training staff and continues to progress but still isn't ready for game action. If that sounds confusing to you, you're not the only one.

At this point, his return has become at least as much mental as physical. Matheny says Taveras continues to favor his left ankle, the one that wasn't surgically repaired last season.

"It's pretty standard with everybody when they've had an injury, you get used to using the other side predominantly," Matheny said. "We don't want him out here favoring one side because that doesn't necessarily lead away from any sort of injury again. It's smart to make sure that we hold on until he's not favoring the weak side. As far as being able to push him through these drills, he's cleared everything to say that he can push it."

Taveras will make the long bus trip to Lakeland on Monday even though he won't play. That's what young players do, Matheny said.

-- This should be a fun season for Memphis Redbirds fans. Just look at who could be in the outfield. They could start with Taveras in left, Stephen Piscotty in right and Randal Grichuk in center, all of whom have the potential to be very good big-league players. Grichuk has been as impressive as any of the youngsters in the early days of camp.

The rotation figures to have at least one pitcher with time in the big leagues, likely lefty Tyler Lyons, and at least another lefty, Tim Cooney, who should start someday in the majors. Cooney struck out four in an impressive six-up, six-down outing Sunday.

-- Two hard-throwing relievers on the mend, Trevor Rosenthal and Jason Motte, were thumping the mitts in bullpen sessions Sunday. Rosenthal said he likely will throw another side Wednesday -- the Cardinals will take off Tuesday -- and perhaps then be ready to pitch in an exhibition. In his first time on the mound since tweaking a groin last Tuesday, he reported no issues.

Motte seemed to amp up his intensity level in his bullpen as he continues his return from last May's Tommy John surgery. Matheny isn't ready to put any kind of timetable on when Motte might pitch in an exhibition or if he even will be ready to before the Cardinals break camp. "Anything is possible" was all the skipper allowed.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.