Can This Aggie Save the Cards (Again)?
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(Andrew Woolley/Four Seam Images via AP Images)
“Michael Baseball”: it’s not a thing that’s going to happen.
But after losing to the Boston Red Sox 8-1 in Game 1 of the World Series Wednesday, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Game 2 hopes rest on the arm of 21-year-old Aggie Michael Wacha.
Which means the Texarkana native, who was still pitching for A&M as recently as May 2012, merely has to keep on doing what he’s doing. There’s a reason that the kid already has a milkshake named for him.
“For a pitcher of any age, it was one of the most dominant playoff series performances since the league championship series was introduced in 1969,” Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News wrote of Wacha’s NLCS efforts against the Los Angeles Dodgers, which earned him MVP honors:
Only four other pitchers had started twice in a series and not allowed a run. Of that group, only Oakland’s John “Blue Moon” Odom (.136), in 1972, had a lower opponents’ on-base percentage than Wacha’s .184.
Even that is close to business-as-usual for Wacha. In his past eight starts overall, as Matt Snyder of CBS Sports noted:
He’s gone 5-1 with a 1.20 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 50 strikeouts in 52 1/3 innings. That’s including three playoff games in which he’s only allowed one run — a solo homer by Pedro Alvarez, and there’s no shame in that — while also beating Clayton Kershaw twice in the same series. He’s twice flirted with no-hitters and has been nearly unhittable for the past four starts.
Wacha was taken in the first-round of the 2012 draft by St. Louis; in a poetic bit of symmetry, the pick itself, number nineteen, was compensation for the Cardinals’ losing Albert Pujols as a free agent to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (sadly for Rangers fans, that meant settling for the Angels’ second-round pick as compensation for losing C.J. Wilson).
Coming off the 2012 college season, Wacha pitched just eighteen innings for the Cardinals in the minors, but at three different levels (Rookie, A and AA), putting him in AAA to start the 2013 season.
That level couldn’t hold him either. Wacha got called up the majors this past May, making three starts, and then, wrote Molly Knight of ESPN, “was sent back down to the minors two weeks later. He didn’t rejoin the big club for good until August 10, and didn’t solidify his spot in St. Louis’ postseason rotation until mid-September.”
But according to Thomas Harding of MLB.com, that was somewhat by design: a cautious, prescient scheme to make sure Wacha’s still-young arm could be a weapon for the games that really mattered:
After calling him up for three starts in late May and early June, the organization liked him so much they it took the unusual step of returning him to Memphis and limit him to four starts in a two-month period. An arm like Wacha’s, the Cards figured, should be limited during the regular season so it could be of use in the postseason.
This stands in contrast to the Washington Nationals’ controversial use of Stephen Strasburg last year. Still, on August 7, Wacha remained so below-the-radar that he was not mentioned in an article ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick wrote on this very topic (his Cardinals teammate, Brownwood’s Shelby Miller, was instead).
The presence of Wacha and another Texarkana native, Red Sox third-baseman Will Middlebrooks, prompted Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times to point out that the northeast Texas town of 37,000 is as well-represented in this World Series as baseball hotbed the Dominican Republic, an entire country of around ten million people.
“It’s just kind of a miracle,” Texarkana Mayor Bob Bruggeman told him.
Wacha pitched for Pleasant Grove High School, where, according to the DMN‘s Grant, he was so good as a junior that coach Craig Jones “shoved aside his normal playoff strategy of choosing best-of-3 game series:
He opted instead for one-game showdowns. Wacha pitched the Hawks all the way to the Class 3A state championship game. As a senior, despite pitching with a hamstring injury that impacted his velocity and left him fairly unattractive to scouts and colleges alike, Wacha pitched Pleasant Grove to the state semis. His presence and the ability to “dream a little” convinced [Aggies baseball coach Rob] Childress he’d blossom at A&M.
Childress told Richard Croome of the Bryan-College Station Eagle, “you’re No. 11 or No. 12,” referring to the amount of interviews he’s done about his former player in the past few days.
“I’m not really surprised about what Michael Wacha is able to do,” Childress told TexAgs’ Gabe Bock earlier this month. “It was an honor to coach him.”
Just like in the NLCS, Wacha will be matched up with another another Texas pitcher. The Dodgers’ Kershaw is from Highland Park, while 35-year year-old Red Sox Game 2 starter John Lackey is from Abilene.
It wasn’t that long ago that Lackey was the Michael Wacha of his day, as Zach Schonbrun of the New York Times noted. At 24, he “became the first rookie in 93 years to win Game 7 of a World Series.”
Now, about that milkshake. You can’t really read a Game 2 World Series notebook piece today without learning about it. But you really have to take in the full transcript of Wednesday’s pre-game press conference to do it justice–both Wacha’s befuddlement, and the tenaciousness with which the baseball press teased out all the details:
Q. I wondered if and how much just your personal life has changed in the last couple of weeks. Are there a lot more demands on your time? Are you still able to go to McDonald’s or whatever without being recognized or has that changed?
MICHAEL WACHA: It was pretty much the same until after this last start in the NLCS. But, yeah, I went to go eat at just a little restaurant and I had a milkshake named after me, and that was pretty weird. So I had to try that out; it was pretty good. It was in St. Louis. I don’t even know what it was called, I think it was like Annie’s or something. I don’t know what it’s called.
Yeah, that was kind of different. But nothing too much has changed, just a lot more texts and phone calls and stuff. But everything is pretty much the same.
Q. It seems like every time you take the mound the list of accomplishments seems to keep growing. Where is a World Series start going to rank after everything you’ve done this year? And also what was the name of the milkshake?
MICHAEL WACHA: The milkshake name was “Wacha, Wacha”. Never heard that one before (laughter).
This World Series start will definitely be the No. 1, the highest, biggest, most important game that I’ve ever pitched in. Just really looking forward to it. I’ll try to approach it just like any other start. But just real excited about it.
Q. How often have you faced Will Middlebrooks in practice? And while we’re at it, what’s the flavor of Wacha, Wacha?
MICHAEL WACHA: It was like a vanilla. It had some Crackerjacks in it, added a little baseball flair to it. And then there’s some chocolate chips, I guess, in there, too. I can’t really remember everything.
But, yeah, didn’t really face him much. We played on the same team, the same American Legion team. I remember facing him there. But in high school I was on varsity my sophomore year and he was a senior that year, so I was able to pitch against him then. He’s a great player. Everyone looked up to him. He’s a superstar, that’s for sure. And he’s a good guy, too. A good friend.
Even then, it took a bit more digging to confirm the final fact: Rick Hummel of the St Louis Post-Dispatch wrote that “it is believed to be Fozzie’s Sandwich Emporium in Richmond Heights” (something Harding also reported).
And indeed, fans of that restaurant’s Facebook page already knew this on October 19: