Everyone has a favorite player, right? That’s part of the enjoyment of watching the Cardinals or any sports team you like, keeping up with the individual accomplishments of your guy along with the team overall.
That’s where I’ve found myself with the official retirement of Chris Carpenter. Ever since I saw him standing in the dugout before a game at old Busch Stadium in 2004, he was my guy … and I was never shy about stating that. And even though he didn’t pitch much after Game Seven of the 2011 World Series, he remained my favorite Cardinal. Sure, there were others I enjoyed watching during those 10 seasons — outfielder Rick Ankiel and Lance Berkman — and enjoy now, like Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal. Peter Bourjos and his high socks are making a strong first impression too. But no one whose jersey I’d buy (especially since my Chris Carpenter jersey is still in fine shape, thank you).
Yet I’ve found one now. And, not surprisingly, he’s a pitcher.
I’ve always admired pitchers. Not that any player on a big league roster isn’t worthy of admiration just for making it to that level, but the way a pitcher — good or bad — controls a game is just something I find appealing.
Michael Wacha obviously can control a game quite well, as everyone discovered last season. Easy choice for a new favorite, right?
I know, and maybe he’s too obvious of a choice. So it goes. But I can pinpoint the exact moment when I realized he could be the guy for me. It wasn’t the near no-hitter in his final regular season start, nor his follow-up near no-hitter in Game Four of the NLDS against the Pirates, even though those were obviously incredibly impressive performances.
No, it was his reaction to striking out Juan Uribe with the bases loaded in Game Two of the NLCS — this very moment. (Click the photo for the video.)
Now, I’m sure the very Carpenteresqueness of that reaction did it, combined with the fact the kid doesn’t make a habit of that kind of thing. Plus it was just the composure he showed throughout that inning as things weren’t necessarily going well and it was the tightest of tight circumstances where there was no room for mistakes.
But those fist pumps, that scream did it. Yep, right there, my new Cardinal. No surprise that he was the subject of my first Cardinal Love Letter after the World Series ended.
Which is why yesterday and the chance to see him make his spring debut was so exciting. Of course the results don’t matter, and the umpire was undergoing his own little spring training of trying to find the strike zone, but it was great to see him work his way through a long first inning and a very efficient part of the second.
Even better is reading how down-to-earth he is, with comments like this after he the game:
“I feel like I still have to make an impression,” Wacha said after his 1 2/3-inning start. “I’m still trying to win a job right now. I’m still going out there trying to make a good impression and trying to get guys out.”
Later informed of Wacha’s answer, manager Mike Matheny grinned.
“Exactly the right answer,” he said. “We should probably put that on a poster out there. Or a T-shirt.”
One of the things I admired most about Chris Carpenter was his intensity, that crazy determination that propelled him back from injury after injury even when having body parts removed. Which is why reading this quote from Derek Lilliquist in Bernie Miklasz’s column made me realize Michael Wacha as my choice for new favorite Cardinal is a good one:
“He’s a driven animal,” Cards pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my short span as a coach in baseball. It’s crazy to watch. He’s a special player as far as upstairs, what he has going for him mentally. And I think he can handle the expectations.”
I’m not sure I’ll go so far as to buy this t-shirt, but I am looking forward to the season ahead and watching what a full season of Wacha Wacha Wacha can bring.
And it feels good to have a worthy new Cardinal favorite too — and to know what jersey I’ll be buying in the next year or so.
Christine Coleman is the lead writer for Aaron Miles’ Fastball. Follow her on Twitter, @CColeman802, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Also follow @AMilesFastball for the latest updates and like us on Facebook if you don’t already.