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Sunday, October 6, 2013
Updated: October 8, 9:29 PM ET
On the arm of a rookie

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- They stampeded through the gates of PNC Park, hoping to witness history.

But not this kind of history.

Not the kind that a 22-year-old phenom named Michael Wacha, wearing the uniform of the other team, was threatening to make Monday.

Every script writer in Pittsburgh had pegged this as the day the Pittsburgh Pirates were finally going to win their first postseason series in 12,409 days -- since Wilver D. Stargell and the "We Are Family" Pirates discoed it up atop a dugout in Baltimore after winning the 1979 World Series.

Michael Wacha
Rookie right-hander Michael Wacha tossed 7 1/3 innings of no-hit ball to help the Cardinals force a decisive NLDS Game 5 in St. Louis on Wednesday.

But the starting pitcher for the other team, the Cardinals, had another script in mind. A script that only Don Larsen and Roy Halladay could relate to.

The shrieking of a hostile crowd? Wacha just used that as fuel.

The immense pressure of a win-or-go-home postseason baseball game? Never felt it.

The mounting drama of his second consecutive dance with no-hit history? Never allowed himself to get wrapped up in it.

All he was trying to do, Wacha would say after spinning 7 1/3 dazzling one-hit innings as the Cardinals were saving their season with an intense, 2-1 win over the Pirates, was just "go out there and throw up zeroes."

Well, the zeroes kept mounting, all right. One after another after another.

And as his teammates watched him creep to within five outs of the third postseason no-hitter in the history of baseball, they almost seemed more lathered up about it than Wacha was himself.

In his previous start, you might recall, he lost another dance with no-hit history on an infield single, off his own glove, with two outs in the ninth. And now, here he was, in the 10th big league start of his life, in Game 4 of the National League Division Series, in an elimination game on the road, threatening to do it again?

C'mon. Not even W.P. Kinsella would believe a plot line like this.

"We're sitting there," said Chris Carpenter, "thinking about the last game he pitched, and we're like, 'Holy crap, he's doing it again. I mean, you've got to be kidding me.'"

But this was not an event you'll be seeing on Comedy Central any time soon. This was not a kidding matter. This was the real deal. And so was the guy on the mound.

Michael Wacha wasn't supposed to be here, you know. He was "just" the 19th pick in the first round of the 2012 draft. That was a mere 16 months ago, remember. Seven pitchers were selected before him. Only one (Baltimore's Kevin Gausman) has reached the big leagues.

The Cardinals had loved this guy -- all 6-feet-6 of him -- from the first day their scouts laid eyes on him at Texas A&M. What kept coming up on their pre-draft scouting reports, though, was the same message:

He'll be gone by the time we pick.

As it turned out, though, Wacha wasn't gone. So the Cardinals happily drafted him as the compensation pick they received for losing a fellow named Albert Pujols to free agency. They were thrilled to get him, of course. But they never expected this.

They never expected him to strike out 40 hitters in 21 innings in his first season in the minor leagues last summer, and zoom all the way up to Double-A. And they never expected that a year later, they'd find themselves facing an enormous win-or-go-fishing postseason game in Pittsburgh and want him to start it.

"From the beginning, he's just been a guy who has shown tremendous composure," said his general manager, John Mozeliak. "So we had great faith in him to do this."

Right. But not this. Not to take a no-hitter into the eighth inning in the first postseason start of his life. Nobody does that. And, for that matter, almost nobody in his situation had ever even taken the ball in a game like this.

Before Wacha took the mound, only one first-round draft pick in history had ever started a postseason game less than two years removed from the day he was drafted. That was Barry Zito, for the 2000 Oakland A's.

Pedro Alvarez
Pirates thumper Pedro Alvarez put an emphatic end to Wacha's no-hit bid with a 421-foot solo blast in the eighth inning.

But this was different. The Cardinals strongly considered starting Adam Wainwright in this game on short rest -- so strongly that Wainwright admitted Monday that he had "kind of been on-call for the last few days," to the extent that he altered his normal between-start conditioning just in case.

Finally, though, on Sunday night, they told him they had come to a decision. This was going to be Michael Wacha's game.

Ironically, one of the reasons for that is how much Wacha reminds this team of a young Adam Wainwright.

"I'll take that as a compliment," Wainwright laughed. "Heck, the guy's flirting with a no-hitter every time he goes out there."

But as it turned out, this was also a performance that reminded his teammates of another October elimination game, with a different Cardinals ace on the mound.

That was Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS, an epic evening when Chris Carpenter refused to be outdueled by the ace on the other side of the field, Halladay.

