When going gets tough, Wacha gets going
Rookie escapes bases-loaded jam in sixth inning of Game 2 vs. Dodgers
ST. LOUIS -- The shadows retreated, the Dodgers advanced and some veteran Cardinals pitchers huddled on the bench in the sixth inning Saturday to see whether young Michael Wacha could wiggle his way out of the most important bases-loaded jam of his budding career.
In the stands, 46,872 fans wondered whether the 22-year-old Wacha had the mettle to hold a 1-0 lead in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series. On the bench, Chris Carpenter mentally walked through Wacha's escape. He guessed it would go infield popup, intentional walk, strikeout, flyout.
"I got two strikeouts instead," Carpenter said. "That made it a little better."
Pitching under a bright sun that befuddled both teams' hitters in the early innings, Wacha took the mound at the start of the sixth with the narrowest possible lead over Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, courtesy of Jon Jay's sacrifice fly the previous half-inning.
Kershaw created traffic with a leadoff single, then he advanced to third when Carl Crawford hit a ground ball to Cards second baseman Matt Carpenter, who made a diving stop but threw wildly past second base.
That put Wacha in a jam, the likes of which he had not experienced since Sept. 19 at Colorado. He surrendered 12 hits and four runs that day in 4 2/3 innings. Five days later, Wacha came within one out of no-hitting the Washington Nationals. In his start after that, he took a no-hit bid into the eighth inning against the Pirates in Game 4 of the NL Division Series.
"You know he's not afraid of the situation," Chris Carpenter said. "He's going to pitch."
Just as Carpenter predicted, Wacha regained control of the situation by inducing an infield popout, jamming Mark Ellis on a 94-mph fastball which Matt Carpenter camped under.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny then opted to intentionally walk left-handed-hitting first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, the Dodgers' RBI leader in the regular season, to tangle with Yasiel Puig and Juan Uribe instead.
Was Chris Carpenter surprised to see his team walk the bases loaded with a rookie pitcher on the mound?
"Not with the stuff that we've seen from Michael all year, and the command that he has," Carpenter said. "Not at all."
Matheny explained his call.
"We're taking our chances with a right-handed hitter," Matheny said. "It comes down to a young pitcher being put on the big stage in high leverage and making pitches."
That's precisely what Wacha did. He threw six consecutive fastballs to the struggling Puig, getting ahead, 0-2, then throwing three straight balls to push the count full. After a visit from catcher Yadier Molina, Wacha fired another low fastball and Puig whiffed for the second out of the inning. He struck out four times in Game 2 and is 0-for-10 with six strikeouts in the NLCS.
Uribe went down swinging, too -- again on all fastballs -- and Wacha's escape was complete.
"I was just trying to get locked in with Yadier back there," Wacha said. "We took some time in between batters, a lot of mound visits, just to make sure we were on the same page. I was pretty pumped up after I got a couple strikeouts there to end the inning and keep our team in the lead."
That was obvious by his fist pump. Molina appeared even more excited.
On the bench, Chris Carpenter & Co. exhaled.
"He has the ability to block everything out," Carpenter said of Wacha. "You watch the excitement of what he's doing, the poise. His talent is there, and you watch the mound presence during the game. He's been fantastic."
Veteran pitcher Jake Westbrook offered the same scouting report: "He has the ability to block everything out."
"Not only pitching in a high-pressure game, but pitching in a high-pressure situation," Westbrook said. "He wasn't fazed. That's a testament to Yadi feeling him out and keeping him calm. … That's an unbelievable feeling. They had second and third, no outs, and you feel like momentum is on their side. What [Wacha] did, it shifted the momentum back to us."
The Dodgers are 1-for-16 with runners in scoring position so far in the series, which continues on Monday at 7 p.m. CT (watch on TBS) with Game 3 at Dodger Stadium.
"We just can't get the run in," catcher A.J. Ellis said. "I think you've got to give a lot of credit to their guys, but at the same time, we maybe need to simplify things a little more."
"The way this kid has gone about it has been -- it's really hard to describe," Matheny said. "I don't want to keep describing it, because I'd like to watch it happen a few more times. But he's going about it the right way, there is no question. Just watching him continue to improve is pretty impressive."
"The ceiling is as high as he wants it to go," Chris Carpenter said. "It's going to depend on health and continuing to learn."