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Cardinals rookie Wacha handles PNC Park pressure in gem

| Monday, Oct. 7, 2013, 8:51 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha delivers during the fourth inning against the Pirates on Monday, Oct. 7, 2013, in Game 4 of the National League Division Series at PNC Park.

During the pregame pitchers' meeting Monday in the depths of PNC Park, Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist asked Michael Wacha about the toughest environment he ever pitched in.

Several hours before the biggest start of his life, the 22-year-old Wacha reflected and said it was his start in the 2011 Tallahassee, Fla., NCAA Super Regional. Wacha described that as “hostile” but it was nothing like the 40,000 clad in black chanting his surname he encountered Monday.

Wacha helped pitch Texas A&M to the College World Series a little over two years ago, and he forced a deciding NLDS Game 5 on Wednesday in St. Louis, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning in 2-1 victory over the Pirates.

“I just tried to use (the crowd) in my favor,” Wacha said. “It kind of gives me adrenaline.”

The outing came after the rookie took a no-hitter into the ninth inning in his last appearance against the Nationals.

“I was like, this guy's going to get a no-hitter in the postseason,” teammate Carlos Beltran said. “That's unbelievable.”

Pirates second baseman Neil Walker said it was like facing Reds ace Mat Latos, only “with a better changeup.” The right-hander struck out Walker twice swinging on changeups. Four of his nine strikeouts came via the changeup, which has velocity separation and screwball movement. It plays off a mid-90s fastball. Wacha uses his 6-foot-6 frame to create downhill fastball plane and froze Andrew McCutchen with a pinpoint 95 mph pitch in the first.

Wacha didn't allow a baserunner until he walked Martin to begin the sixth, and he didn't allow a hit until Pedro Alvarez homered in the eighth.

Nearly as amazing as Wacha's start is that he is a Cardinal at all. He slipped to the 19th pick of the 2012 draft, a compensation pick for the Cardinals losing first baseman Albert Pujols. He was selected 11 places after the Pirates drafted Mark Appel, who went unsigned.

Wacha is yet another example of the Cardinals' uncanny ability to draft and develop amateur talent under general manager John Mozeliak.

“In April I start to get prospect updates, and Wacha's name came up and I was originally told, ‘He won't be there,' ” Mozeliak said. “Each week we got closer to the draft I was told, ‘He may be slipping.' ”

Wacha overpowered minor league competition late last season, and this spring training he was even better. Wacha allowed one run over 24 23 innings in Florida.

“I think he was the best pitcher in spring training, anywhere. He was incredible,” Game 5 starter Adam Wainwright said. “His delivery is so unique, and his arm slot is very high. It comes in from a different angle. It's very steep and hard to square up. But with that great delivery and great stuff, he has great makeup. He's not scared of anything.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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