BOSTON – As a star pitcher at Pleasant Grove High School in baseball-minded Texarkana, Texas, Michael Wacha was coach Craig Jones' favorite weapon, and his opponents knew it.
State rules allow the coaches to choose between single-elimination and a best-of-three format in the playoffs, with disagreements decided by a coin flip. Though he usually preferred the mini-series, Jones opted for the one-game playoffs during Wacha's tenure, and he got lucky with the coin flip about six times in a row.
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With Wacha as his ace starter in the winner-take-all games, the Hawks reached the Class 3A state championship game when he was a junior, then the state semifinals as a senior.
"Every game was a pressure-packed, season-ending kind of game,'' said Wacha's father, Tom Wacha, an engineer for International Paper. "I saw a lot there. I saw him really grow up and realized he certainly had another level of ball he could play in.''
Four years later, Michael Wacha finds himself at the game's highest level as the St. Louis Cardinals' best hope for staying alive in the World Series. They enter tonight's Game 6 at Fenway Park trailing the Boston Red Sox 3-2.
It's a tall task for a rookie 17 months out of college, but at 22, Wacha has proven himself an unusually poised performer under the most high-leveraged of circumstances.
He has a 4-0 record with a 1.00 ERA and a .122 opponents batting average in the postseason, quickly ensuring his fame would go beyond that his name evokes the catchphrase of beloved Muppets character Fozzie Bear.
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Fozzie never ran a gauntlet like this.
Wacha earned MVP honors in the National League Championship Series after throwing 13 2/3 scoreless innings and twice outpitching Los Angeles Dodgers ace - and presumed Cy Young Award winner - Clayton Kershaw.
When the Cardinals trailed the Pittsburgh Pirates 2-1 in the Division Series, it was Wacha who threw 7 1/3 no-hit innings in a 2-1 victory at frenzied PNC Park.
When the Cardinals dropped a sloppy World Series opener at intimidating Fenway, it was Wacha who shut out the Red Sox over the first five innings of Game 2 in a 4-2 win.
"Some people are meant for the big moments,'' Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright said. "He's responded really well to them.''
Wacha's journey from untested rookie to postseason sensation traces back to his youth baseball days, with a significant nod to his three years of growth at Texas A&M and a year in the Cardinals' touted minor-league system.
The son of a small-town Iowa couple who moved to Texarkana nearly 20 years ago, Wacha grew up in an athletic family. His younger brother, Lucas, is a redshirt freshman linebacker at Wyoming. Their kid sister, Brette, a sophomore in high school, plays basketball, volleyball and softball. Their mother, Karen, was also a high school athlete.
Tom Wacha, who stands 6-5, coached his three boys in summer baseball – oldest son Charley now lives in Arkansas – and even after settling in northeast Texas, the family dedicated fall Sundays to rooting hard for the Green Bay Packers, a remnant of the allegiance developed by Tom's dad.
Brette, in fact, was named after former Packers icon Brett Favre.
In such a competitive environment, Michael stood out for his ability to remain on an even keel, a trait that's part coaching and part innate personality.
"He always had great composure and mound presence,'' Jones said. "We taught him to work fast and have a bulldog mentality on the mound, not show any weakness to the other team. It wasn't hard to teach him.''
With a fastball in the 84-88 mph range, Wacha was not drafted out of high school, but made an impact right away at Texas A&M, going 9-2 with a 2.90 ERA in his freshman season.
As a sophomore in 2011, Wacha got the win that propelled the Aggies to the College World Series for the first time in 12 seasons, part of a postseason in which he went 3-1 with a 1.80 ERA. In his junior year, he had two postseason starts and went 1-1 with a 1.88 ERA.
"It was so beneficial being able to go to that school and getting an opportunity to play in those games,'' Wacha said. "It's really helped me out now.''
Wacha was the 19th overall pick in the 2012 draft, taken after seven other pitchers because his fastball – which climbed to the mid-90s as he put on weight and got stronger in school – was only complemented by a changeup, with his curveball lagging.
It remains a seldom used third option, but the fastball-changeup combination works in large part because the 6-6 Wacha throws with such a downward plane. That's the result of working with Aggies coach Rob Childress, who had Wacha raise his arm slot to take advantage of his height.
It took Wacha just under a year to reach the majors, and he was sharp in two of three starts in late May and early June before being sent back down to Class AAA Memphis for more seasoning.
The club initially used him as a reliever upon his return in August, but Wacha was so impressive in five September starts – registering a 1.72 ERA and falling one out short of a no-hitter in his last outing – that he made the postseason rotation.
"Michael's stuff is above average, mostly because it's a little different,'' Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "He comes from such a high slot that he's getting a deeper angle on his pitches.''
Wacha also benefits from having all-world catcher Yadier Molina calling the shots behind the plate, which allows him to work fast and concentrate on executing his pitches. Wacha said he has never shaken off Molina.
'Just make my pitches'
In his last start, Wacha stretched his streak of consecutive scoreless innings in the postseason to 18 2/3 – one out short of Bob Gibson's franchise record – until David Ortiz reached him for a two-run homer in the sixth, his final inning.
Wacha earned the win when the Cardinals rallied in the seventh, but the Red Sox's ability to coax four walks out of him and drive his pitch count up to a season-high 114 stands as proof of how formidable a challenge they present, especially at home.
"I'm just going to keep going about my business the way I've been in all my starts this year,'' Wacha said. "Not worry about the crowd, just get locked in with Yadi behind the plate. Just make my pitches.''
With the series returning to Fenway, the Red Sox will have the advantage of familiarity, both with the ballpark's quirks and with Wacha, whom they had never seen until Game 2.
But former Boston third baseman and current MLB Network analyst Mike Lowell said that doesn't mean Wacha should do anything different.
"I think he's going to start the same way, until Boston proves it can hit him,'' Lowell said. "When somebody pitches well, it's up to the hitter to make an adjustment. If the pitcher gets hit around, then he needs to adjust. But Wacha did a great job. Other than one pitch – a high changeup to David Ortiz – they didn't touch him.''
And the stakes are higher now. After claiming back-to-back wins at Busch Stadium, the Red Sox are primed to celebrate clinching a World Series championship on their home turf for the first time since 1918.
It will be up to the rookie who already has a milkshake named after him – the Wacha Wacha – to remain unshakeable. Teammate Matt Carpenter says that's what he expects.
"He's going to be ready to go, he's going to be confident,'' Carpenter said. "The fact we're facing an elimination game on the road is not going to get to him. … He's really earned his stripes, so to speak, with us, so I've got all the confidence in the world.''
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