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Burwell: Wacha sets his goals high

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JUPITER, Fla. • Some of the best stories of any early baseball spring often involve our incurable infatuations with some dazzling rookie phenom bubbling with promise and obvious athletic gifts. A year ago in Cardinals camp, Michael Wacha was that irresistible attraction, the strong-armed rookie pitcher with an arsenal of talent and a ton of understated competitive confidence that was impossible to ignore.

Last spring, you could find the lanky righthander on the far side of the Cardinals’ spring training clubhouse clustered with all the other minor-leaguers in their first major-league camps. There was a bright red jersey with a very un-baseball-like number hanging on a hook in his dressing stall, but that didn’t stop the kid from dreaming some awfully ambitious major-league dreams.

“I’m Michael Wacha,” he said, staring into a video camera last spring, “And my major league dream is ... well ... obviously is making it to the World Series and getting that ring.”

Yeah, obviously, right?

That’s exactly how you’d expect a phenom to think. This time of year, baseball is blanketed with eager phenoms. They pop up everywhere like crocuses seeking that first warmth of the early spring. Of course, the only baseball story that trumps that lightheaded giddiness of a phenom at first sight is the tale of the phenom in full bloom.

Welcome to spring training 2014, and this is Michael Wacha in full:

“I’m Michael Wacha ... and my 2014 dream is to get back to the World Series … and this time help us win.”

P-D PHOTOS: CARDINALS IN CAMP

A lot has changed in the last 12 months for Wacha, beginning with the fact that he darned near realized his major-league dream last October. The 2012 first-round pick came to the majors in a late-summer rush and turned into the biggest surprise of the Cardinals’ run to the National League championship. He went from a rookie the organization was willing to patiently develop into an essential weapon who was named the NL Championship Series Most Valuable Player, led them to the World Series and almost got that championship ring he dreamed about.

And the only one who saw it coming so soon — obviously — was Wacha.

“I try to set my goals pretty high,” he said sitting outside the clubhouse on Tuesday afternoon.

Still, even for him, what he pulled off last season was a bit of a stunner.

He won four postseason games, in back-to-back games he threw one hitters, then outdueled NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw twice in the NLCS. And now after spending last spring hoping to get a major-league call-up, he is in Jupiter this spring knowing he will be in the starting rotation.

“You know, it was kind of surprising,” he said. “I hadn’t ever had that much success on that sort of stage, so yeah it was surprising. But you know I was confident going out there. I was confident of giving my team their best opportunity to win a game. And that was going out there and trying to throw zeroes up there every time. Guys behind me were making plays and we were getting wins.”

As he talks, there is this ever-so-slight smile that dances across his face.

“But it was a pretty incredible experience,” he said.

And now all he has to do is do it all over again.

The exposure he got last October alerted the entire baseball world of his pitching talent. On a staff that is already loaded with clear Cy Young talent (ace veteran Adam Wainwright), another rookie who finished in the top three in NL Rookie of the Year voting (15-game winner Shelby Miller), and an abundance of proven veterans (Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia, Joe Kelly), Wacha might have the best upside on the entire staff.

He just has to prove he can do what he did in that half-season in St. Louis over the course of a full major-league season.

He knows what the world expects from him now. He is the phenom who exceeded expectations. He is the phenom who didn’t tease us with his talent, he floored us with it. And now we want more. Much, much more.

At the Cards’ fanfest last month, Wainwright gushed about Wacha, saying that if he can duplicate his feats from last season over the long haul of 2014, they’ll be talking about him in Cy Young voting next autumn.

Tell that to Wacha and he just rolls his eyes. “That’s definitely kind of crazy,” he said, laughing. “I think he’s just trying to get the (Cy Young conversation) away from him. People are going to start asking him about it, so he’s trying to shove it on me. Well, I think I’ll just shove it right back on him.

“A lot of people have been trying to set some really high expectations for me,” he said. “But I try not to listen to what other people are saying and what their expectations are because I have my own, and if I exceed those it will still be a pretty good year.”

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Bryan Burwell is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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