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Wacha flirts with no-hitter as Cardinals even NLDS with Pirates

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The Canadian Press
10/7/2013 8:14:06 PM
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PITTSBURGH -- Michael Wacha heard the chants. Then again, when 40,000 people clad in black scream your name relentlessly for the better part of three hours, it's kind of hard to miss.

The goal was to rattle the St. Louis rookie, remind him that 22-year-old pitchers aren't built to withstand the pressure of an elimination game.

One problem. Wacha doesn't really do rattled. He doesn't do pressure, either. The louder PNC Park grew, the more unhittable Wacha became.

"I kind of like it," Wacha said. "It kind of gives me adrenalin. I kind of use it in my favour."

And the Pittsburgh Pirates -- not to mention anyone else he might face in the post-season -- "kind of" need to get used to it.

Wacha took a no-hit bid into the eighth inning and the Cardinals showed off their October poise, edging the Pirates 2-1 Monday to force a winner-take-all Game 5 in the NL division series. St. Louis is 7-1 over the last three years with its season on the line.

"I think you take high talent and high character people that are motivated and support each other, and they don't give up," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "That's a tough combination."

One the Pirates are still trying to master. Pedro Alvarez hit his third home run of the series, connecting with one out in the eighth for Pittsburgh's only hit in Game 4. It wasn't enough for the Pirates to advance to the NL championship series for the first time in 21 years.

"I guess that's why we play five," star centre-fielder Andrew McCutchen said. "We'll be ready for the fifth one."

The Pirates weren't quite ready for the fourth one, not with the way Wacha was dealing. He walked two and struck out nine before giving way to the bullpen in the eighth.

Matt Holliday's two-run homer off Charlie Morton in the sixth was all the offence required on a day the Cardinals tossed the first one-hitter in the club's lengthy post-season history.

Trevor Rosenthal worked around a two-out walk in the ninth, retiring McCutchen on a popup to shallow centre field for his first post-season save.

"It was a good pitch for him," McCutchen said. "I wish it got a little more of the barrel. It would have been a great story."

Instead, a taut series will head back to Busch Stadium.

Game 5 will be Wednesday, with ace Adam Wainwright starting for the NL Central champion Cardinals and rookie Gerrit Cole going for the wild-card Pirates. Both pitchers won last week in the NLDS.

The Cardinals finished with only three hits, and that was enough. Holliday got two of them, including his homer in the sixth after Morton walked big-hitting Carlos Beltran to start the inning.

"You could go back and look at pitches over and over again and second guess yourself," Morton said. "I don't know where that pitch was. It was outer third somewhere, thigh-down and he went out and got it, he's strong."

So was the 6-foot-6 kid on the one, the one barely a year removed from a standout college career at Texas A&M. Wacha didn't permit a runner until walking Russell Martin leading off the sixth.

Wacha nearly no-hit the Washington Nationals in his last start on Sept. 24, surrendering only an infield single by Ryan Zimmerman with two outs in the ninth.

Working so quickly the Pirates never had time to get settled, he breezed through Pittsburgh's revamped lineup like he was in extended spring training. Mixing his fastball and changeup masterfully, Wacha overwhelmed the Pirates from the moment he stepped onto the mound.

Alvarez got the fans at PNC Park roaring with his homer, and Wacha followed by walking Martin on four pitches. Carlos Martinez relieved and Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina made a key play, throwing out pinch-runner Josh Harrison after a botched hit-and-run attempt.

Martinez struck out Jose Tabata to end the eighth, and Rosenthal took over to begin the ninth. Neil Walker drew a two-out walk before McCutchen made the final out.

"That's what it's all about," Rosenthal said. "That's what you dream of, you dream of two outs in the bottom of the ninth, you know ... bases loaded, the best hitter up, and getting out of that spot."

One the Cardinals rarely found themselves in on a day Wacha showed he's just a big a part of his team's present as he is its megawatt future.

McCutchen came into the game hitting .538 in the post-season but looked at a 97 mph fastball for strike three in the first. Marlon Byrd, Pittsburgh's most consistent player since being acquired from the Mets in late August, watched a full-count heater in the second that sent him walking back to the dugout in disbelief.

It was a look repeated time and again by Byrd and the rest of his baffled teammates. Wacha struck out five of the first seven batters.

"He went out and hit his spots and it seemed like everything we were hitting, we were just missing, just missing," McCutchen said.

Martin remained Pittsburgh's lone baserunner until the eighth. Wacha fell behind 3-1 and Alvarez hit a 93 mph fastball at the knees onto the concourse in right-centre.

The jolt, however, faded when Molina nailed Harrison at second minutes later to set up a 24th -- and final -- meeting between two teams that have been shadowing each other all summer and into the fall.

NOTES: Wacha was the 19th overall pick in the 2012 draft. He earned his first major league win on June 11. ... A.J. Burnett pitched Game 1 for Pittsburgh, but manager Clint Hurdle picked Cole to move ahead and start Game 5.

Michael Wacha (Photo: Canadian Press)

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(Photo: Canadian Press)
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