Neither rain, nor delay, nor pressure, nor glare of October lights keeps Michael Wacha from the usual swift completion of his assigned starts.
The young righty has shown whatever the conditions, he can deliver.
For the third time in as many starts this season, Wacha had an outing complicated by soggy weather and for the third time the second-year starter provided the Cardinals with at least six solid innings and a chance to win.
The lineup backed him and twice rallied for him Sunday to complete a 6-4 victory against the Cubs in front of a sellout crowd of 44,135 at Busch Stadium. The win completes a 4-2 homestand and sends the Cardinals to Milwaukee, where the surging Brewers and their nine consecutive wins await.
Closer Trevor Rosenthal allowed a run to score, and the tying run to reach base, in a listing ninth inning before claiming his fourth save. Matt Carpenter was involved in the Cardinals’ first four runs Sunday, and his sacrifice fly put the Cardinals ahead for good after a 46-minute rain delay in the third inning.
“One of the five starters is always the rain guy,” pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said. “Just deal with it. He doesn’t think much more than one pitch at a time, which is golden.”
If he wanted to, Wacha has had plenty of time to ruminate on every pitch this season, what with a 10-minute delay to his start at the home opener and the 2-hour, 40-minute delay that pushed back his season debut in Cincinnati.
His first major-league start, in May of last season, included the longest delay of the year and forced the game to finish at 3 a.m. St. Louis time. He had two other games that extended to at least 14 innings after he left.
Off to a 2-0 start with a 1.89 ERA, he has been the rainmaker. He’s also been Teflon with distractions. Though he’s made only 17 starts in his career, including the playoffs, he’s pitched in elimination games, in clinchers, in a near no-hitter and at Fenway Park in the World Series.
Minor potholes such as an early homer or game-tying single weren’t going to slow him.
“It’s been crazy with the weather on the days I pitch,” said Wacha, who struck out eight. “You have to accept it, stay focused.”
As they did Saturday against Adam Wainwright, the Cubs came on ready to jump on Wacha’s fastball and tagged him with a homer in the first inning. Anthony Rizzo launched a 94 mph offering into the right-field seats for a quick 2-0 lead. The Cardinals would answer as they did Saturday — with a sustained rally that featured eight players batting in the second inning. Carpenter tied the score with a two-run, two-out single. He stole second base and scored for a 3-2 lead on Kolten Wong’s base hit.
The Cubs answered immediately after the rain delay when Junior Lake singled on an 0-2 pitch and Wacha invited trouble by grazing Mike Olt with a pitch. Lake scored for a 3-3 game on Welington Castillo’s two-out single.
The Cardinals had the lead back before Cubs starter — and former Cardinals righty — Edwin Jackson (0-1) could escape the fourth inning.
No. 8 hitter Peter Bourjos, whose speed was on display all weekend, tripled to open the bottom of the fourth inning. He dashed home when Carpenter was able to loft a fly ball to shallow left field. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny suggested that “not many people score on that ball.”
“I don’t know if I could tag on that,” Carpenter said. “As soon as I hit it I felt good about our chances. He’s a weapon to have on the bases.”
After getting a hit from every spot in the order and a run from eight of nine spots in Saturday’s 10-run gush, the Cardinals again displayed depth. Jhonny Peralta doubled his season total with two hits from the No. 7 spot.
Matt Holliday reached base in all four plate appearances and has reached base in seven of his past 11 at-bats. The Cardinals’ lineup had to deal with two delays — the rain and the one that Jackson laboriously takes between pitches — and still every starter except Matt Adams and Wacha reached base and three players had hits with runners in scoring position.
“I think this was a small sample size of what our lineup can do,” Carpenter said. “Tough outs. Everybody in the lineup battling. I think you’ll see more of that.”
Wacha got sharper right before the rain delay and then again right after Bourjos sped home for the lead. To keep him loose and maintain his feel for the changeup during the delay, Lilliquist had Wacha mimic the exertion of still pitching. Told the weather could break near 3 p.m. — as it did — Wacha went to the interior batting cages every 10 or 15 minutes and played catch. The schedule was to simulate sitting down during the bottom of the inning and the activity of throwing in the top of the inning.
As the grounds crew got to work on readying the field, Wacha readied his arm. Backup catcher Tony Cruz got in a crouch to help Wacha warm up. The righty flipped a few curveballs, tested his changeup and dialed in the fastball.
“You can’t let the delay get to you,” he said.
The Cubs did in their first inning against him, but that was it. Wacha struck out Jackson immediately after Castillo’s game-tying single. At one point in the game, Jackson had thrown 55 pitches and recorded five outs. Including the final pitch of the strikeout of Jackson, Wacha got seven consecutive outs on a total of 13 pitches. He had two six-pitch innings before turning a one-run lead over to the bullpen.
Wacha already had left his stamp on the win.
“He gives up the two-run homer and for a lot of guys, especially young guys, things can fall apart after that,” Carpenter said. “You throw in the rain delay when it just looked like he was getting back in the groove. For him to keep his composure and shrug it off, that’s the thing that impresses me. It doesn’t surprise me. It’s not a fluke. He doesn’t get rattled. He has good stuff. We’re going to see this for a long time.
“This is who he is.”