PITTSBURGH — Once would have been enough. In late September, with a division title already wrapped up, Michael Wacha took a no-hitter through six innings, then seven, then eight, a heady notion for any 22-year-old. That it was broken up by a lightly struck chopper that glanced off Wacha’s own glove — an infield single by the Washington Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman with two outs in the bottom of the ninth on Sept. 24 — made the whole affair more tantalizing. Look what this rookie right-hander for the St. Louis Cardinals could do in his ninth major league start. What might he do in his 10th?
It took two weeks for that opportunity to come, but Wacha nearly upstaged himself on Monday afternoon. “The guy’s flirting with a no-hitter every time out,” Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright said, and he was only half-kidding.
With St. Louis’s season in the balance, Wacha delivered the most dominant performance of this postseason to date, carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning, striking out nine and delivering a 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates in Game 4 of their National League Division Series. The one-hitter — finished off by relievers Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal — took the spotlight away from this city and its rejuvenated love of baseball and put it back on the Cardinals, who reappear every October and seem to stave off elimination, cockroach-style.
“We did a lot of gushing about him before we even got him out there today, and I think everybody can see why,” Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny said. “I don’t know if you can put a kid in a tougher spot.”
Certainly, a kid could scarcely deliver in more resounding fashion. Wainwright, at 32, is the old man of this staff, and he will get the ball Wednesday in St. Louis for a decisive Game 5, when he will face Pirates rookie Gerrit Cole.
But it is only so because Wacha amped his four-seam fastball up to 97 mph, dialed a curveball back in the mid-70s, all with a change-up he also threw for strikes. His first time through the Pirates — the first time he had pitched in a game since that no-hit bid against the Nationals — he got two strikeouts looking, three strikeouts swinging, three weak popups and a routine groundball. Nothing close to a hit.
The crowd of 40,493 tried to rattle him — as they had Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto in a wild-card game last week — with long, slow, deliberate chants of “Wa-cha! Wa-cha!” But what was there to mock? His unhittable fastball? His no-chance-at-it change-up? Besides, the kid heard the chants — and embraced them.
“I kind of like it,” Wacha said. “It kind of gives me adrenaline.”
Still, Pirates right-hander Charlie Morton, also making his first postseason appearance, matched Wacha through five, allowing only two singles and two walks. “I think the cowboys say he drew a tough bull today,” Pirates Manager Clint Hurdle said.
Morton issued a leadoff walk to the relentless Carlos Beltran in the sixth, and Matt Holliday followed by crushing a 2-2 sinker over the center field wall. The largest gathering in PNC Park history fell silent as one. It was 2-0, but with Wacha in control, hope seemed in short supply.
“I always believe this team can win,” Pirates right fielder Marlon Byrd said.
A reasonable thought, given the Pirates’ ride here through a renaissance season. But Wacha all but took such belief and muzzled it. His first walk came to Russell Martin leading off the sixth. There have been two no-hitters in postseason history, Don Larsen in 1956 and Roy Halladay in 2010. Another certainly seemed possible.
“You’re trying not to talk about it,” Rosenthal said. “You try to just go about it like it’s any other game.”
How to do that when it’s not? Wacha struck out Byrd for the third time to start the eighth, and then faced Pedro Alvarez, who tied for the NL lead in home runs. With the count 3-1, he threw a 93-mph fastball, and Alvarez got it, a mammoth solo shot to right-center that erased the no-hitter, cut the lead in half, and turned the crowd back on.
“My ears are still ringing,” Matheny said.
In the end, though, there was silence. Even after Wacha walked Russell Martin and Matheny came and got him, the manager was able to hand the ball over to Martinez, who also happens to be 22, who also happens to throw 96 mph. After Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina gunned down pinch-runner Josh Harrison on a botched hit-and-run, Martinez struck out pinch-hitter Jose Tabata to end the eighth.
And that left it to Rosenthal, at 23 the grizzled representative of the Cardinals’ Game 4 staff. There were some anxious moments — four straight balls to Neil Walker, falling behind 3-0 to Andrew McCutchen. But the Cardinals, they are equipped for this.
“There’s a very strong, core, veteran component of this team,” General Manager John Mozeliak said. “But we also have a bright, fresh, dynamic group of young arms, and we’re seeing them right now.”
When Rosenthal fought back and got McCutchen to pop up a 96-mph fastball, the display was complete. St. Louis’s flamethrowing 20-somethings, each barely old enough to order a beer and swap stories about their experiences, kept the season alive, with the prospect of Game 5 absolutely alluring.