ST. LOUIS — To understand Michael Wacha’s rise in the world of the Cardinals, all one needed to do was stroll through the Winter Warm-Up.
All weekend, his was the autograph that volunteers peddled on scratch-off tickets. Not Yadier Molina’s, not Adam Wainwright’s, not anyone’s but that of the playoff phenom. On Monday, Wacha’s two-hour autograph session sold out for $70 per signature. A day earlier, fellow rookie starter Shelby Miller’s autograph sold for $25.
On Saturday, Wainwright called Wacha "one of the most talented pitchers I’ve seen."
"He’s a guy who almost threw a no-hitter and almost threw another no-hitter," said Wainwright, the NL Cy Young runner-up. "Basically every time he pitched ’til the end there, it seemed like he almost threw a no-hitter."
Indeed, everyone in baseball is impressed — and rightfully so — with the 22-year-old right-hander who emerged as the breakout star of last October. Everyone, except, the aspiring ace himself. Listen to Wacha and he doesn’t believe he even has secured a spot in the Cardinals’ rotation.
"My mindset going into spring training is to go in there and try and win a job," Wacha said. "I know that’s what everyone else is going in there to do. It’s going to be a competition."
As rich as are the Cardinals in starting candidates, it’s almost impossible to imagine Wacha not being part of the rotation come April. As Wainwright said, "We would have taken me out of the rotation before we took Michael out there at the end. He was just so amazing and so important for us."
Wacha’s postseason numbers were remarkable. In his first start, with the Cardinals needing a win to avoid elimination, he no-hit the Pirates for 7 1/3 innings in a 2-1 win. He dominated the Dodgers twice in the NLCS without allowing a run in either start. Then he beat the Red Sox at Fenway Park in Game 2 of the World Series. Wacha finally showed he was mortal when the Red Sox banged him around in the Game 6 clincher.
"I really wasn’t expecting it," Wacha said of his monster month. "The goal was going out there trying to win a ballgame for this team. It ended up being a pretty special year."
But as special and wonderful as it was, it’s done. Now comes the hard part: The encore.
"I’m sure there’s going to be some high expectations from people," Wacha said. "I can’t pay much attention to those. I have my own expectations that I try to live up to. If I’m able to do that, things will be pretty good."
As for his personal expectations, Wacha didn’t want to share any other than "being a part of the rotation."
That’s a lofty goal in itself for someone in his second full season of professional baseball. As much praise as Wainwright heaped on the talented Wacha, he also offered a healthy dose of caution. As in, let’s see what the young buck can do over a full season.
In fact, when Wainwright initially was asked how impressed he was with Wacha’s 2013, he replied with no hesitation, "I was more impressed with Shelby’s season."
As a 22-year-old rookie, Miller went 15-9 with a 3.06 ERA in his first full season in the majors. He made 31 starts and worked 173 1/3 innings before he essentially was shut down in October.
Including postseason, Wacha, who turns 23 on July 1, actually worked more innings than Miller in 2013. Eighty-five of Wacha’s 180 2/3 innings, however, came in the less-stressed environment of the minor leagues. "There’s a drastic difference in the mental exhaustion that comes with big league games," Wainwright said.
And lest we forget, Wacha was pitching at Texas A&M just two years ago. Because of his lack of experience, the Cardinals will view his workload this season differently than Miller’s even though Wacha had the innings edge last year.
"Shelby’s in good shape (innings wise). He’s progressed well," manager Mike Matheny said. "Michael’s going to be in a different boat because he’s had less experience."
Miller says he is looking to reach 200 innings in 2014; Wacha isn’t as concerned with hitting the milestone.
"I want to go out there and go as long as I can in each game," Wacha said. "If that ends up being 200-plus innings, I’ll be more than happy."
After taking a healthy break after the season, Wacha said he started a throwing program shortly after Christmas and is planning to get to Jupiter a few days before pitchers and catchers report Feb. 12. He said he’s focusing his off-season work on improving the location of his pitches and "just sharpening everything up." He doesn’t want to change too much.
"Just try to stay within myself," he said. "It ended up working out pretty well."
A walk around the Winter Warm-Up showed you just how well.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.