Michael Wacha understood the gravity of his outing Monday. He knew if he faltered, if he allowed too many runs, his team would walk off the field as losers in their final game this season.
"I think it was a little bit of anxiety before the game, just sitting around, waiting for the game to start," said Wacha, the St. Louis Cardinals' 22-year-old rookie starter. "But once I was out there, once I threw the first pitch, all the nerves kind of went away."
Nerves gone, Wacha dealt. He ripped away the Pirates' chances at eliminating the Cardinals by taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning, his start setting up a 2-1 Pirates loss in Game 4 of the National League Division Series Monday at PNC Park.
The loss also set up Game 5 Wednesday at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright will start for the Cardinals. The Pirates will send a rookie of their own, Gerrit Cole, to the mound.
"I think it's obviously no fun to go through a buzz saw like that and see a guy go out there and do what he did to us today," Neil Walker said. "But we got kind of an ace in the hole ourselves, so we're hoping that he's as good as he was last time."
The Cardinals owe their return to St. Louis to Wacha, who made his 10th major league start. A home run by Pedro Alvarez ended the no-hitter and a walk to Russell Martin, the next batter, ended Wacha's day, but he held the Pirates to that lone run, walking two and striking out nine.
"We weren't able to get anybody on and get any motion created," manager Clint Hurdle said. "That is some kind of postseason outing for a young man in his first postseason game."
Wacha made one start against the Pirates this season, allowing two hits Sept. 8 in seven scoreless innings. In five starts in September, he had a 1.72 ERA, held opponents to a .526 on-base plus slugging percentage and struck out 28 batters in 311/3 innings. That included one hit in 82/3 innings in his final start of the regular season. The Washington Nationals broke up his no-hit bid with two outs in the ninth.
In Wacha's past 16 innings, he has allowed one run on two hits and struck out 18.
"It wasn't easy come the end of the year clinching a spot, it wasn't easy in September and it certainly isn't easy now," Walker said. "We just need to keep doing what we need to do."
Wacha needed 39 pitches to retire the first nine batters of the game in order. He threw almost exclusively fastballs and changeups and did not throw a breaking ball until he had a 2-1 count on Marlon Byrd in the second. For variety, Wacha threw consecutive curveballs to Martin in the third, both for called strikes.
He did not allow a baserunner until the sixth, when he walked Martin on four pitches.
"[David] Freese came up there and he said, 'Hey, take a couple of deep breaths,' " Wacha said. "Keep attacking the zone like you have been."
Pinch-hitter Garrett Jones struck out, and Jordy Mercer, also pinch-hitting, flied out. Starling Marte ended the inning with a strikeout.
For five innings, Charlie Morton went almost pitch for pitch with Wacha. In that Sept. 8 game against Wacha, Morton, the Pirates' starter that day, allowed five runs on six hits in 12/3 innings before a foot injury, suffered against the final batter he faced, forced him from the game. Monday, he kept the Cardinals scoreless before Matt Holliday's two-run homer in the sixth.
Morton allowed only those two runs in 52/3 innings despite walking four.
"I felt good early on," he said. "I think I was trying to be a little too fine. I let a couple guys get away from me, walked a few."
Morton's performance represented a departure from his three outings against the Cardinals this season, when he went 0-2 with a 7.90 ERA. He allowed 23 hits in 132/3 innings against the Cardinals this season and they hit .397 against him.
To start the sixth, Morton walked Carlos Beltran, who entered the game hitting 4 for 12 with two home runs in this series.
"I wasn't trying to avoid contact with him, I was just trying to make better pitches, and I walked him," Morton said.
Holliday homered to center, putting the Cardinals ahead, 2-0. He said he doubted the Pirates would pitch around Beltran with no outs.
"I don't take it personally or anything," Holliday said. "I'm glad Carlos was on base."
In the eighth, Wacha ran a 3-1 count to Alvarez, who then hit his third home run of the NLDS 438 feet away to right-center, cutting the Cardinals lead to 2-1. Alvarez joined Willie Stargell and Bob Robertson as the only Pirates to hit three home runs in a postseason series.
A pair of youngsters, Carlos Martinez, 22, and Trevor Rosenthal, 23, finished the game for St. Louis.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published October 7, 2013 1:49 PM