PITTSBURGH - Way back in spring training, scouts huddled beneath the shadows at Tradition Field, many of them shaking their heads with envy at the kid standing on the mound. Some in the Mets' dugout that day later would do the same.
The Cardinals have become baseball's model franchise for the way they churn out young talent, displaying the same efficiency Ford once used to flood the market with Model Ts. The latest off the assembly line was the tall righthander who pitched on that February afternoon, a fresh-out-of- college 22-year-old named Michael Wacha.
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"We knew he had good stuff," said Pirates outfielder Marlon Byrd, who first saw Wacha during spring training with the Mets. "He showed it today."
The Cardinals beat the Pirates, 2-1, Monday in Game 4 of their National League Division Series, forcing an all-or-nothing Game 5 showdown Wednesday in St. Louis.
Wacha shined, tossing 7 1/3 no-hit innings, blinking only when Pedro Alvarez hit his third home run of the series. The solo shot was his team's only hit of the game.
But for the Cardinals, who had only three hits themselves, the outcome was yet another triumph for their enviable infrastructure, which continues to refine a seemingly endless supply of talent.
"It's obviously not something you can just replicate," said Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak, who has successfully melded a band of twenty-somethings with a veteran core. "And we're lucky that we have that going here, and it's certainly something we don't take for granted, either. We know the importance of it."
Perhaps no team in baseball boasts a better method of drafting and developing young talent than the Cardinals, who reaped the benefits of their efforts when they needed it the most.
Once Wacha was pulled, manager Mike Matheny tapped a pair of homegrown fireballers to finish the job. Carlos Martinez squashed a Pirates rally in the eighth before Trevor Rosenthal slammed the door in the ninth.
The Cardinals needed only one timely swing -- Matt Holliday's two-run homer off Pirates starter Charlie Morton in the sixth inning -- to send the NLDS back to Busch Stadium.
Wacha took care of the rest. He had come within one out of recording a no-hitter in his final regular-season start, and against the Pirates, he simply picked up where he left off.
"Once I was out there, once I threw the first pitch, all the nerves kind of went away," said Wacha, who quieted another raucous crowd at PNC Park.
In many ways, the former Texas A & M righthander has personified the Cardinals' developmental prowess. Though he was drafted 19th overall in 2012, he was regarded as less than a top-tier prospect. Yet he has flourished, rising quickly through the organization after making a strong impression in spring training.
Wacha has taken advantage of a strong support system that includes Yadier Molina, the best defensive catcher in the game. It also includes veteran pitchers Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, who have been mentors to the Cardinals' young arms.
"He's one of a few guys who's very good at watching the game with you and talking pitching," said Wainwright, the ace who will start Game 5.
The influence was easy to spot. Wacha bulldozed through the Pirates with stunning efficiency, jumping ahead of hitters with a fastball that touched 97 mph. He recorded nine strikeouts, blending that velocity with a changeup that kept the Pirates off balance.
It was a performance that was reminiscent of Wainwright, whom Wacha called "one of the guys I look [up] to on the team."
From the batter's box, Byrd spotted the similarities.
"He's a year removed from college," said Byrd, who struck out three times. "The way he pitches, the way he trusts his stuff, the way he works with Molina, just all around, he's a great pitcher."