ST. LOUIS – You'd suppose a 97-mph fastball that comes with all the accessories – curve ball, changeup, cast-iron cojones – would be enough. And a catcher with wise eyes and a neck tattoo, a guy who uses "we" whether a pitch had been perfect or lost a game, you'd think that was plenty.
Then along comes this moment, this fiery moment, this October-y moment, that becomes part of you, too, and that's when a rookie pitcher named Michael Wacha stormed from the mound at Busch Stadium, having not merely survived that moment. He'd stinkin' owned it. With a holler and a fist pump, he'd become that moment. Him and catcher Yadier Molina. Him and all those guys, all the St. Louis Cardinals, who were at that very second on their way to a two-games-to-none lead against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series.
An hour later he'd say, "It's quite a good night tonight," and then smile at the understatement.
Wacha is 22 years old, a year-and-a-half out of Texas A&M, and less than a week ago pushed a no-hitter into the eighth inning of a division series road game. That was a day, a sequence of events over the course of a day, perhaps.
Late on Saturday afternoon, with the air cooling and the shadows running off toward center field, he distilled that entire start into 10 pitches. Ten of the 112 he'd throw to beat the Dodgers, and walk the Dodgers into a Game 3 in which the Cardinals will pitch ace Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals having already won games in which the Dodgers started ace 1B Zack Greinke and ace 1A Clayton Kershaw.
"We've been talking about the ultimate test here for a while," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said, meaning all of it, starting with Wacha's big-league debut just 4½ months ago. Were that not enough, they'd fill Busch for him, and put him opposite Kershaw, and give him a 1-0 lead, load the bases against him with one out in the sixth inning, and then send Yasiel Puig into the batter's box.
"Oh no," Cardinals third baseman David Freese had thought as the inning grew, when Kershaw had singled and Carl Crawford had rolled a ball to the right side, and second baseman Matt Carpenter had, from his knees, thrown the ball past the shortstop and through short left field and into foul territory.
"It was probably a different word," Freese admitted.
The Cardinals had scored a single run against Kershaw, and that was unearned. Probably, it was all they were going to do there. The ballgame, and perhaps the series, would turn on the coming pitches, those 10 as it turned out. And along came the rookie Puig, batting cleanup because Hanley Ramirez couldn't, all shoulders and testosterone and the biggest, most vicious hacks you've ever seen. For the better part of two games Puig had charged around the ballpark, lunging and diving, swinging at anything that moved. This could be his moment, too.
As Puig stepped in, one could feel the ballpark lean in.
"Down in the 'pen," reliever Randy Choate said, "you just hold your breath."
In the dugout, Jake Westbrook said, "You just go through scenarios that are positive."
Chris Carpenter quietly predicted a strikeout, then a fly ball. It could end that way, he reasoned. It could. He decided it would go fine.
"If you've seen or know Michael," Carpenter said, "he's not scared of the situation."
On the field, surrounded by Dodgers, they looked to Wacha, who looked to Molina.
"We had a good plan," Molina said.
Wacha threw a fastball, 95, middle away. Had Puig swung harder, he might have sucked the oxygen out of the city. His legs tangled under him. The weight and speed of the bat pulled him off balance. He had missed it.
Molina went to the mound. The shortstop, Pete Kozma, and second baseman, Carpenter, joined him. By the end of Puig's at-bat, Molina would have spent nearly as much time on the mound as Wacha had.
"That's Yadi looking into his eyes," Westbrook said, "and looking how he is."
Said Wainwright: "It could be something as simple as, 'Stay focused right here.'"
Satisfied, Molina returned to a waiting Puig. Wacha threw a fastball, low in the zone. Puig watched it, loaded up, decided to pass. Plate umpire Mark Carlson said it was a strike. Puig turned and stared. He was down, 0-and-2. The crowd approved.
After a productive division series, Puig had flattened through two games in the NLCS. He'd appeared to become anxious. Too aggressive. And therefore he was strikeout prone. Wacha threw a fastball away, too far away, Carlson called it a ball and the crowd did not approve. Next, Molina would use Puig's assertiveness against him, and asked for a changeup. It was too low. The count was 2-and-2.
"My approach all night was just attack him and make quality pitches against him," Wacha said. "Make them effective pitches. Throw the off-speed. Any count."
He threw another changeup. Ball three. As Wacha came set for the next pitch, Puig stepped out of the box. Molina went back to the mound.
"I don't know what he says out there," Carlos Beltran said. "But whatever he says, he goes back and they throw strikes."
Puig waved his bat. Molina called for a fastball, the pitch Puig surely wanted, and set up on the outside corner. Infielders cheated toward the middle, for a double-play ball. Wacha's fastball was not away, as Molina had asked, but in. Either he expected another pitch or another location, because Puig was fooled. He saw too late that this pitch was a strike, and he waved his bat at it without conviction, and turned to the dugout.
Jose Uribe followed and struck out on four pitches, the last a changeup. He had little chance.
In a taut game played the afternoon after 13 innings leaked into the early morning, pitches 91 through 100 from Wacha had altered everything, and sent nine Cardinals dashing toward a jubilant dugout. Wacha shouted and shook his fists. Molina howled.
"That," Beltran said, "was incredible."
The Dodgers would have a single baserunner in the final three innings. The last five struck out, including Puig, his sixth strikeout in 10 series at-bats.
They'd had their shot. They'd had their chance. Ten pitches later, it was gone.