Texarkana Gazette

Wacha hopes resurgent Red Sox season is launching pad with Padres


PEORIA, Ariz. — When Padres pitcher Michael Wacha was in his early 20s, profession­al baseball rushed at him like a Nolan Ryan fastball. He was drafted 19th overall by the Cardinals in 2012, ahead of future All-Stars Marcus Stroman and Lance McCullers Jr.

Almost immediatel­y, Wacha landed in Double-A, a massive first-year jump. At 22, he stormed onto MLB’s biggest stage by becoming the MVP of the NLCS. He became the youngest to do so since 21-year-old Steve Avery of the Braves in 1991.

Soon, baseball-crazy St. Louis barked “Wacha, Wacha” when he pitched in homage to Fozzie Bear’s signature saying from “The Muppet Show.” A place called Fozzie’s Sandwich Emporium named a milkshake the Wacha Wacha.

Make that a chin-high Ryan fastball.

“Looking back at it now,” Wacha, 31 and now with the San Diego Padres, said, “I definitely didn’t know what I was in the middle of at that point.”

Wacha started his pitching career at Pleasant Grove High School in Texarkana, Texas. He later was the ace on Texas A&M’s staff and helped the Aggies reach the College World Series. And then came his meteoric rise with St. Louis.

Cardinals fans flagged Wacha down on the street for autographs. He had become a full-blown celebrity in a place where the biggest stars are baseball stars. One request caught him off guard.

“It was pretty crazy with all the stuff going on,” Wacha said. “Someone said, ‘Hey, hold my baby for a picture.’ That’s a lot of pressure right there. More pressure than pitching.”

Baby-fumbling fears long-ago averted, the question now becomes: How will Wacha handle the pressure of producing for the Padres and a clubhouse crammed full of All-Stars during a season bubbling with expectatio­ns?

Wacha has survived the highs and lows of grinding out a big league career. He’ll tick off the injuries: the fractured scapula, a blown out oblique muscle that led to a broken rib, a shoulder strain. None required surgery.

“Knock on wood,” Wacha said.

The injuries and years tested, but failed to derail him. In 2022, a sparkling season with the Red Sox provided a time portal to his earliest and best success. His 127 OPS-plus in Boston, a metric that takes a player’s ballpark into account, with 100 being an average Major League pitcher, was the second highest of his career after three seasons at 88 or less.

Wacha’s hits per nine innings was the second lowest since 2014. His walks per nine innings (2.2) were tied for the second lowest during his time in the bigs and the 127 1/3 innings pitched were the most since 2017.

Now, with starter Padres’ starter Joe Musgrove sidelined with a broken big toe on his left foot, dependable starting pitching depth has become even more critical.

“The biggest thing was talking to Mike Shildt, (current and former teammate) Matt Carpenter and (onetime Cardinal and Padres advisor) Allen Craig, guys that have played with him, he’s going to put himself in position to contribute at a really high level in terms of taking care of his body, being in great shape, doing his arm care, it’s going to be taken care of,” Padres President of Baseball Operations and GM A.J. Preller said.

“That’s going to put the odds in anyone’s favor.”

Shildt, who managed

Wacha at his first pro stop in Springfiel­d, Missouri, and later in St. Louis, gushed about his former player.

“He helped us win the Texas League championsh­ip,” Shildt said. “You could tell he was different, not in ability but in his presence. The first time I pitched him, he was in limited capacity. We called it the Wacha Rules. He could only throw so much because he came right out of the draft. First-round pick, so we had to take care of him.

“We pitched him out of the bullpen and the first time he threw he mowed them down 1-2-3. It was like, ‘Whoa, this guy’s stuff is different.’

“I went to take him out and the umpire said, ‘You can’t take him out.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean?’ He’s like, ‘That’s the best pitcher I’ve seen all year in this league.’ And there were a lot of other big leaguers in the league that year.”

Wacha reminded Shildt of another pitching icon.

“I had (Jon) Lester his last year in St. Louis,” Shildt said of the five-time All-Star and 2016 NL Cy Young runner-up. “He was a John Wayne, ‘True Grit’ kind of guy. Michael was an oldschool guy. How do you win? How do you prepare? How do you show up for your start? Watch your video. Do your work. Michael has taken on the presence, preparatio­n, dedication that it takes to be a complete pitcher.

“The other part, Michael is a fierce competitor. He’s a man’s man and one tough hombre.”

Padres teammate Xander Bogaerts, who played with Wacha last season in Boston, signed off on Shildt’s thinking.

“His preparatio­n is really something I haven’t seen since like the days I was called up (with the Red Sox),” said Bogaerts, the Padres’ new shortstop. “I had the Jon Lesters, the (John) Lackeys, the (Jake) Peavys, the (Clay) Buchholzs. I thought, ‘this reminds me of the older guys.’ “

Carpenter signed off on Bogaerts signing off on Shildt.

“When he’s healthy, he’s as good as anybody in baseball,” the Padres’ designated hitter said. “He’s got the ability to pitch in big games. He’s shown that over the course of his career. He’s proven.

“You think about what he did last year in a really tough division, the AL East. To put up the kind of numbers he did on a team that really didn’t perform like they thought would, which makes it even harder. I fully expect him to have a great season for us.”

In a couple of recent backfield atbats against Fernando Tatis Jr. at the Peoria Sports Complex, Tatis homered and doubled off Wacha. Most expect the young sensation to do that against plenty of pitchers.

The larger sample size from a season ago created the most lasting impression for the Padres, however.

“If you have Michael Wacha at the back end of the rotation, you’ve got a really good rotation and it speaks well of the guys at the front,” Shildt said.

Wacha said reworked confidence in breaking pitches reshaped expectatio­ns in Boston and beyond.

“I got a really good feel for my offspeed pitches and was able to throw them in any count, in any spot, with guys on base,” he said. “Really just trusting my stuff and making a pitch when I needed to. I definitely threw more off-speed than I ever have in my career. It’s because I had confidence and there was a better feel for it coming out of my hand.”

What shape will Wacha’s role in San Diego take?

“I feel like I am a starter,” he said. “But whatever they need that day, I’ll be there.”

Pressure? Wacha’s dealt with that, babies, baseball and all.

 ?? (AP photo/Darryl Webb) ?? This is a 2023 photo of Michael Wacha of the San Diego Padres baseball team. This image reflects the San Diego Padres active roster as of Feb. 24 when this image was taken in Phoenix.
(AP photo/Darryl Webb) This is a 2023 photo of Michael Wacha of the San Diego Padres baseball team. This image reflects the San Diego Padres active roster as of Feb. 24 when this image was taken in Phoenix.

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