The Busch Stadium crowd of 38,940 had a feeling something special was unfolding early in Tuesday night’s game. Cardinal rookie Michael Wacha, making his ninth major league start, set down the first nine Nationals hitters that he faced, striking out five of them.
Wacha had his full arsenal going: a mid-to-high-90s fastball, a devastating changeup and an emerging curve as he threw only 45 pitches through the first four innings, fanning six. He lost his perfect game with two outs in the fifth when an Adam LaRoche grounder when through second baseman Matt Carpenter’s legs. Wacha would walk two, Ryan Zimmerman leading off the seventh and LaRoche leading off the eighth, although LaRoche was retired on Wilson Ramos’ double-play grounder.
The crowd was completely into the no-hitter with two outs in the ninth, when Zimmerman chopped a grounder over Wacha’s head (the right-hander said he may have gotten a piece of it) and shortstop Pete Kozma couldn’t make the play, missing Zimmerman by an eyelash.
The impressive part of Wacha’s performance isn’t necessarily that he was so brilliant as a rookie in his ninth Major League start. The last two Cardinal no-hitters, from Jose Jimenez in 1999 and Bud Smith in 2001, have come from rookies. Twenty-one pitchers have fired no-no’s in their rookie year. What made this combined one-hitter remarkable was that Wacha dominated in the final week of the season, with his club clinging to a two-game lead over its pursuers in the NL Central.
Under the most intense pressure outside of the playoffs, Wacha was nearly unhittable. Manager Mike Matheny said, “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.” It was amazing, and continues a remarkable run for the Cardinals.
On May 10, Shelby Miller allowed a broken bat hit to Eric Young of the Rockies to start the game, and then set down 27 straight Colorado hitters for his best performance of the season. Tyler Lyons came up and allowed one run in seven innings in each of his first two starts to provide a lift. Flamethrowers Trevor Rosenthal, who got the final out for Wacha against Washington, and Kevin Siegrist have been amazing out of the bullpen.
The production of young pitchers by the Cardinal organization, and their use by Matheny and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist, is not only something Redbird fans have never seen, but few in baseball have ever seen. Wacha was the toast of baseball with his near-no hitter on Tuesday night, but there’s more to come The young Cards pitchers – Wacha, Miller, Joe Kelly, Rosenthal and Siegrist – plus a group of other inexperienced hurlers, have stuff that translates well to the postseason.
Wacha may have earned a spot in the playoff rotation. If nothing else, Matheny knows he has a guy who has great ability and responds to high pressure. Fifteen months ago, Wacha was pitching in the NCAA tournament, and now he’s pitching for a team that has a chance to win the World Series. In his ninth start, he arrived as a big league pitcher – and there’s a lot more greatness to look forward to.