Saturday, October 18, 2014

October 18, 2013 - NLCS MVP Wacha Leads Cards to World Series

Friday, October 18, 2013 - Game 6 - NLCS vs LA Dodgers at Busch Stadium III - Attendance:  46,899 - Starting Pitchers:  Michael Wacha vs Clayton Kershaw

It was one of the most highly anticipated pitching match-ups in postseason history.  The best left-handed pitcher in major league baseball vs the twenty-two year old rookie phenom.  In the end, the Dodgers' ace southpaw - Clayton Kershaw - would be knocked out of the game after four innings -  allowing seven runs on ten hits.

Meanwhile, Michael Wacha would continue his amazing postseason dominance - allowing just two hits, one walk and nary a run in seven innings pitched - striking out five - as the Cardinals advanced to the World Series in a 9-0 cake-walk over the Dodgers.

It wasn't supposed to be this easy.  But the combination of great pitching and a relentless offensive attack on an arm-weary opponent created the perfect storm:  the Cardinals' fourth trip to the Fall Classic in the last ten seasons.

Not surprisingly, Michael Wacha, with his third straight postseason win and impeccable 0.43 ERA in league championship play was voted NLCS MVP for 2013.  Almost overnight, this unassuming but highly talented young feller from Texas - with a blazing fastball and baffling change-up - had become a national celebrity.  In an age where player's nicknames are often chopped-up-hip-hop versions of their first and last names - A-Rod, A-Gon or Mad-Bum - Michael Wacha is now whimsically referred to as "Wacha-Wacha-Wacha".   Much better than Mich-Wach or Wach-Three, don't you think?

With the Dodgers already trailing three games to one in this best-of-seven showdown, manager Don Mattingly really had no choice but to gamble on using his best pitcher on short rest.  For the first two innings, the strategy had at least kept his team in the game - a scoreless tie.

However, things unraveled for Kershaw and the Dodgers in the home half of the third.  The inning began harmlessly enough when Wacha grounded out.  However, a tenacious Matt Carpenter fouled off a half-dozen pitches before finally ripping a two-ball-two-strike pitch down the right field line for a fist-pumping double.

With that, the Cardinals were on their way to a five-hit-four-run inning which essentially sealed the deal.  Carlos Beltran followed Carpenter's double with an RBI single - advancing to second on the throw home.  After Matt Holliday looked at a called third strike, it appeared Kershaw might be able to keep the damage at a minimum.  Not tonight.  Yadier Molina scored Beltran with a base hit to right - then advanced to second on a David Freese single to center.

Next up - 2014's NLDS hero, Matt Adams - walked, to load the bases.  Shane Robinson drove in Molina and Freese with another base hit to right, to give St Louis a 4-0 lead.  The last batter in the inning - Michael Wacha - in his second plate appearance in the third - struck out.

After Wacha carved up the Dodgers' lineup in the fourth, a weary and ineffective Kershaw tried his luck again in the bottom half - to no avail.  Molina ripped a single to right, then advanced to second on right fielder Yasiel Puig's lackadaisical error.  Freese moved Molina to third with a single to left field - then Adams delivered the knock-out punch to Kershaw with an opposite-field double to left - scoring Molina, as Freese held up at third.

At that point, Kershaw was relieved of his duties, with the Dodgers in a 5-0 hole.  The two runners on base were his responsibility - and both would later come in to score as well.  The Redbirds pecked away for a couple more runs - stopping at nine.

After Wacha's brilliant seven-inning outing concluded, Carlos Martinez (two strikeouts) and Trevor Rosenthal (one strikeout) combined for two perfect innings to send the Cardinals to another World Series showdown with the Boston Red Sox.

Unfortunately, the postseason magic wore off for Wacha and the Cardinals in Game Six of the World Series.  Arm troubles added to Wacha's misery in 2014.  Although he had recovered in time to pitch some moderately effective innings at the end of the regular season, he was clearly far from where he was a year ago.

Still, manager Mike Matheny called on Wacha to pitch in a no-win ninth-inning situation against the Giants in Game Five of the NLCS.  He hadn't pitched in nearly three weeks.  Even then, he struggled with his command early in the game - allowing two first-inning runs to a weak Arizona Diamondbacks team.  Could anyone really expect Wacha to survive one inning against a team that knew how to win?  Aside from manager Mike Matheny?

Fortunately, Wacha is still quite young, and with good health, can be a dominant major league pitcher again.  Fundamentally, the Cardinals are still a very good team, and should be good enough to reach the postseason again next year.

Time will tell.  Obviously, one year - or 363 days - can bring about much change in the fate of any player - or team - in the game.

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