All too often, kids come into professional baseball hot off of a collegiate career with potential through the roof. It’s not unusual for the transition to pro ball to take some time. It IS unusual for a guy less than a year removed from his final college game to not only be invited to Spring Training, but also force his way into the conversation about the Big League rotation.
When Cardinal veterans like Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright jump on board, you have to believe there’s something to it.
This spring, Molina said the 22-year-old Michael Wacha was Big League ready. Wainwright, when asked about the 2014 rotation said, “He’ll be there.”
Cardinals fans know first hand what happens when a guy doesn’t live up to the astronomical expectations. Colby Rasmus? Brendan Ryan? Tyler Greene? Not pretty. And with a rotation of Wainwright, Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller (which left out Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal), there was no need to rush Wacha.
A 162-game season tends to change those needs. And when the Cardinals found themselves without Garcia and Westbrook, after going through John Gast and Tyler Lyons and bringing Joe Kelly back into the mix, there was a Wacha-sized hole in the rotation.
He’d been good. At times, he’d looked great. When he had command of his fastball, he could compliment it with a changeup so nasty opponents just had to tip their cap and take a seat. When he didn’t, though, he looked like an overmatched rookie.
The transition takes some time, even for a fresh-out-of-college phenom.
Last night, though, we were witness to a rare treat: potential realized.
After a couple innings of work — perfect innings, at that — it was evident that we were watching something special. The fastball? Spot on. The changeup? Filthy. The Nationals batters looked silly most of the night. An error by Matt Carpenter broke up the perfect game, and Wacha added a pair of walks later. He almost lost the no-hitter on a deep fly ball by Anthony Rendon in the 8th inning, but Shane Robinson — playing for Matt Holliday — made an impressive snag on the run to keep it in tact.
So, then came the 9th. He started with 99 pitches. Ground out. Strike out looking. One more. Ryan Zimmerman knocked a fastball right back to Wacha but instead of sealing the deal, becoming the first Cardinal since Bud Smith to record a no-hitter, putting himself in the MLB history books as the 10th youngest to accomplish the feat, the ball nicked off his glove (or did it?) and Pete Kozma’s barehanded throw to Matt Adams was just off the mark.
No no-hitter. But still, like Mike Matheny said in the postgame press conference, “That was some kind of fun to watch.”
Especially for a guy who didn’t know what his role might be when he was called up. Magic tends to happen in September baseball.
Good work, kid.
Of course, Wacha’s performance adds intrigue to the postseason rotation decisions. He’d been the guy expected to be out of the rotation, but with that performance, he may have created at least a hesitation before finalizing those roles.
More importantly for the immediate future, though, the Cardinals picked up win No. 93, dropping their magic number to secure the division title down to three with four games to play. Today’s quick turnaround has the Cards and Nats back at it at 12:45 as the Cardinals look for the sweep behind Shelby Miller.
Tara is a St. Louis Cardinals reporter for Aaron Miles’ Fastball. Follow her on twitter @tarawellman.