Monday, October 7, 2013
Wacha's gem puts Cards in driver's seat
By David Schoenfield
Michael Wacha last pitched 13 days ago. You may remember that he was pretty good in that game: He lost a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning on Ryan Zimmerman's infield single.
Amazingly, in just his 10th career start, Wacha followed up that start with not just the game of his lifetime, but almost the game of anyone's lifetime, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning before Pedro Alvarez crushed a meteor to right-center field with one out. Still, while Wacha was five outs short of the third no-hitter in postseason history, following Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series and Roy Halladay's no-hitter for the Phillies in the 2010 NLDS, his dominant start gave the Cardinals a 2-1 win over the Pirates in Game 4 to even the series.
Many believed the Cardinals should have started Adam Wainwright on three days' rest in this game, but Mike Matheny had ultimate confidence in his young rookie -- just like he has confidence in the five other rookies on his playoff pitching staff. Like Wainwright, Wacha is tall and thin, but while Wainwright relies on that nasty curveball, Wacha's best off-speed pitch is a lethal changeup that makes him extremely tough against left-handed hitters, who hit just .197 off him this season.
On this day, Wacha dumped his curveball and stuck with the fastball and changeup. After an eight-pitch seventh inning, the no-hitter was no longer a fantasy but appeared to be an impending reality. Wacha blew away Marlon Byrd with a 96-mph fastball for the first out. Up stepped Alvarez, who had the big hit in Game 3 and had homered in the first two games. Wacha fell behind 3-1 and, not wanting to walk him to bring up the tying run, threw a 93-mph four-seamer into Alvarez's wheelhouse and Pedro didn't miss, sending it 438 feet into the Pittsburgh afternoon.
After Wacha walked Russell Martin (who has had great at-bats all postseason), his day was done after 96 pitches. The one questionable decision in this game: Matheny turned to Carlos Martinez, one of those rookies, leaving closer Trevor Rosenthal (yet another rookie) in the bullpen. Rosenthal has just recently become the team's closer and had pitched two innings on six occasions, so is certainly capable of going five outs, but Matheny went with the Martinez (who, like Rosenthal, can hit 100 mph with his fastball).
Josh Harrison pinch-ran for Martin and Jose Tabata pinch-hit. On a 2-1 pitch, Clint Hurdle sent Harrison but Tabata missed the pitch on what might have been a hit-and-run. Yadier Molina's one-hop throw was in time to get Harrison, who started his slide too early and looked like he was diving into quicksand. Tabata fanned on a 3-2 curve, quieting the Pittsburgh faithful. I don't have a huge problem sending Harrison there; ahead in the count, Tabata had to be sitting fastball and he's pretty good contact guy. He did get fastball; he just missed.
Pirates fans had one last moment of hope in the ninth when Rosenthal inexplicably walked Neil Walker on four pitches with two outs to bring up Andrew McCutchen. After falling behind 3-0 to McCutchen, he finally got him to pop up to second on a 3-1, 96-mph fastball.
Now Matheny's decision to bypass Wainwright puts the Cardinals in the driver's seat. He has his ace going in Game 5 at home, where Wainwright had a 2.53 ERA. Hurdle will have to decide whether to stick with A.J. Burnett, who got hammered in Game 1, or go with rookie Gerrit Cole, who dominated in his Game 2 start. With the off day on Tuesday, Cole would be pitching on regular rest.
I know what I'd do: As Wacha showed today, have faith in the youngsters. Especially when they have talent on the level of Wacha or Cole.
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Wacha's final Game Score ended up as 79 ... a great start, although not historical, at least by the Game Score method. Here are the best starts in postseason history by Game Score:
Roger Clemens, 2000 ALCS, Yankees vs. Mariners: 98 (9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 15 SO)
Dave McNally, 1969 ALCS, Orioles vs. Twins: 97 (11 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 5 BB, 11 SO)
Babe Ruth, 1916 WS, Red Sox vs. Robins: 97 (14 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 4 SO)
Tim Lincecum, 2010 NLDS, Giants vs. Braves: 96 (9 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 14 SO)
Roy Halladay, 2010 NLDS, Phillies vs. Reds: 94 (9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 8 SO)
Don Larsen, 1956 WS, Yankees vs. Dodgers: 94 (9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 7 SO)
Ed Walsh, 1906 WS, White Sox vs. Cubs: 94 (9 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 12 SO)