College : : Story
Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Wacha's rise anything but surprising

Kendall Rogers        

MORE: Michael Wacha scouting profile from college | Texas A&M fall notebook (CBT)

DID YOU KNOW? Michael Wacha isn't the only tie Rob Childress has to the World Series. Cardinals pitcher Shelby Miller was a Texas A&M signee, and opted to sign with the Cardinals as the 19th pick in the 2009 MLB draft (same pick as Wacha). Meanwhile, Boston third baseman Will Middlebrooks, also an A&M signee, elected to sign with the Red Sox as a fifth-round pick in the 2007 MLB draft.


It didn’t take long for Texas A&M head coach Rob Childress to figure out right-handed pitcher Michael Wacha was going to be special in college, with a chance to do big things at the professional level.

So, when people wonder if Childress and the Aggies are surprised that Wacha, only 22, is well on his way to the history book of all baseball history books after winning the National League Championship Series MVP award, they’re not. If anything, Childress believes there’s even more left in the tank.

“You know, that changeup of his has always been his pitch, both to left-handed and right-handed hitters, and he has plus fastball command to go with it,” Childress said. “He just continues to develop and grow, and his velocity continues to increase. Most importantly, he’s starting to believe he belongs there.”

While the St. Louis Cardinals have had several key cogs rise to the occasion on the road to the World Series, such as hot-hitting Carlos Beltran, Wacha’s story has taken the nation by storm. Drafted as the 19th overall pick in the 2012 MLB Amateur Draft, the talented right-handed pitcher from Texarkana, Texas, has evolved from a little known rookie pitcher to a fan favorite at Busch Stadium.

Many young pitchers would be overwhelmed by what has transpired in Wacha’s young baseball career over the past few months, but not the Northeast Texas native. Unlike many players who now find themselves in the big leagues, Wacha wasn’t a glamorous prospect out of high school. He was an upper-80s pitcher his junior year at Texarkana, Texas (Pleasant Grove). As a high school senior, Wacha showed some signs of evolving into an elite arm, sitting low-90s late in his senior season and into the summer. However, given his location in the State of Texas and late nature of his progressions, he went undrafted the summer of 2009, thus setting his sights on becoming a star pitcher at Texas A&M University.

From there, it didn’t take the 6-foot-6, 195-pounder long to make an impression on Childress and the A&M coaching staff. The progressions he made during the summer were more than evident just a few weeks into fall workouts as a freshman.

“I really felt great about him the fall of his freshman year. We went through that fall, we got into our bullpens, and he just had great aptitude and was eager to make changes,” Childress said. “We didn’t have to go revisit those changes at all. He just has incredible aptitude, and that’s something that will always stand out about him.”

Wacha put together very consistent freshman and sophomore campaigns for the Aggies, tallying a 2.90 ERA with 97 strikeouts and 22 walks as a freshman, while as a sophomore, he had a 2.29 ERA with 123 strikeouts and 30 walks. Then, in his money season as a junior, Wacha couldn’t have been much better, tallying a 2.06 ERA in 113 1/3 innings of work, along with 116 strikeouts and 20 walks.

No stage has ever been too big for Wacha. Professional baseball fans are getting a taste of that poise during the MLB postseason, but college fans are well acquainted with Wacha’s maturity. The right-hander made statements in the postseason against Wright State and most importantly, Florida State in the 2011 Tallahassee Super Regional, a win that propelled the Aggies to the College World Series for the first time since 1999.

In that game against one of the nation’s elite college offensive lineups and in one of the country’s toughest venues for opposing teams, Wacha struck out eight and allowed just two runs on three hits in 7 1/3 innings of work, cementing himself in the A&M record books as one of the elite pitchers in program history.

“The big thing about Michael is that in every situation throughout his career, he has shown poise and answered the bell,” he said. “From being a part of a very good baseball program in high school, to coming here and pitching in some of the biggest games in college baseball, to now, he has it. His character far outweighs his baseball talent. When you have someone like that, chances are good they’re destined to have success.

“The one thing I can say about him [Wacha] is that it’s impressive how he’s gone about his business,” he continued. “When he was here [at A&M], he treated everyone in the locker room like he was the last guy on the team. Even now, I’m sure he’s doing the same thing with the Cardinals.”

Though Wacha would never show it, there’s no doubt the past few months have had to be a whirlwind for the rising righty. Wacha showed promise throughout the regular season for the Cardinals, tallying a 2.78 ERA in 64 1/3 innings, along with 65 strikeouts and 19 walks. However, I’m not sure anyone, including Wacha, saw the type of postseason he’s had thus far coming down the pike a month ago.

Astonishing would be the best word to describe his postseason performances. Wacha jumped on the national scene in a big way in Game 4 of the National League Divisional Series against Pittsburgh, when he carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning. Former Vanderbilt third baseman Pedro Alvarez put an end to the no-hit bid with a towering home run to right-center field at PNC Park, but Wacha’a statement already had been made.

Then, against the Dodgers in the NLCS, Wacha once again put on a show. Amazingly, he didn’t allow a run in two starts and 13 2/3 innings of work, an accomplishment that helped him earn MVP honors.

Wacha isn’t a much different overall pitcher than he was in college for the Aggies, but some things have changed. For instance, Wacha typically was 92-95 with his fastball in college, but television radar guns during the playoffs have gotten the righty up to 98 at times. Wacha’s changeup, which was a plus pitch in college, is now even better at the big league level.

Childress believes the difference for Wacha now and moving forward in his professional career is the development of his curveball, which has become an effective pitch.

“His curveball continues to improve with each outing. It’s getting from the standpoint that he’s not just using it to steal strikes, he’s using it to put guys away at times,” he said. “He’s using that pitch more and more, and for me, that’s the thing that’s going to allow him to continue like he is now. That third pitch is going to be the key moving forward.”

Wacha, a former Perfect Game College All-American, will start Game 2 of the World Series against Boston, with the Red Sox going with veteran John Lackey.

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