"It reminded me a lot of that game," Wainwright said. "The atmosphere was similar. The crowd was fired up, rock 'n' rolling. And the starting pitchers came out on both sides and made pitch after pitch after pitch."

That was only 24 months ago. But Wacha wasn't even in their system then. He was just starting his junior year in College Station. So he could never have envisioned that a game like this was in his future just two years later.

But on this unforgettable afternoon, he was locked in from his first pitch of the day. He retired the first 15 hitters he faced, struck out six of them, ran just two three-ball counts, never even allowed a hard-hit ball.

And he did it in a ballpark that rumbled with noise and emotion, chanted his name, tried to shake him and intimidate him, and, somehow, never even came close to rattling him.

"I just tried to use that. … I kind of like it," Wacha said afterward. "It kind of gives me adrenaline. I kind of use it in my favor."

That might sound like the stuff players always say in settings like this. But saying it and believing it -- and, especially, saying it and doing it -- are two different things. So what made Wacha's day so eye-popping was that he didn't just talk the talk.

What was amazing, even to an expert witness like Carpenter, was "his persona" on this type of stage -- "going out there with his chest up and his attitude, his body language, and going out there and making pitches, no matter how big of a game," Carpenter would gush afterward.

"I mean, you can't get a bigger game, for him, right now," he went on. "And he went out, with his normal stuff, just making pitches, like nothing bothered him. And it was so much fun to watch. It was such a pleasure to watch him go out there and do that, watching the reactions of the hitters of the other side, the reactions of him, dealing with the noise, the crowd noise, all that stuff. It was a lot of fun."

Matt Holliday
Matt Holliday's sixth-inning homer gave the Cardinals a 2-0 lead.

But amid all that fun was a gigantic October baseball game to be won. And Pirates starter Charlie Morton was matching Wacha, zero for zero, until Matt Holliday launched a towering two-run sixth-inning homer.

And suddenly, Wacha didn't just have a no-hitter to close out. He had to get the Cardinals to a Game 5 back in St. Louis on Wednesday.

A sixth-inning walk to Russell Martin blew up the perfect-game saga. But Wacha then gulped a deep breath and mowed down six more Pirate hitters in a row. So there he was, headed into the eighth inning, six outs from history.

He blew a 96 mph two-seamer past Marlon Byrd for the first out of the inning. He was five outs away. And out in right field, another Mr. October kind of guy, Carlos Beltran, said he found himself thinking, "Oh my God. This is unbelievable. Look at this guy. He's going to get a no-hitter in a postseason game."

But, as it turned out, he wasn't. He fell behind Pedro Alvarez, 3-and-1. He kicked at the dirt, then looked in for Yadier Molina's sign. The ballpark shook. Chants of "Let's Go, Pedro" reverberated through the late-afternoon haze. Wacha wound and fired.

A 93 mph flameball came roaring in, right over the middle of the plate. Alvarez was ready for it. He sent a monster home run soaring through the Pittsburgh sky, over the bleachers in right-center, one-hopping toward the river beyond the fence.

The no-hitter was over. This baseball game wasn't.

But the Cardinals had two more electrifying young arms -- 21-year-old Carlos Martinez and 23-year-old Trevor Rosenthal -- lined up to finish this one off. And once they'd done what they do, the Cardinals had become the first team in history to win a postseason baseball game while using three pitchers, all of whom were 23 or younger.

What matters most to them now, of course, is the next game, the game that will define their season. But what will remembered about this game is the kid on the mound and his run at October no-hit history.

Wacha was the first pitcher to take a no-hitter into the seventh inning in back-to-back starts, regular-season or postseason, since Dave Stieb did that for the Blue Jays back in 1988.

He was the first pitcher to go at least seven innings and allow just one hit, with his team facing elimination, since Mike Mussina did that for the Orioles back in 1997.

But what will stick with his teammates was how close this guy came to throwing a no-hitter two starts in a row -- losing one on an infield chopper and the other on what felt like a 900-foot homer.

"You know what's funny?" Jason Motte said with a chuckle. "After the last one, some of us [pitchers] were sitting around asking, 'Would you rather have a no-hitter broken up with a huge home run or a little blooper?'"

Who knew that the guy on the mound would then try out both of those scenarios, just to see how they felt. So what, we asked Motte, was the conclusion they came to?

The consensus, he said, was that "you'd rather lose it on a blooper." But he doubted that's how Wacha would vote.

"I'm pretty sure he'd probably like to have gotten both no-hitters," Motte said. "But the big thing is, he threw the heck out of it today. And that's exactly what we needed."