ST. LOUIS — The great circle of baseball life spun around one more time Saturday and deposited Michael Wacha on the mound at Busch Stadium, its diamond bisected by shadows in the late-afternoon sun. Two years ago this month, the St. Louis Cardinals won a World Series, then bid adieu to their superstar, Albert Pujols. The compensation for him was a draft pick, the 18th overall selection in the 2012 draft. The kid they picked was Michael Wacha.
In Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, Wacha was to pitching as Pujols at one time was to hitting — better than anyone else on the field, as good as anyone in the game, an object of awe. On a splendid fall day, the 22-year-old rookie outpitched Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw in a 1-0 victory, giving the Cardinals a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
The Dodgers’ biggest advantage in the series was thought to be the front end of their rotation, the one-two punch of Zack Greinke and Kershaw, a pair of former Cy Young winners who went a combined 31-13 this season. But on successive days, the Cardinals neutralized each of them by sending to the mound a pair of rookies, Joe Kelly and Wacha, who pitched as if they were their equals — and very well may be.
“He pitched better than I did, and they won,” Kershaw said of Wacha. “He was impressive.”
After a travel day Sunday, the series shifts to Dodger Stadium, where Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright will start against the Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu on Monday night.
Jon Jay’s fifth-inning sacrifice fly off Kershaw stood up as the only run of the game, as the Cardinals’ bullpen — like their rotation, populated largely by rookies — carried home the slim lead. Closer Trevor Rosenthal, the hardest throwing of these youngsters, struck out the side in the ninth for the save, his last three pitches to pinch-hitter Andre Ethier clocking in at 98, 101 and 98 mph.
At the start of the 2012 season, around the time the Cardinals were raising the World Series title banner at Busch Stadium, Wacha was still pitching for Texas A&M University. When the Cardinals opened their 2013 season, he was down the road at Class AAA Memphis. Saturday marked only the 11th major league start of his career, the Cardinals wisely saving some of his innings for October.
Facing an injury-depleted Dodgers starting lineup that was without three of its top run-producers — Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez and Ethier — Wacha delivered 62 / 3 scoreless innings, striking out eight. This comes on the heels of two near no-hitters — one against Washington in his regular-season finale, the other against Pittsburgh in the NL Division Series. In 14 innings this postseason, he has allowed six hits, three walks and one run while striking out 17.
He is already a star. He seems destined for something greater.
“Incredible,” Cardinals right fielder Carlos Beltran said of Wacha’s performance.
Wacha faced only one significant threat, that coming in the sixth, when a pair of singles and a throwing error by second baseman Matt Carpenter put runners on second and third with no outs. But after Wacha got Mark Ellis to pop up for the first out, the Cardinals walked Adrian Gonzalez intentionally, and Wacha struck out Yasiel Puig and Juan Uribe to end the inning.
“It comes down to a young pitcher being put on the big stage in high leverage and making pitches,” Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny said.
When Matheny finally came to the mound to pull Wacha with two outs in the seventh, catcher Yadier Molina gave the kid a quick hug on the mound, and the crowd rose to its feet to salute him as he made his way off the field.
For the Dodgers, Saturday’s loss can hardly be pinned on Kershaw. He delivered six exquisite innings, allowing only the unearned run in the fifth, when Jay’s sacrifice fly to left scored David Freese from third.
Freese had led off the fifth by lashing an errant curveball into the left field corner for a double, then moved to third on a passed ball by Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis. With one out, and desperation starting to set in, the Cardinals attempted a suicide squeeze with Jay at the plate and a 1-1 count, only to see Jay foul back his bunt attempt.
But on the next pitch, Jay, swinging away with two strikes, lifted a flyball to left field, plenty deep enough — given the weak arm of Dodgers left fielder Carl Crawford.
Don Mattingly, the Dodgers’ embattled manager, lifted Kershaw for a pinch hitter in the seventh after only 72 pitches. But the pinch hitter, Michael Young, flied out meekly to right field, stranding the potential tying run at third and dropping the Dodgers’ batting average with runners in scoring position in this series to .063 (1 for 16).
“We put ourselves in this situation,” Gonzalez said, “by not coming through.”
What is left of the Dodgers’ lineup looks lost and befuddled — nobody more so than Puig, the Cuban phenom who is 0 for 10 with six strikeouts in the series. There have been 22 innings played in this series — including 13 on Friday night — and the Dodgers have scored in exactly one of them.
In the years to come, there are sure to be plenty of lineups undone by Michael Wacha, plenty of 0-fers against him and perhaps plenty of hardware accumulating on his mantle. But for the Dodgers, halfway to the end of their season, that is of little consolation.