With the flurry of basehits flying everywhere Monday afternoon, you might have failed to notice the stalwart effort of St. Louis starter Michael Wacha.
If the 19 hits by the Cardinals – the most by the team in any home opener ever – were key to their 10-1 romp over Milwaukee in the home opener, Wacha’s efforts were no less important.
“I was just trying to locate the fastball down in the zone, to both sides of the plate,” said Wacha, who improved to 15-4 at Busch Stadium in his career, and 5-0 in April starts at home. “The defense was playing great behind me, and I knew if I was able to throw strikes and let them play behind me, I’d be (OK).
“Establishing that fastball down in the zone, that just helped open up the other pitches.”
The 6-foot-6 right-hander scattered four hits in six scoreless innings, striking out seven and walking just one. He allowed just one runner to reach scoring position – in the first inning – and breezed from then on.
He retired 15 of 17 Brewers batters at one stretch, striking out the side in the fifth and fanning five of six batters at one juncture. After the game, manager Mike Matheny was quick to credit not only Wacha, but pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and catcher Yadier Molina.
“He and Derek Lilliquist and Yadi, after he got out of the first inning, really started focusing on getting to the bottom of the (strike) zone,” Matheny said. “When he gets that fastball to the bottom (of the zone), you see better changeups, you see different reactions to the hooks (curveballs).
“He got a couple fastballs up in the zone and they were the only ones that got hit hard, but when he was down and controlled the bottom (of the zone), everything else just kind of fell in place. He’s been that way since he got here. It’s easy to talk about, it’s hard to do.”
Wacha atoned for a ragged start in the Cardinals’ second game (and defeat) in Pittsburgh last week, when he gave up four runs in 4 1/3 innings of a 6-5 loss in 11 innings for the Redbirds.
“I made too many mistakes last week,” Wacha said, “and I was just trying to stay under control and go pitch by pitch. I was able to spot the fastball down in the zone, and that really helped.”
There were all manner of distractions that could have nagged at Wacha Monday – from the folderol of the pregame ceremonies to the lengthy stays on the bench while his teammates were building a 9-0 lead after three innings.
“It can be a little tough knowing (you have a big lead), but you’ve got to stay in that same mentality, just going out there and trying to get back in the dugout as quick as possible,” he said. “After we scored all those runs in those innings, the most important thing is having those shutdown innings so we can go out there and score some more runs.”
He said he wasn’t bothered by the pregame ceremonies, which concluded as he was warming up in the right field bullpen.
“It didn’t affect me at all,” Wacha said. “I could still do my same warmup. It’s a lt more packed house when I was warming up. Obviously, a great atmosphere but it’s like that every opening day, a lot of our home games here.
“The fans are great and it’s awesome getting back here and playing in front of them.”
Matheny was as big as fan as anyone else dressed in red Monday afternoon.
“He has a tilt because his release point is so high – it looks different than a lot of other pitchers,” Matheny said. “We’ve talked about it really since the first time we saw him in spring training in a live session. Hitters will react when they were told it was a strike in the bottom of the zone, and they were swearing the ball was low.
“It’s a deceptive look because he has such an angle on the ball. When he’s on, it’s hard because it’s in and out of the zone so fast, it’s hard to square up. And it’s hard to swing at sometimes.”
Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Assocation of America, has written about the Cardinals since the 1985 season. He can be reached at 618-239-2512 or on Twitter @JoeOstermeier