By Julian Linden
BOSTON (Reuters) - Michael Wacha is discovering that the taste of fame comes in many different flavors.
His life has been turned upside down since his meteoric rise in Major League Baseball (MLB) this season, to the point that even routine activities can become surreal.
Last year, Wacha was like any other baseball wanna-be plying his trade in the college ranks while hoping for a breakthrough to the majors.
Now, the 22-year-old rookie is one of the hottest young pitchers in the game, preparing to take the mound for the St. Louis Cardinals in Game Two of the World Series against the Boston Red Sox later on Thursday.
"I'm just trying not to think too much about it, just trying to approach every game the same," he told reporters.
"(I'm) trying not to get too caught up in the moment. I'm sure after the season I'll be able to look back and think about, hey, I pitched in the World Series and that kind of stuff."
Wacha's promotion to the number two spot in the Cardinals' pitching rotation has been as spectacular as it has been rapid.
The right-hander was drafted by the Cardinals last year when St. Louis were given the 19th pick after trading Albert Pujols to the Los Angeles Angels.
Wacha made his MLB debut in May this year but his first few games gave no clues of what was to come and he was sent to the minors after just three outings, which yielded one win.
Recalled in August, Wacha showed the first real signs of his untapped potential. In the final week of the regular season he came within one out of tossing a no-hitter.
He has been even better in the postseason. In his postseason debut, Wacha won an elimination game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Then, in the National League Championship Series, he twice got the better of Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw to win the Most Valuable Player award for the series, striking out 13 batters and not giving up a single run in 13-2/3 innings.
Despite Wacha's inexperience at the highest level, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said he had no hesitation starting him in the World Series.
"He executes pitches, that's really what it comes down to," Matheny said. "He's a guy that can throw into the high 90s, which puts him in a different group all by himself. But he locates and he's got a good feel for when he needs to use different portions of the plate, when he needs to expand the zone.
"And those are things that are really tough to teach a young pitcher."
The challenge confronting Wacha is enormous. The Red Sox won Tuesday's opening game of the best-of-seven championship series 8-1 and will send John Lackey to the hill for Game Two.
The 35-year-old Lackey has a wealth of experience and one that Wacha can draw inspiration from. In 2002, Lackey was a rookie himself, pitching for the Angels.
After a shaky start, he too was optioned back to the minors but fought his way back and went on to be the winning pitcher in Game Seven of the World Series, only the second rookie in a century to achieve the feat.
"That was like 11 years ago, I'm old, I guess," Lackey joked when asked whether his previous World Series experience would help him this time. "You remember parts of it, but I've been in the playoffs several times.
"The main thing is you realize how hard it is to get here. It's been 11 years since I've been here. Been chasing it for a while, and you probably appreciate it more this time than you do as a rookie, that sort of thing."
Wacha may just be at the start of his career but is quickly discovering the price of fame. Almost unknown in St. Louis a year ago, he got a surprise last week when he found his name on a menu.
"I went to go eat at just a little restaurant and I had a milkshake named after me, and that was pretty weird," he said.
"So I had to try that out, it was pretty good. The milkshake name was 'Wacha, Wacha.'
"This World Series start will definitely be the No. 1, the highest, biggest, most important game that I've ever pitched in. I'm just really looking forward to it."
(Reporting by Julian Linden; Editing by Frank Pingue)