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Pete Kozma, Michael Wacha and the . . . Play of the Decade?

(The following is a guest column written by The Cardinal Nation blog regular blingboy.)

It is Tuesday night and first-round phenom Michael Wacha faces what is likely a pivotal moment in his fledgling career.  Having breezed through his debut allowing one run and two hits over seven innings, he lasted only 4 2/3 giving up 10 hits and 6 runs in his second start.  Velocity and control had gone south.

Earlier in the season – when the Cards were making roster moves due to injuries and ineffectiveness among the pitching staff – Wacha’s name had always come up.  The prevailing opinion was that when he came up it would not be as a temporary fill in; he would be here to stay.  They weren’t saying otherwise now, not yet.   Few were second guessing the decisions that put him here in Citi Field facing the Mets, barely a year removed from facing the Dayton Flyers at Blue Belle Field in College Station, Texas.  But that could all change in the next 30 seconds.

It started off with a line drive, thankfully within reach of second baseman Matt Carpenter.  Then a home run, and not a cheap one.  Then a walk followed by a single, another walk, a sacrifice fly making it 2-0, then another walk to the light-hitting Buck.  Wacha was getting lit up, not so much by the Mets really, he was spontaneously combusting.

Catcher Yadier Molina had been calling for fastballs mostly, trying to give the kid a chance to get it dialed in, so far without success.  They were sailing high.  They were going wide.  A couple curve balls went high.  The announcer said he didn’t get on top of it.  A couple changeups went low, as they are supposed to, but with the fastball not working, the batters just let them go by for balls.  Pitching coach Derek Lilliquist had paid a visit.  The Post-Dispatch reports that Wainwright and others scurried into the clubhouse to pour over tape, trying to figure out what Wacha was doing wrong.  Maybe they would figure it out, but not in the next 30 seconds, and the kid needed something now.

Down 2-0 with the sacks jammed and two outs, his fastball not under command, his curve not working and his change up ineffective,  Wacha now faced Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who hit it back up the middle, looking like a single to center that would make it 4-0.  But wait.

Almost exactly six years before, the Cards passed on Rick Porcello to take a high school shortstop from someplace in Oklahoma as the 18th overall pick in the 2007 draft.    According to former Cards pitcher Mark Mulder a few years later:

“I remember that pick. How is that working out? I remember coaches laughing about that I think.”

But now, with the fate of 2012’s 1st round phenom hanging in the balance, 2007’s 1st round bust is ranging to his left, closing in on that grounder up the middle and no one is laughing.  If he can’t get there, or doesn’t make the play, it will be 4-0 in the first, with two on and two out, the pitcher coming up and the phenom standing there with a pitch count of 37.  Then, if the Mets pitcher can work a walk, not all that unlikely given the circumstances, or somehow get on, Mets leadoff hitter Jordany Valdespin would come up looking to hit his second line drive of the inning, this time not at Matt Carpenter.

If the grounder goes through, will Wacha live on or will Mike Matheny come out with the hook?  Will the manager hope Wacha can get the pitcher out and not walk his fourth batter of the inning to load them up for the top of the order?  Mike had learned something about the downside of pitching moves when he sent in Mitchell Boggs in a crucial situation upon his return from Memphis.  Boggs got crushed and sent back to Memphis with his tail between his legs.  GM John Mozeliak commented on the potential downside to that move, and I doubt very much that Matheny missed it.

So would Mike leave Wacha in, possibly to be crushed, and knocked out for the second time?  Would he get Wacha out of there or would he leave him in to sink or swim?  Would the phenom retreat to Triple-A battered and bruised?  Would he recover from the debacle quickly?  Slowly?  Not at all?  Would the Cardinals organization re-think the strategy of pushing guys up quickly?  Who would be blamed for failing to contain the hype?  Would there be a virtual firestorm from fans and media?  And what about the implications for the rotation?  Would we need to re-visit the possibility of looking outside of the system?  Would prospects need to be traded to give Wacha and others more time?

Pete is not the rangiest shortstop but he had positioned himself well, moves to his left gloves it and throws to first to retire the side.  Wacha would live to see the second inning.  He would come out looking better and go on to log a quality start and his first big league win.  He has since returned to Memphis for more polish, but it is not as a failure, having been misjudged and mishandled by the organization.  None of that bad stuff is going to happen.

Yogi Berra might say something like ‘we don’t know what happened because it didn’t’.  But the implications, had that grounder gone through, might have been both profoundly negative and far reaching.  (I wonder if Mike Matheny or John Mozeliak would have rather had Troy Tulowitzki at short right then?)

The play of the decade?  Well, maybe not quite.  We would only know for sure years from now if it had not been made.  But it was made, the Cards won, and Michael Wacha sure owes Pete Kozma a steak dinner.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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9 Responses to “Pete Kozma, Michael Wacha and the . . . Play of the Decade?”

  1. JumboShrimp says:

    A good tale. Baseball holds multiple perspectives……

    St Louis fans got in a muddle about Porcello. Lots of other teams also passed on Boras’ exorbitant bonus hopes. Pete got made a scapegoat for tensions among DeWitt, Luhnow, and Uncle Walter.

    Today, Tyler Lyons gave up 6 to one of the worst hitting teams in the league. Is he shattered? Probably not. Lynn gave up 6 in the first two innings yesterday, while collecting his 9th win. Lyons will keep firing.

    Consider reliever Keith Butler. He got promoted to Memphis, hit around, and returned to AA. Then the Cards needed somebody, promoted him to the majors and he is hanging in there, mopping up. Morale is a funny thing. Butler now thinks he can contribute in the majors, though likely still has doubts about whether he can handle AAA. In this sense, he is not too different from Super Pete.

  2. JumboShrimp says:

    Pete has become over-exposed offensively. Descalso should get one third of the SS starts. He has an OPS 160 points north of Pete’s, a considerable advantage.

  3. blingboy says:

    Any guesses how long until Wacha is back?

    • Brian Walton says:

      At least 10 days from when he left! 😉

      • WestCoastbirdWatcher says:

        I can’t see them risking Wacha again right away.

        • JumboShrimp says:

          Its going to occur to Mo and company to send Kelly down to Memphis to get extended. They can backfill him with Rzepcynski or Blazek. This would groom Wacha, Martinez, and Kelly as understudies, in case Lyons goes on a long losing streak. In 2014, Carpenter and Westbrook may be retired, so we also need to develop starters for 2014.
          If Lyons keeps the ball in the park and throws strikes, he should stay in rotation.

          • WestCoastbirdWatcher says:

            He looked a little “lathered up” tonight Jumbo…………….that agitated state is the real negative.

            • blingboy says:

              They don’t have to worry about managing Lyons’ like they do with Wacha. He’s expendable. Ride him hard, put him away wet.

              Each of his last 3 starts have been worse, but that doesn’t mean all 3 were bad. He might hang in there.

  4. Nutlaw says:

    Nice writeup, bb. Thanks for sharing – I enjoyed reading it!

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