ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- As rainy skies gave way to sunshine and Busch Stadium stirred to life for the first time this season, Michael Wacha prepared himself for his second start of the year.
The 24-year-old, who just last season won 17 games, was coming off an ugly start in Pittsburgh that lasted just 4.1 innings and saw him surrender 10 hits and four earned runs. That outing was reminiscent of his tumultuous spring, which saw him struggle to control his fastball and effectively use his secondary pitches.
So though it was only the seventh game of the season, Monday’s home opener against the Brewers was a crucial opportunity for Wacha to find a foothold and reassert himself as a dominant presence on the mound.
“I was just trying to limit my mistakes today,” he said. “I made too many mistakes last week and I was just trying to stay under control and go pitch by pitch.”
Wacha did what a good pitcher is supposed to do against soft competition, and eviscerated the Milwaukee lineup for six innings. He struck out seven and allowed four hits, and most important, kept his fastball down in the zone from the start of the game.
“He and Derek Lilliquist and Yadi, after he got out of that first inning, were focusing on establishing the bottom of the zone again,” Mike Matheny said. “It just makes sense every time he gets out there and finds the fastball at the bottom, you’re seeing better changeups, different reactions to the hook.”
Because of his delivery, Wacha’s fastball looks like it’s racing down a hill toward the hitter. It’s hard and heavy, and since his secondary pitches- especially his changeup- are indistinguishable from his fastball coming out of his hand, hitters have to play a rapid-fire guessing game if everything is going for strikes.
His high release point makes judging low pitches a near impossibility at the plate, so if Wacha can get strikes low in the zone, hitters are at his mercy.
“Because his release point is so high, it looks different than a lot of other pitchers. We’ve talked about that since the first time we saw him in spring training throw a live session. Hitters were reacting- we were telling them it was a strike in the bottom of the zone, and they were swearing it was low. It’s a deceptive look because he has such angle on the ball.”
The numbers bore that out Monday, as six of the seven strikeouts were looking. He froze Keon Broxton with a cutter in the third, Chris Carter with a curveball in the fourth, got three straight looking strikeouts on his fastball in the fifth, and got Domingo Santana to stare down another heater in the sixth. Santana was also the only swinging strikeout, when he got way out ahead of a changeup in the game’s first at bat.
It was the perfect demonstration of what Wacha can do once his fastball is properly calibrated, and a performance the Cardinals expect to see repeated this season.
“This is the Wacha we've seen in previous years,” said Randal Grichuk, who watched Wacha work low all day from center field. “We know we're going to get a good quality start from him. He showed it today. I think Pittsburgh was a fluke and this is what we'll see throughout the year.”
Wacha lines up to draw the Reds in his next start, which is scheduled for 1:15 on Sunday.