Will Middlebrooks recalls playing with and against young Michael Wacha
|10.21.13 at 12:26 pm ET|
You won’t find the record of any current members of the Red Sox having faced Michael Wacha in the big leagues. But that doesn’t mean that the entire roster is unfamiliar with the Cardinals right-hander who has taken the postseason by storm.
Both Wacha and Will Middlebrooks hail from Texarkana. They played for rival high schools — Middlebrooks at Liberty-Eylau, Wacha at Pleasant Grove — while two years apart from each other and were teammates on their summer American Legion squad. Middlebrooks’ recollections of their past confrontations, however, was a bit hazy.
“I don’t really remember. I may have like one homer off him,” said Middlebrooks. “It was my senior year. I pitched against him. I threw maybe a one-hitter and we beat them by one.”
At the time, Middlebrooks likely had the superior stuff. As a senior in high school, plenty of teams scouted him as a pitcher who could run his fastball into the mid-90s, but the Red Sox opted to keep him on a track as a position player, converting him from shortstop to third in his first pro season. Yet even at that young age — when Middlebrooks was 18 and Wacha was 15 going on 16 — the future Cardinals first-rounder carried himself in impressive fashion on the mound, at a time when Middlebrooks recalled his fastball velocity being in the mid- to high-80s.
“Tall, skinny, lanky kid. Didn’t necessarily have the best stuff, but he could pitch. He threw strikes,” said Middlebrooks. “He’s smart. He’s really smart. And he’s always known — even back to Little League, he knows how to pitch. It was always just control over stuff. Then he got stuff to go with it. You watch him on the pitch chart, like a K zone — it’s corner, corner, up, down. There’s nothing in the middle of the plate unless it’s a first-pitch curveball.”
Middlebrooks already had a favorable impression of Wacha’s abilities when he was simply carving the strike zone in high school. A couple years later, however, he had to reassess what he knew of his friend and former teammate.
“By the time he was a [high school] senior he was 90, 91, then he went to [Texas A&M] and grew and got big and strong. He’s still a skinny guy, but he’s a lot bigger, filled out than he was. And he grew another four inches. He’s like 6-6 now,” said Middlebrooks, who would have been teammates with Wacha for a year in college had he elected to enroll at Texas A&M. “And I remember looking up and seeing him pitching in college in the College World Series and I was like, 96 [mph]? What?’ I texted him, ‘What the heck are you eating over there? I should have went on to school.’ ”
Middlebrooks has followed Wacha’s progress, his dominance in his explosion onto the big league scene. The Cardinals drafted the right-hander in the first round (No. 19 overall) of the 2012 draft, and now, 18 games into his big league career, Wacha has been an October star, going 3-0 with a 0.43 ERA in his three playoff starts. The Red Sox third baseman has seen the electric stuff that has made Wacha virtually unhittable at times.
“He got good when he grew because he has such a downward plane on the ball. When guys throw 96, you see it coming at an angle it looks like it’s going to be down, but the backspin straightens it out. So you’re like, ‘That’s going to be at my ankles,’ and it’s right above your knees,” said Middlebrooks. “With that angle, he’s got a good changeup. So you’re like, ‘OK, here comes the heater. It looks down but it’s going to be at my knees or a little bit above,’ [but] it’s a changeup and it keeps going down. … It’s not like you have time to get a foot down and wait and tell what it is because it’s 96.”
In recent weeks, the two have been in touch, eying the possibility of an October reunion.
“There’s been some good conversation over the past couple of weeks: [wishing each other] good luck, we want to play against each other, our parents want us to play against each other,” said Middlebrooks.
Now, with the Sox and Cardinals set to face each other in the World Series, that wish is ready to be fulfilled.
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