Just short of three years ago, in early June of 2009, young Texarkana, Texas, right-hander Michael Wacha developed a condition that would fuel his ambition and motivate him to high levels of achievement in his first two seasons at Texas A&M.
That condition wasn’t career-threatening. In fact, it was career-enhancing. It’s a condition usually referred to as a “chip on your shoulder” and in Wacha’s case it was precipitated by his being snubbed in the 2009 MLB First-Year Player Draft. After sitting through 50 excruciating rounds, Wacha never heard his name called.
“I definitely had a chip on my shoulder,” Wacha said in a telephone conversation with Perfect Game just as A&M was wrapping up its first week of preseason practice early this month. “I felt like I was just as good as, or maybe even better than some of the guys that got drafted, and I definitely used that to go out and just prove everybody wrong.”
After just two seasons working with A&M head coach Rob Childress, it’s safe to say Wacha has proved just about everybody wrong. And in a world of uncertainties this much is certain: Wacha – a Perfect Game Preseason All-American – will not be overlooked in June’s 2012 First-Year Player Draft.
Perfect Game ranks Wacha the No. 17 overall prospect in this year’s draft and No. 7 among the college prospects. All six of those college players ranked ahead of Wacha were drafted previously in either 2009 or 2010, but chose to attend school.
Wacha didn’t have a choice. He graduated from Texarkana’s Pleasant Grove High School, packed his bags and headed for College Station. Childress saw promise in Wacha, a 6-foot-6 right-hander who needed to add weight to his slender frame and add velocity to a fastball that reached the upper 80s.
“When we landed him, we felt like we had a guy who could really develop into a great pitcher in our program,” Childress told PG’s Kendall Rogers late last month. “Once he arrived, he proved to have great aptitude and made the small changes that were necessary.”
Wacha enjoyed a fine high school career and pitched well while playing summer American Legion ball in Texas, and was also a standout basketball player. But he knew he had work to do on the diamond, and he found people who could help with his development as soon as he arrived in College Station.
“Coach Childress is one of the best pitching coaches in the nation and when I came here he immediately began working on my mechanics,” Wacha said. “He worked on my (arm angle) and also on my changeup quite a bit, and that’s one of my ‘out’ pitches now. He’s definitely worked with me in all those bullpens (sessions) and it’s helped me quite a bit.
“And just lifting weights here at Texas A&M – they make that a big priority – and you get stronger and you can go harder and you can last longer into the season. It’s all paid off so far.”
Wacha, now listed at 6-6, 200 pounds, made an immediate impression his freshmen season. He finished 9-2, and his 105 2/3 innings ranked third in the Big 12 Conference and his 2.90 ERA ranked sixth. He helped the Aggies to the Big 12 Tournament championship and its fourth straight appearance in the NCAA tournament.
It was just a precursor to what his sophomore season would bring in 2011.
Wacha was made a second-team All-Big 12 selection and earned All-American accolades after finishing 9-4 with a 2.29 ERA and 123 strikeouts in 129 2/3 innings. The Aggies won both the Big 12 regular season and tournament championships and earned the right to host an NCAA Regional.
They went 4-0 in the conference tournament and 3-1 in the Regional, and advanced to the Super Regional in Tallahassee, Fla., against host Florida State. They took 2-of-3 from the Seminoles and advanced to their first College World Series since 1999, where they were eliminated in two games.
Wacha was at his best in the postseason.
He scattered five hits over eight innings while striking out seven and allowing just one earned run in a 4-1 win over Kansas State in his only start in the Big 12 Conference Tournament. He made two starts in the College Station Regional and pitched a combined 13 scoreless innings, giving up 10 hits while striking out six in wins over Wright State and Arizona.
In his biggest outing of the postseason, Wacha worked 7 1/3 innings of three-hit ball in an 11-2 victory over FSU in the elimination game of the Tallahassee Super Regional.
“I feel like I perform my best when my back’s on the line,” Wacha said. “I felt that way in the regional elimination game and again in Game 3 of the Super Regional. When our backs’ are on the line I definitely want the ball in my hand – I just like it that way.”
He couldn’t hold onto the magic. He started the Aggies’ second game at the CWS, an elimination game against upstart California. Wacha gave up nine hits and four earned runs in 6 2/3 innings and was the losing pitcher in a 7-3 loss. But there were very few regrets.
“It was definitely a great experience but it was also definitely a grind, though, for sure,” Wacha said. “Everybody grinded through it and it was a lot of fun hosting regional here and then going down to Tallahassee and beating Florida State. It was pretty special, that’s for sure.”
Last summer, Wacha was selected to represent his country as a member of the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team.
Texas A&M will play its final baseball season as a member of the Big 12 Conference this spring. The Aggies won four regular season and three conference tournament championships – all since 1998 – while members of the league, but in 2013 will play their first season as a member in the powerhouse Southeastern Conference.
Wacha liked what the Big 12 had to offer just fine.
“I wouldn’t have had it any other way,” Wacha said. “I played against some pretty good competition in the Big 12 … playing the OU’s, Texas and Baylor. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. It was a great experience down here in College Station and I couldn’t have made a better decision.”
The Aggies are a consensus top-10 team in the preseason rankings and are the favorites to repeat as league champions. They open the season Feb. 18 against Illinois-Chicago, the first of 21 straight home games at beautiful Olsen Field.
As much as Wacha likes pitching at Olsen Field, he hopes to make his final start of the season about 830 miles north at Ameritrade Park in Omaha, the home of the College World Series.
“Our expectations are just like everybody else’s – we want to finish the season in Omaha – but you can’t put the cart before the horse,” he said. “Our first goal is to win the Big 12 conference (regular season championship) and then the (Big 12) tournament, and then go on to the regional and super regional and eventually to the College World Series.
“That’s where we want to end our season, and we want to be the last ones standing there,” he continued. “We know that we can’t just fast-forward to the postseason because if we just skip over (the regular season) we’ll end up not hosting a regional, not hosting a Super Regional or anything like that.”
If Wacha does end up pitching in Omaha for the second straight year, he’ll already know how the draft played out. Up until that time, there’s only one thing he can control.
“I really expect to be the top pitcher in the whole nation,” Wacha said with a conviction that was not in any way presumptuous. “I set my standards high and I’m definitely going to work that hard to become that type of pitcher, and I need to work on a few things to do that. I’m pretty good at staying focused on the job at hand. My main focus right now is making it back to the College World Series and winning that.”
After the 2012 season, after the 2012 draft, Wacha will be able to put that snub of three years ago on the shelf for good. And he’ll never look back.
“When I got passed up out of high school, I had that chip on my shoulder where I was going to prove everybody wrong,” he said. “Hopefully I can just keep on doing that.”