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Cards' rookie Wacha wows again

By Dayn Perry | Baseball Writer

MORE: Game 2 quick hits | Game Ending Audio: Game 2 | Game 2 grades

ST. LOUIS -- After a dominating effort against the Dodgers in Game 2 of the NLCS on Saturday, Cardinals rookie right-hander Michael Wacha has now allowed one run in his last 23 2/3 innings pitched -- a span that includes two playoff starts.

Not counting his postseason excellence, Wacha has posted a 1.72 ERA since being restored to the rotation in early September. Remove his one tough outing at Coors Field, and he's allowed exactly three runs in his last seven starts. That's a level of dominance rare not only for a 22-year-old rookie but also for any frontline pitcher.

Insofar as Saturday's excellence is concerned, Wacha held the Dodgers scoreless over 6 2/3 innings, struck out eight, issued no unintentional walks, forced six ground-outs and spotted 73 of his 112 pitches for strikes.

Digging a little deeper into the Brooks Baseball data, we find that Wacha on Saturday relied primarily on two pitches, as he is wont to do. He fed his four-seamer to the Dodgers 57.1 percent of the time, his changeup 26.8 percent of the time and his curve just 13 times overall. You see, the first two pitches are so good that he can lean that heavily on them.

Wacha also kept shortstop Pete Kozma fairly busy, as Kozma at one point notched three 6-3 putouts in a span of six batters. After Game 2, Kozma said Wacha succeeded by, naturally, keeping the ball down. And it wasn't just the fastball, which has good arm-side movement, particularly for a four-seamer. "He's got that good downward angle," said Kozma of Wacha. "He's got that good curveball, he's got that good change. Everything was just going down."

On the subject of those ground balls, Kozma said he could tell a difference based on the kind of pitch that prompts the grounder. Could he, say, play the field blindfolded, happen upon a ground ball, and be able to tell which Cardinal starter is on the mound based on nothing but feel? He's not sure, but there's unquestionably a difference in the speed coming off the bat. "Like [Jake] Westbrook, who's a sinkerballer, guys are probably going to hit him a little harder just because it has that natural tail, guys are going to get around on it," Kozma said. "But [Adam] Wainwright's got that cutter, so guys are probably going to hit it off the end of the bat a bit more."

Wacha throws neither of those pitches, but his four-seamer, which, as mentioned, bores in on right-handers, has more in common with Westbrook's sinker than with Wainwright's cutter. Perhaps, then, the movement on his fastball leads to harder contact on the ground, as Kozma said of Westbrook's pet pitch. Harder ground-ball contact means easier double plays, provided the fielder ranges to the ball in time. There's good and there's a little bad in either flavor of grounder.

Wacha, though, distinguishes himself in that he's able to get swings and misses while working low in the zone, and, as he did on Saturday against the Dodgers, he's able to touch the high 90s while sitting at 94 or 95. It's a four-seamer that he spots low and that moves, but it's still a four-seamer.

Of course, it's more than just the stuff and the pitch selection. As Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said after Game 2, it's also about Wacha's precocious composure. Said Matheny:

"We pitch him down the stretch. He gets one out away from a no-hitter with the fans going crazy, and we throw him in Pittsburgh and he continues to answer. Throw him in the National League Championship Series, and he continues to throw the same way."

Changing circumstances, mounting pressure, rising stakes, and Wacha just keeps making pitches and getting outs. Is there anything about Wacha that suggests he can't keep it going, even in the crucible of the playoffs?

That's rhetorical. Don't answer. Or, better yet, let Wacha answer for you in Game 6. If there is one.

 
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