Wacha ready to prove he's no fluke

News-DemocratJanuary 20, 2014 

Listen to Michael Wacha talk about last season and what could lie ahead.

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— Talk about raising the bar.

That's what Michael Wacha did last season during his brief but memorable stint with the St. Louis Cardinals.

The 22-year-old rookie was 4-1 with a 2.78 ERA in 15 games, including nine starts, and twice flirted with a no-hitter.

"I'm sure there are going to be some high expectations people (are) putting on me," said Wacha, part of a projected rotation that also includes Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn and Jaime Garcia. "But I can't really pay much attention to those (people). I have my own expectations for myself that I try to live up to."

Wacha was unflappable in the postseason, too, going 4-1 but finishing on a sour note when he was the loser in the clinching Game 6 of the World Series against Boston.

"Even down the stretch there in the postseason, the main goal was to try not to do too much and to stay within myself," Wacha said. "It ended up working out pretty well, so I'm going to take that same mentality into this year as well."

Wacha's maturity helped him handle the postseason stage, but having Wainwright, recently retired Chris Carpenter and the departed Jake Westbrook in the clubhouse didn't hurt. They forewarned Wacha about the intensity of the postseason and the magnitude of the media blitz.

"A lot of people, I bet, would fall under the pressure of the playoffs," Wacha said. "The stage is too big for them sometimes. (But) I got lucky having Waino and Carp and Westbrook there. ... Being able to talk to them, it really helped me going into those starts with a good mindset."

Wainwright said Wacha's performances in the regular season and playoffs have made some fans forget about the quality of Shelby Miller's rookie season. Miller was 15-9 with a 3.06 ERA, making 31 starts and striking out 169 in 173 1/3 innings.

Still, Wainwright clearly is bullish on Wacha's prospects.

"I think Michael might be one of the most talented pitchers I've seen," Wainwright said. "He's a guy who almost threw a no-hitter and almost threw another no-hitter. Every time he pitched, he almost threw a no-hitter, it seemed like, until the end there.

"I was very impressed with his game. (But) I want to see it throughout the whole season."

So does Wacha, who has set standards that he isn't disclosing.

"I have some personal goals that I really don't want to share," Wacha said. "I feel like if I'm able to accomplish those goals, it will be a pretty good season."

Run, run, run

New center fielder Peter Bourjos is a top-flight defender.

But Bourjos, acquired in November with minor-league outfielder Randal Grichuk from the Los Angeles Angels for third baseman David Freese and pitcher Fernando Salas, wants to be known for more than highlight-reel catches.

"I'd like to be in the 40s," Bourjos said when asked what would be a realistic number of stolen bases. "It's all about how you're swinging the bat. If you're getting on base consistent enough to steal bases ... I think in the minor leagues I had a season where I stole 50 bags and a lot of seasons where I was in the 30.

"Hopefully, being in the 30 to 40 range will be nice."

Bourjos' problem has been an inability to get on base at a high enough rate to maximize his plus speed. His career on-base percentage is .306, with his high of .333 coming last season in an injury-marred year in which he batted .274.

Bourjos, whose career-high in stolen bases at the big-league level was 22, doesn't foresee a major jump in his on-base percentage.

"I've never walked a lot, so I can't say I'm an on-base guy," he said. "I think I'm more of a gap-to-gap hitter. I'm an aggressive hitter. I don't inherently draw a lot of walks. I never have in the minor leagues, so I don't think it's good for me to go up there trying to walk because it's not one of my strengths.

"I think when I've had success, it's when I'm out there trying to drive a ball in the gap and stay up the middle aggressive."

Bourjos was attractive to the Cardinals for two reasons: Jon Jay's defense slipped last season and left fielder Matt Holliday and right fielder Allen Craig possess below-average range.

Bourjos said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny hasn't yet anointed him the starter.

"He said come into spring training ready to have an opportunity to play and win a job," Bourjos said. "That's all I can expect. I'm not expecting him to tell me that I'm the starting center fielder. If I'm coming in the late innings for defense or to bunt or to pinch-run, I would be happy with that as well. I want to help the team."

Home again

Returning to his familiar third-base position has energized Matt Carpenter beyond his usual level.

Carpenter was an All-Star last season at second base, a position he never had played. He hardly let it bother him, as he batted .318 and led the National League in runs (126), hits (199) and doubles (55).

"Third has been a home for me almost my entire career except for last year," Carpenter said. "I get to go back there, be comfortable back at home. I'm looking forward to it."

If there's truth to the adage that a player is more productive at the plate when he's comfortable on defense, Carpenter could be in line for another monster season.

"I think there's something to say about being comfortable where you are," Carpenter said. "But you also have to find a way to separate your at-bats from your defense.

"There were definitely times, especially earlier on last year, where your nerves set in. You're at a position you've never played and things are happening so fast. You really just have to step back and slow yourself down."

Carpenter can see himself hitting more than the 11 homers he contributed last season.

"I'm going to go out and just continue to do what I do as a player, whatever that is," Carpenter said. "If --as I get older and as my career progresses --I start to generate more power, then it does. As far as, 'Am I going to go to third and try to do something different?' I don't think so. I'm going to do what I've always done and I'll hit wherever Mike tells me to hit."

Contact reporter David Wilhelm at dwilhelm@bnd.com or 239-2665.

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