When the Cardinals were considering starting 2012 19th overall pick Michael Wacha at Triple-A Memphis, they knew the decision would certainly be different for a pitcher who had never made a single start in Double-A ball. But after the right-hander put together an excellent spring following a non-roster invitation to Major League camp, the decision almost seemed made for them.
And now Wacha is justifying that faith. The Cardinals' No. 6 prospect allowed three hits and two walks and struck out three in seven innings Thursday to lead Memphis to a 1-0 win over New Orleans.
The occasion marked Wacha's first scoreless start and his longest outing for the Redbirds. In his first start, the former Texas A&M star threw 85 pitches in just four innings, allowing two runs on five hits and four walks. He tossed 88 through five frames -- giving up three runs (two earned) on three hits and one walk -- last time out.
But Thursday, Wacha managed to hit a new level of efficiency in the later innings. After throwing 61 pitches through his first four frames, he managed to keep his pitch totals in the fifth, sixth and seventh all below 12. He finished with 93 total on the night, 60 of which were for strikes.
For a starting pitcher who had yet to see the other side of the fifth inning, Thursday presented a welcome milestone.
"The big thing for me was throwing strikes," Wacha said. "The last two times out, I got into trouble throwing a lot of balls and walking guys. I really tried to make that the main focus this time out. … Just really working the strike zone and not trying to get too picky around the corners. It seemed to really work out."
It didn't hurt either that Wacha found himself engaged in a pitching duel.
New Orleans starter Elih Villanueva allowed a two-out solo homer to Redbirds catcher Rob Johnson in the second inning, but stifled Memphis after that. The 26-year-old right-hander, who is spending his third consecutive year with the Zephyrs, allowed one run on three hits and two walks and struck out two in his six innings.
"Their pitcher did an outstanding job," Wacha said of his counterpart. "All you can do in a spot like that is try to put up as many zeros as you can because that's what the team needed."
With the win, Wacha improved to 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA and an .193 batting average against through his first three Pacific Coast League starts.
Since the spring -- when he allowed just an unearned run on seven hits with 15 strikeouts and without a walk in 11 2/3 innings -- it's been thought Wacha may continue to ride the expressway all the way to St. Louis this season. But before he gets there, he knows he's going to have to overcome his share of bumps in the road first.
"After my first two outings, those were really those kind of 'Welcome to Triple-A' moments," said the right-hander, who admits he's leaned on his batterymate Johnson and other veteran members of the Memphis pitching staff in the early going. "These hitters aren't just going to swing at anything, and that's something you learn pretty quick here.
"It's just an overall grind and it's going to get even harder. You just have to locked in every start you make."