JUPITER, Fla. — Michael Wacha glanced toward the other side of the room, the part where his locker was during his first spring training a year ago. To him, setting up shop inside of the St. Louis Cardinals clubhouse closer to Adam Wainwright and Jason Motte is preferable to being near the guys assigned football numbers like 78 and 84. (No offense, Jordan Swagerty and Corey Rasmus.)
"When I was on the other side of the room, I stayed pretty quiet over there," Wacha said. "It’s a lot better being over here."
Comfort comes at a price, though. Wacha had more responsibilities at the team's Winter Warmup, going overtime to sign autographs until his hand was sore, so that no fan who wanted one would go without.
"The line was a lot longer than the year before," Wacha said. "I was signing for a good 2 1/2 hours. It was supposed to be two hours, but I just kept signing. It wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t have anywhere to be. And I got everyone a signature."
Wacha's clubhouse migration and increased fame have come after a short-but-sweet rookie season during which, at times, Wacha pitched better than anyone else on the roster. As a 22-year-old, Wacha finished with a 2.78 ERA in nine regular-season starts and a had postseason run in which he allowed a total of three earned runs in his first four starts.
"Wacha Wacha Mania" had reached national proportions. He was all over the Muppet News.
But at the World Series, Wacha wasn't quite as effective when the Boston Red Sox started to wait him out. Wacha got the win in Game 2, but he walked four, and walked four more in Game 6 in the Series-ending loss. Saying that he "definitely" needs to add a third pitch — a process that had been in the works for a while anyway — Wacha has been developing a curveball. He says it's feeling good so far.
"I’m starting to get a lot more control and command on it, and it’s getting some good break," Wacha said. "If I can keep on having good confidence in that, it’ll be good for me."
Wacha acting to self-improve is just what manager Mike Matheny wants to see. To him, assumptions are dangerous. Complacency is to be fought. Wanting to repeat success shouldn't be a desire. Wanting to improve should be.
"I reminded them on the veterans side that some of them used to be the guys wearing the crazy numbers who looked like they had no chance to help us in past springs" Matheny said. "Now they’re a big part of what we do.
"You just never know where another opportunity is going to pop up, and if a person hasn’t been competing, they’re going to be behind."
That even goes for successful recent first-round picks. If Wacha stays ahead of the curve, so to speak, it also would make him even more famous. He'll get an even better locker. The line for autographs will be twice around the block. He might even get a bobblehead doll promotion at Busch Stadium this season. Hey, there it is.
These players, they grow up so fast.
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