ST. LOUIS -- The Most Valuable Player of the National League Championship Series was pitching at Texas A&M just 18 months ago. He was riding the bus on road trips with Double-A Springfield on Opening Day. He didn't turn 22 until July, wasn't a lock for the Cardinals' postseason roster entering September and didn't cement a spot in St. Louis' postseason pitching rotation until he came within an out of a no-hitter in Game No. 158 of 162.
Michael Wacha's spot is secure now. He continued his storybook season Friday night by working seven innings of a 9-0 win over the Dodgers that punched the Cards' World Series ticket. Wacha became the youngest NLCS MVP Award winner since 21-year-old Steve Avery of the Braves in 1991, the first rookie to win a postseason series MVP Award since then-Marlins sensation Livan Hernandez in the 1997 World Series, and the first rookie to start and win an NLCS clinching game since the Dodgers' Fernando Valenzuela in 1981.
"We just want him to think that this is normal and this is expected," St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said.
|Michael Wacha||Cardinals||22||2013 NLCS|
|Livan Hernandez||Marlins||22||1997 WS|
|Livan Hernandez||Marlins||22||1997 NLCS|
|Mike Boddicker||Orioles||26||1983 ALCS|
|Larry Sherry||Dodgers||24||1959 WS|
But this is not normal. In his past four starts, beginning with that near no-hitter, Wacha is 4-0 with a 0.30 ERA, allowing one earned run in 29 2/3 innings, with nine hits, six walks and 31 strikeouts. Against the Nationals on Sept. 24, Wacha's ninth Major League start, he didn't allow a hit until Ryan Zimmerman chopped a single over the pitcher's mound. In Game 4 of the NL Division Series against the Pirates, with the Cardinals facing elimination, Wacha didn't allow a hit until the eighth inning.
Then came the NLCS. Twice, Wacha matched up against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, the presumptive NL Cy Young Award winner. Twice, Wacha won, holding the NL West champs scoreless over 13 2/3 innings, with seven hits and two walks against 13 strikeouts in those two games.
|M. Wacha||Stl.||2013||2||0||13 2/3||7||0||2||13||0.00|
|F. Valenzuela||L.A.||1981||1||1||14 2/3||10||4||5||10||2.45|
|J. Maine||NYM||2006||1||0||9 1/3||4||3||9||8||2.89|
|T. Belcher||L.A.||1988||2||0||15 1/3||12||7||4||16||4.11|
|D. Matsuzaka||Bos.||2007||1||1||9 2/3||12||6||2||9||5.59|
In Game 2, Wacha outdueled Kershaw, scattering five hits over 6 2/3 hard-fought innings thanks in part to eight strikeouts. In Game 6, the Cards spotted Wacha four runs of support in the third inning and five more in the fifth, and the rookie responded by holding L.A. scoreless again, this time over seven innings, with only two hits, one walk and five strikeouts.
It's not supposed to be this easy. From time to time, one of St. Louis' veteran players will remind Wacha of that.
"They like to give us rookies [grief] about not being in the Minors for so long. They're like, 'You haven't even been down there a day,'" Wacha said. "It's been a crazy ride, for sure.
"I think I'll be able to process it a little bit more after our season is finished. It's definitely been a crazy past year and a half. ... To get that [NLCS MVP] award, I feel so blessed. I wouldn't even be in here without a lot of these guys. They're making plays, they're getting timely hits. It's fun being in this group."
How wild is Wacha's ride? Consider that Friday was his 18th Major League game, regular season and postseason.
It was Carlos Beltran's 2,109th.
"Since he joined the ballclub, all he has done is given us an opportunity to win ballgames," Beltran said. "You guys are going to hear a lot from that kid, because that kid is very special. Being able to actually shut down an offense like the Dodgers and being able to shut down an offense like the Pirates, he is unbelievable. The kid is a horse. He wants to be there. He loves the moment. It's great to watch a young kid be able to come through like that."
"I know the feeling of being naïve in the postseason a little bit and running into some things and getting a trophy," said third baseman David Freese, who won the NLCS MVP Award in his first postseason in 2011. "But I can guarantee you that Wacha was thinking the same thing that I was, which is that he's happy we're getting to the World Series."
On Friday, Wacha's best inning may have been the fourth, even though it began with a walk and required 17 pitches. The Cardinals had just batted around against Kershaw and scored four runs, and Wacha preserved that lead by retiring Mark Ellis, Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez on infield popups after Carl Crawford's leadoff walk.
"Any time we score, you know it's important for a pitcher to go out and have a shutdown inning," Wacha said.
This is a pitcher the Cards never expected to get at all. They were reigning World Series champions in 2012 but had a pair of first-round picks in the First-Year Player Draft, including the 19th overall as compensation for Albert Pujols signing with the Angels.
The Cardinals wanted Wacha, but they expected him to be long gone.
"We didn't realize we had this," general manager John Mozeliak said. "We identified the guy we wanted, got him, but to see him doing what he's doing, a year removed from college, it's amazing."
Adam Wainwright is the presumptive Game 1 starter in the World Series, with Wacha likely to follow. The Cards hope he continues his success. Matheny expects it.
"He should expect that," Matheny said. "That's where he is right now. We have a group of veteran guys who have done some pretty incredible things, especially on the pitching side, to be able to sit there and say, 'You continue to do this. This isn't a fluke. We need to you do this in order for us to have a chance.'"