ST. LOUIS -- No matter how right things looked earlier this year, Michael Wacha knew that others were going to define his season not by how it started, but rather in the way he finished it.
But those persistent questions about durability and strength have been buried as Wacha confidently marches toward the second 30-start season of his career. Since debuting with the Cardinals in 2013, Wacha has rarely been better than he was on Sunday while lifting the Cardinals to a 7-0 victory over the Pirates that also pulled the club to within two games of the division-leading Cubs.
"He was just special today," manager Mike Matheny said after the team completed its second series sweep of Pittsburgh. "It's just one of those starts he has to remember."
Others will, too.
Wacha threw fewer balls (27) than he had batters faced (28) over eight scoreless innings. He had not previously pitched that deep without issuing a walk at any point in his career, and Wacha permitted only one runner to reach scoring position. That runner never made it to third.
Along the way, Wacha touched 98.6 mph on the radar gun while featuring a five-pitch mix that the Pirates couldn't solve. He was efficient, too, finishing eight innings on 95 pitches.
"He continues to find his way," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of Wacha. "He moved the ball around extremely well, threw strikes and was ahead in a lot of counts. The overall execution was very sharp."
This marks just the second time in four seasons that Wacha has reached the final month of the season without physical limitation. An ailing right shoulder curbed his impact in 2014 and '16. Worries about the injury interrupting another season prompted a change to Wacha's offseason workout program.
He's seeing the payoff now.
"The world tells us that you should be tired at this time, that this is when your body starts wearing down," Wacha said. "But it's all the work you put in the offseason, all the work you put in during the season that makes you feel good at this time."
Wacha has now reeled off three consecutive quality starts to follow a five-start stretch in which he posted a 7.25 ERA and averaged fewer than five innings per outing. Opponents have posted a .569 OPS against Wacha over these last three starts, down from a .984 mark in the previous five.
It's the sort of roll the Cardinals are thrilled Wacha will carry into his next outing -- a Saturday showdown against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
"He was extremely motivated to put those [durability] questions to bed," Matheny said. "It's one of those things you have to admire about how he was able to make those adjustments. And then seeing the results, that will motivate him to keep moving forward."