David Klutho / AP)
They’re no longer hayseeds when they step out of the minor leagues and arrive in the majors and are handed the ball.
“Kid, it’s your game,” says the manager with a pat of assurance on the butt.
It was that way 73 years ago when Del Baker, then manager of the Tigers, sent Floyd Giebell, an untested rookie, out to pitch against Bob Feller and the Indians — with the pennant on the line.
But nowadays the pitching prospects reach the big leagues with a certain safety of poise, polished by pitching in college ball — almost ready but not quite.
The scene must have been something like that when Michael Wacha was sent out to pitch Friday night for the Cardinals against the Los Angeles Dodgers — preening and confident after their meteoric season. The Cardinals had some wiggle room because it was Game 6 of National Championship Series and they had managed a 3-2 lead in victories.
The Dodgers had Clayton Kershaw ready. Kershaw has been proclaimed boisterously as the best pitcher in baseball. And despite the braggadocio blurbed by the LA media, the claim might be true.
Whatever, Kershaw was among the top three or four of all starters in Major-League Baseball — three times leading the NL in earned run average. ERA is still a significant statistic.
Wacha had started the 2013 ball season with the Memphis Redbirds of the geographically challenged Pacific Coast League. He was the Cardinals’ prize pitching prospect.
He had pitched baseball for Texas A&M, where all the propaganda was about this Johnny Football guy with a streak of hubris, Johnny Manziel. Quietly, Wacha pitched three seasons for the Aggies, then the Cardinals drafted him as the 19th prospect on the first round.
The Cards worked Macha right through their farm system in 2012. He pitched in the Gulf Coast League, a rookie conglomeration, and then the Florida State League. He finally was moved up the Texas League in Double-A.
Baseball was no longer like the old-fashioned days when a young prospect languished in the deep minors, riding buses through America’s South, for years.
It was late May this season when the Cardinals called Wacha up the majors. Less than a year before he had been pitching for Texas A&M. His first visit to the big leagues — I never heard a ballplayer call it “The Show” — was short and bittersweet. He did OK in his first game, got shelled in his second, won a game in June — and then was farmed back to Memphis.
It was the middle of August, when the Cardinals recalled Wacha. The club was involved in a three-pronged race in the NL Centrals with the Pirates and Reds.
It was the September stretch when Mike Matheny, the Cardinals’ manager — with some sort of prescient thinking — promoted Wacha from the bullpen. Still spanking new, just 22, Wacha beat the Reds. He allowed three hits in six innings.
Next he pitched against the Nationals.
Wacha was one out from pitching a no-hitter when Ryan Zimmerman touched him for an infield single off his glove with two outs in the ninth.
Unexpectedly, Wacha was in the Cardinals’ rotation for the pennant playoffs. He had pitched in a mere 15 games during the season.
And now it was Game 6 of the Championship Series, St. Louis vs. the haughty Dodgers, who had come back from some 9½ games out in June to win their division by a bunch in September.
Wacha was picked to duel Kershaw for the second time in the Series in Game 6.
There could always be a Game 7.
The Cardinals had beaten Kershaw, 1-0, with an unearned run in Game 2.
Contrast in fortunes
Televisions turned on across America for Game 6 Friday night, Wacha pitched another masterpiece. This time he surrendered but two hits through seven innings. Meanwhile, the Cardinals, were battering Kershaw with a merciless barrage. The possible best pitcher in baseball was yanked in the fifth inning.
In the Dodgers’ outfield Yaseil Puig — a rookie so heavily heralded in Wacha’s rookie season — committed three misplays. Two errant throws and a deflected ball off his glove — plus another 0-for-3.
Wacha had pitched the Cardinals into the World Series, 9-0.
It was a gripping scene on my telly. Part comedy, part tragedy, part comeuppance.
It was in the aftermath when I suddenly had a brainstorm memory from my boyhood and compared Michael Wacha in 2013 to Floyd Giebell in 1940.
That long-ago season the Tigers were involved in a pennant race with the Indians.
Giebell might not have been a hayseed, but he was rookie who had bounced through the Tigers system. With Buffalo in 1940, he gone 15-16. The Tigers, in a pennant race, made him a September call-up. He defeated the Philadelphia Athletics, 13-2, in his first start.
The final week the Tigers needed one more victory to clinch the pennant. They were in Cleveland, their rival for the pennant. And the Indians were starting Bob Feller, who had won 27 games, and was the best pitcher — certified — in baseball.
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column Sundays at detroitnews.com.