It might have been during the 66-minute rain delay or after one of the eight strikeouts Texas A&M's ace Michael Wacha wrung from 11th-ranked Cal-State Fullerton, but at one point during that March 9, 2012 game a chief talent evaluator for the Cardinals leaned over to a Milwaukee scout with a confession.
Matt Slater, director of player of personnel, didn't know why he was there. Wacha wasn't going to last until the Cardinals' pick at No. 19. No chance, Slater said.
Although they scouted every one of his starts that junior season, several Cardinals' officials felt the same up until the moment Wacha did.
The eighth pitcher selected in the first round of the 2012 draft starts Friday night's Game 6 of the National League championship series with a World Series berth there for the taking -- less than 17 months after his final collegiate pitch. The Cardinals lead the best-of-seven series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, three-gamers-to-two, but as the NLCS returns to Busch Stadium LA has the matchup it plotted. Looking to force a Game 7 is ace Clayton Kershaw, the favorite for this year's NL Cy Young Award. It is a rematch of Game 2, and in that duel it was the pitcher the Cardinals didn't think they'd get who got the win he wasn't expected to.
"We're glad we got who we got," general manager John Mozeliak said. "But let me preface that by saying, I didn't know we had this. We identified the player we wanted and got him. But to see what he's doing a year removed from college is, I think, amazing."
Los Angeles capitalized on the Cardinals' shoddy defense in Game 3 and their lack of timely punch in Game 5 to force the series back to St. Louis. It the second consecutive October the Cardinals have a 3-1 lead in the NLCS and failed to clinch the pennant in Game 5. This is the third time since 1996 that the Cardinals have had a 3-1 lead in the NLCS, and the previous times they lost the series in seven games. In 1996, it was to Atlanta. And last fall, San Francisco.
The Cardinals are 0-7 in NLCS games after they've taken a 3-1 lead.
"Those things will creep in their heads over there," Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez told reporters after hitting two homers in Game 5.
The only starter in the Cardinals' rotation without scar tissue from last year's October is Wacha, who watched last year's playoffs on TV. In his postseason debut, all Wacha did was stave off the Cardinals' elimination in the NL division series against Pittsburgh with 7 1/3 no-hit innings. For an encore, he matched Kershaw through 6 2/3 innings in Game 2 to become the first rookie to defeat Cy Young winner in a championship series since 2006. The lone run in that game, a Cardinals' 1-0 win, scored on a sacrifice fly and was unearned against Kershaw.
When the Cardinals say they didn't expect this from Wacha, they mean this soon. The initial scouting report filed with the team by area scout Ralph Garr Jr. said Wacha could "project as future top-of-the-rotation guy." Others, including director of scouting Dan Kantrovitz, concurred. During spring training, Yadier Molina said Wacha was ready then to pitch in the majors. Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist predicted he "will make an impact" on this year's team. Ace Adam Wainwright suggested that Wacha had the ability to be one of those rare pitchers team's dreaded to face.
"From the mound you can tell what kind of composure, what kind of inner confidence he has," Wainwright described. "There are a lot of times that a hitter can look at a pitcher and feel like they're completely defeated because the pitcher is bulldoggish, has that mean-fire streak to him. Other times a hitter can look at a pitcher and sense weakness. That's when they strike. So far we've seen just raw confidence."
Wainwright said that in March.
Wacha, 22, made his big-league debut less than a year after his final college start, and he accelerated his learning curve while on the job. A midseason return to the minors allowed him to bank innings for October and work on a curveball he's utilized in it. In the second half of the season, Wacha faced the same opponent as a starter or reliever within eight days three times. Each time, the second time was a scoreless outing. Wacha agreed Thursday, an off day in the series, how the need to alter approaches against the same line was "definitely a change" from college or the minors, where his stuff was enough. This second time against the Dodgers in the series will be the first time in his career he's started consecutive games against the same opponent.
"I've seen some things with him that is pretty exciting to see how he can change and how he's been able to use a couple of his pitches differently in tough counts," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "He's real hard to pattern. And I think that ability to stay flexible like that can help you this time of year."
By contrast, the Cardinals have ample experience against Kershaw, the best lefty in baseball who made big-league debut at 20, vs. the Cardinals. His 3.75 ERA in 12 starts against the Cardinals is the highest of any NL opponent. Including this series, Kershaw has lost six of his last eight starts against the Cardinals with a 4.85 ERA in 42 2/3 innings. LA has backed him with a grand total of four runs in his three starts vs. the Cardinals this season. Runs had been AWOL from this series until Game 5.
In the 48 innings they've batted in this series, the Cardinals have had at least four hits in a single inning only twice -- both times in Game 5. The Cardinals are hitting .178 in the series, challenging the record-low average for a series winner(Oakland's.183 in 1974). They are the only remaining team in the postseason with an on-base percentage lower than .300, at .270. And the Cardinals' paltry .312 slugging percentage is lower than every remaining team's on-base percentage except Detroit's .311 entering Thursday night's game.
"It just comes down to getting that big hit and that's the one that really eluded us (Wednesday)," Matheny said.
The same drain happened last autumn as the Cardinals' lost three consecutive to the Giants. But while similarities thread through these series, the Cardinals cling to significant differences. In 1996 and 2012, they had to go on the road for games 6 and 7. This year, they're returning home, where they set a Busch III single-season record with 54 wins. And then there's Wacha. The draft pick they doubted they'd get is now the rookie with a chance to do something only one other Cardinals pitcher has.
The Cardinals have won 11 World Series and a total of six NLCS, and only once have they won with a rookie starter in a clinching game. In 1942, 24-year-old Johnny Beazley won Game 5 against the New York Yankees to claim the championship. Wacha has a chance to be the first Cardinal pitcher to win a title clincher in the same year as his debut.
Barely one year removed from the Cardinals chasing him, Wacha will be chasing history in the 12th big-league start of his career.
"Don't ignore and don't deny the excitement, the extra energy," Matheny said. "I think there are some guys who have been able to embrace that and use that to their advantage. I think Michael's one of those that's been able to do it so far. We don't want him to do anything more than what he's already done."
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