Adam Wainwright made his final appearance of spring training this year on March 15. Ten days later, he was scratched from a Grapefruit League start and, shortly after that, was added to the disabled list with a hamstring strain.
The injury appeared, at first glance, to scuttle plans the club had made to give Wainwright the start for the Cardinals’ home opener on April 5. As former manager Mike Matheny said at the time about that honor:
“It’s something we put thought into,” Matheny said. “I think our fans appreciate it, what he’s been able to do. ‘Waino’ obviously has a long history with our fan base and a lot of credibility built up in this game.”
Under normal circumstances, Wainwright would have probably returned in mid-April, following a rehab appearance to ready him for major-league competition. A nine-strikeout, one-run performance from Jack Flaherty, who’d taken Wainwright’s place on the roster, reduced any necessity to rush Wainwright back. In the end, though, the Cardinals activated him for the April 5 start anyway. The former ace walked more batters than he struck out, threw just 17 of his 42 fastballs above 90 mph — only eight fastballs hit 91 mph — and failed to make it out of the fourth inning.
Following what amounted to an extended-spring-training appearance for Wainwright, he got much better results in his second start, abandoning his four-seam fastball, shifting some fastball usage to his sinker, and using his cutter significantly more often. He threw only 31 fastballs, but 16 topped 90 mph, including nine over 91 mph. He struck out just four batters and gave up two homers, but he didn’t walk anyone and gave up three runs in seven innings. It wasn’t a great performance, but it earned him another start.
The next start was more of a mix between the previous two. He managed five strikeouts, no runs, and no homers, but he walked four and was forced to to work his way out of trouble in multiple innings. He again limited his fastball use, but the velocity was missing, with just seven of his 30 fastballs cresting 90 mph and just two reaching the 91-mph mark. The tall righty went back to the disabled list due to elbow inflammation and built Matt Carpenter a garden.
This time, Wainwright made a rehab start before returning from the DL. Pitching for Double-A Springfield, he threw five scoreless innings but also struck out just two of the 17 batters he faced and recorded only 59 pitches. Despite the modest pitch count, he called up for a start against the Padres on May 13, anyway. He threw 13 fastballs in the first inning. None topped 90 mph and he averaged less than 88 mph on the pitch in the first inning while giving up two walks and a single. He was allowed to pitch a second inning. His six fastballs averaged 85.6 mph, but after a walk and a single, he escaped damage by striking the pitcher out and then getting a double play. He walked the bases loaded and then gave up a single before his day ended.
After that, it would be a while before Wainwright would pitch again, and it wasn’t unreasonable to wonder if the 36-year-old had made his last pitch absent a goodbye appearance near the end of the season.
After a few months off, Wainwright started throwing again. Instead of being rushed back to the majors, he spent a full month making rehab appearances in the minors. In his first time out, for High-A Palm Beach, he struck out two of the three batters he faced. Next time, he struck out three of six. He moved up to Double-A and it was four strikeouts in seven batters. He then pitched three scoreless innings with three strikeouts. Then it was up to Triple-A with four strikeouts in four shutout innings, albeit with two walks. On September 1, he struck out seven in five innings against two walks without allowing a run.
On September 10, Wainwright was back in the majors. He produced a so-so start. The curve proved decent, getting five whiffs on 30 offerings with another six called strikes. Just 12 of 32 fastballs topped 90 mph, though, and with three strikeouts, no walks, and four runs — including three on two homers — in five innings, there was less hope that Wainwright was building something. The pitcher himself even went on Twitter to defend himself against prominent St. Louis writer and voice Bernie Miklasz.
— Adam Wainwright (@UncleCharlie50) September 11, 2018
Six nights later, after the Dodgers had taken the first three games in the series, Wainwright backed up his comments by striking out nine Dodgers against three walks in six scoreless innings. He further minimized his four-seam fastball and made his cutter his secondary pitch after the curve. He got six whiffs and 14 called strikes off 37 curves, plus another five swings-and-misses and six called strikes on 28 cutters. Eleven of his first 16 fastballs topped 90 mph before his velocity dropped as the evening went on.
In his last start against the Giants, Wainwright’s velocity wasn’t quite there, even from the outset. He threw 44 curveballs out of 104 pitches, producing a 42.3% rate that represented the highest single-game mark of his career. The pitch still did well, inducing nine whiffs and seven called strikes. Of the 15 offerings in the sixth and seventh inning, though, it got just one whiff and one called strike with four batted balls and six takes for balls. After giving up one run through six innings, Wainwright went out for the seventh and was charged with three more runs. With six strikeouts and no walks, though, the outing was still encouraging.
Since that start, the Cardinals’ playoff odds have fallen precipitously.
St. Louis now requires some help from either the Giants and Nationals to overcome either the Dodgers or Rockies for the second Wild Card spot. None of that will matter, however, if the team can’t get another good start from Adam Wainwright against the Cubs this afternoon. From 2009 to -14, Wainwright recorded 27 WAR, ranking sixth among all pitchers behind only Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, Cliff Lee, and Zack Greinke — this despite missing all of 2011 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Cardinals have relied on Wainwright in big moments since he served as closer in 2006, when he recorded the final out of the NLCS against Carlos Beltran and helped the team to a World Series championship. He owns a 2.82 FIP and 3.03 ERA in 89 playoff innings. Today might well be Wainwright’s last chance at an important moment in a Cardinals uniform.
At 37 years old and in the final year of a five-year, $95 million deal, the Cardinals’ righty could be pitching his final game in a Cardinals’ uniform. Earlier this season, it seemed like his play a decade ago might have earned him one last start, but his play the last few weeks ensures today’s start isn’t about nostalgia, but giving the Cardinals the best chance to win in a game with important playoff implications.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.