(Reuters) - When the St. Louis Cardinals won the 2011 World Series, slugger Albert Pujols was a fundamental part of their success, belting three home runs in Game Three alone.
Pujols left at the end of that season as a free agent but in baseball’s circle of life, his departure allowed for the arrival of rookie hurler Michael Wacha, who might help pitch them to another title.
St. Louis used the draft choice they received as compensation for the Los Angeles Angels signing Pujols to claim Wacha, who has taken the National League by storm.
On Saturday, the 22-year-old posted a 1-0 win in St. Louis that gave the Cards a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Previously, Wacha came within one out of hurling a no-hitter in the regular season finale, and then carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning of his Game Four win over the Pirates in an elimination game in Pittsburgh.
In his last three starts, Wacha has posted a 3-0 mark, pitched 22 and two-thirds innings, given up one earned run, seven hits, five walks and struck out 26.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said Wacha was doing some special things for a man with 11 major league starts.
“It comes down to a young pitcher being put on the big stage in high leverage and making pitches,” Matheny said.
“The way this kid has gone about it is really hard to describe. I’d like to watch it happen a few more times.”
Beyond his impressive complement of fastball, curve and change-up, the pitcher who last year was playing for Texas A&M University has shown remarkable poise.
“We pitched him down the stretch and he gets one out away from a no-hitter with the fans going crazy,” Matheny said about the last regular season game.
“We threw him in Pittsburgh and he continues to answer,” he said about the rookie’s superb performance in Game Four of the Division Series.
“We throw him in the National League Championship Series and he continues to throw the same way. Whatever he’s doing, we don’t want to change anything.”
On Saturday, the slender, 6-foot-6 (1.98m) tall Wacha matched 2011 Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and once he was given a 1-0 lead in the fifth he held on to it for all he was worth, pitching out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the sixth.
After a throwing error by second baseman Matt Carpenter gave the Dodgers men at second and third with no out, Wacha got Mark Ellis to pop out. After an intentional walk to Adrian Gonzalez, Wacha struck out Yasiel Puig and Juan Uribe to quell the threat.
”I was definitely amped up getting out of that jam,“ said Wacha. ”I haven’t had to pitch out of too many jams like that.
”That was unbelievable. I think my heart is still pumping from that. I think that was the longest inning ever.
”They were stepping out of the box, Yadi (catcher Yadier Molina) was coming out to talk to me about pitch selection.
“It was good to get his perspective on it and just trust in him. It was a lot of fun getting out of that.”
Wacha came out of the game in the seventh inning and let the Cardinals relievers, including three other rookies, shut the Dodgers down the rest of the way.
St. Louis is now set to send 19-game winner Adam Wainwright to the mound to start Game Three against Ryu Hyun-jin when the series resumes in Los Angeles on Monday.
“It’s huge, going to LA up 2-0 instead of 1-1, and having our ace on the mound starting us off in LA,” said Wacha.
“It’s huge confidence for us and hopefully we can just keep it going.”
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York, Editing by Greg Stutchbury