JUPITER, Fl. (KMOV.com) -- Michael Wacha continues to look like Michael Wacha. Not the one you’re thinking of; the one whose compromised shoulder marginalized his best pitches and whose fastball drifted ever higher in the zone last season. He looks like Michael Wacha, the unflappable young star who once faced down a raucous PNC Park and out-dueled Clayton Kershaw in the same week of the 2013 postseason.
“He looks like the healthy Michael Wacha. The other guy was just the guy trying to fight through,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said Monday. “We just want to see him get out and compete with his best stuff. That’s always what we hope for him. This game is hard enough as it is.”
Wacha had his best stuff against the Astros Monday. In fact, he had better stuff than he did in that 2013 run. He struck out four, a total notable because each came on a different on pitch.
Despite allowing two runs (his first runs of spring), Wacha’s 59-pitch, five-inning outing was the most thoroughly impressive by a starter thus far. Given the rotation’s ERA in exhibition is 2.17, that’s saying something.
“With what Michael is doing right now, he can compete against anybody,” Matheny said.
Since the first live batting practice sessions, Wacha has looked like a pitcher reborn. His command of his fastball, the keystone upon which he builds his repertoire, has been unwavering. Not only has his velocity been in the mid-90s, he’s worked the lower third of the strike zone with consistency.
“I’m feeling really good and getting good extension on the ball,” Wacha said. “I am able to release it farther out toward the plate, and I feel like I can control the ball right now. I’m real happy with where I’m at, for sure.”
His increased control cascaded into his secondary pitches as well. At the outset of spring games, the 25-year-old identified the need for a more varied bag of tricks. His one-two combo of fastball/changeup has served him well, but MLB hitters are the world’s best puzzle solvers, especially in this data-driven era of the game.
“I like the fastball-changeup, but I also need something else. It’s not just facing guys one time through the lineup. It’s going to be three, four times through,” he said after his outing in West Palm Beach. “I want to give them something that they haven’t seen or a different look, I guess.”
Cut to his fourth start and behold a mission accomplished.
Monday, Wacha tossed a called-third cutter in the first inning and froze another batter on a bending curveball in the second. He blew a fastball by a bat in the third and pulled the string for a whiff in the fourth. It was a masterful mix of pitches, each executed with a conviction previously absent due to compromised health.
“I know it has to feel good. He was working so hard to try to get around something not feeling good, without us knowing. He was just grinding through it and taking the ball,” Matheny said.
Wacha’s post game comments rarely amount to much beyond the standard game review. He has the press routine down to a science; keeping comments short and talking about execution and building off positive results. But for a brief moment Monday, he revealed something more. He’s having fun.
“I’m trying to make the most out of every day. It’s a lot of fun out there, you know? You’re getting to do what you love,” he said.
That sounds more like Michael Wacha. You know the one I’m talking about.