Michael Wacha took his place under the bright lights, minutes after nearly taking his place in history. On a Tuesday night when the Cardinals simply sought a start strong enough to help push the organization closer to a division title, they watched a 22-year-old rookie carve up a Nationals lineup for 8 2/3 hitless innings.
Ryan Zimmerman's infield single precluded Wacha from becoming the 10th-youngest player in Major League history to throw a no-hitter, but the overall performance was plenty dominant to send the Cardinals to a 2-0 win. With it, the club's magic number to win the National League Central dropped to three.
"This last week of baseball, every win is crucial," Wacha said. "That's the mindset coming into this game -- let's win this game and stay in first place. … The night ended up being pretty special."
In what was likely his final regular-season performance, Wacha capped his rookie season by treating a Busch Stadium crowd of 38,940 to the most dominant start of his budding Major League career. Efficient with his pitch count, nasty with his fastball-changeup mix, and quick with his pace, Wacha was every bit composed as he pitched the Cardinals closer to their division-title goal.
"We understand that we control our own destiny, but I think tonight was Michael Wacha's night," said third baseman David Freese. "To play good defense behind him and to get some big hits, it was huge. It was fun to see a guy, especially that young, come up here and do something like that in this situation, this late in the year, to help us get that W."
Wacha retired the first 14 Washington batters he faced, striking out half of them. Matt Carpenter's error with two out in the fifth ended the pursuit of a perfect game, though Wacha would also walk two later in his night.
Amid a standing ovation, he took the mound in the ninth with a pitch count of 99. Pinch-hitter Steve Lombardozzi was retired on a routine groundout. Wacha recorded his 26th out on a beauty of a changeup that froze Denard Span. It was Wacha's ninth strikeout of the evening.
"That pitch he threw to Span there, 3-2, that changeup, pretty much exemplifies his thought process at the time," Matheny said. "He was able to tune everything out. For a kid to do that against a lineup like this during this time of the season, hard to really get your head around it. Man, that was some kind of fun to watch."
Eyeing the 11th no-hitter in franchise history, Wacha then started Ryan Zimmerman with a 97-mph fastball. Zimmerman chopped it high, just out of the reach of the 6-foot-6 Wacha. The ball nicked off Wacha's glove before being barehanded by shortstop Pete Kozma.
Kozma threw to first, pulling first baseman Matt Adams off the bag. Adams swiped at Zimmerman, but not in time.
"He doesn't run that well," Kozma said. "I thought it'd give me a chance."
"Pete made a great play," Matheny said, "and once I saw it get into his bare hand, I thought we had a pretty good chance that we were going to see an unbelievable finish to an unbelievable game."
Prior to Tuesday night, there had been two no-hitters in the books this season in the Majors -- by Cincinnati's Homer Bailey and San Francisco's Tim Lincecum. Wacha's effort marked the third time this season that a no-hit bit had been broken up with two outs in the ninth, joining Texas' Yu Darvish and San Francisco's Yusmeiro Petit -- both of whom were one out away from perfect games.
The Cardinals had last had a no-hitter in 2001, that one spun by another rookie wearing No. 52, Bud Smith.
"Well, you play the game to win games and try to win championships, but at the same time, when you see that on the line, you're hoping to get it," said Yadier Molina, who has never caught a no-hitter. "But at the same time, you're just trying to win the game."
"Luckily, we got a hit in the end, kind of ruined it," Zimmerman said. "But you can't take away how he pitched the whole game. I'm using my blazing speed to try to get there as fast as I can. Baseball is weird. We hit balls on the screws all night. That's the swing, the hit that breaks it up."
Having already set a career high in innings and pitches (112), Wacha's night ended there. He tipped his cap as he exited to a roaring ovation, leaving fellow rookie Trevor Rosenthal to protect the two-run lead long ago provided with RBI hits from Shane Robinson and Molina.
Rosenthal notched his second career save in as many nights by getting Jayson Werth to ground out to first.
"I had a feeling he was going to finish it. I think we all did. He got so close there," Rosenthal said. "It was unfortunate to come into that situation, but at the same time, I just wanted to be sure to get the shutout for him."
An ice bath -- one that Wacha described as "cold, but a good cold" -- awaited the right-hander after the string of on-field congratulations.
How Wacha fits into the Cardinals' postseason picture remains unclear, but his stock as a key piece in the organization's long-term plans continues to climb. The former first-round Draft pick was the biggest surprise in Spring Training and made his Major League debut less than a year removed from pitching collegiately. When the Cardinals moved him back into the rotation in September, he did not allow a run in his first 17 innings.
"When I got called up here, I didn't really know what my role was going to be -- whether it was in the bullpen or starting," Wacha said. "I just accepted whatever they needed me to do. Hopefully, I can just keep getting better after this one."
With Tuesday night's performance, he'll have an exceptionally high bar to pursue.