By Jeff Jones
Twitter – @jmjones
ST. LOUIS — Adam Wainwright made his 287th regular season start for the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday afternoon, and despite his inarguable place in Cardinals history, there was something missing from the previous 286.
Wainwright wanted to make an entrance.
Before striking out nine Padres and completing six innings without a walk en route to his first win of the 2019 season, Wainwright emerged from the dugout ahead of his teammates. He looked over each shoulder, gestured with his arms to the crowd, and then did the same to the dugout. He then sprinted off to the mound, the other fielders nipping at his heels.
It was an intriguing display from someone who pitched, as manager Mike Shildt put it, with a “typical Wainwright chip on his shoulder.”
“I’ve always wanted to do that,” Wainwright admitted, “and I’m sure the other team was looking at me like, ‘what in the world is [he] doing?'”
“I’ve always dreamt about coming out on the field and cueing the music and then getting the guys to run out in front of me and kind of cueing them and then taking the field.”
Wainwright’s gesture did not go unnoticed in many corners. Shildt made a point to ask reporters if they had noticed the gesture – we had – and then demurred on speculating about its meaning. He encouraged those assembled to ask Wainwright directly, which is usually an indication from Shildt that he knows an individual has something that they want to get off their chest.
The choreography was also not spontaneous. Wainwright shared that he sent a team-wide text message on Sunday morning asking the others if they’d have his back in his new motivation technique. He was self-depreciating; they were supportive.
“I texted the team this morning,” Wainwright explained, “and was like, ‘hey, I’ve always wanted to do this. You might think it’s corny, I don’t know. I wanna do it. Let’s do it.'”
“They were like, ‘yeah man, let’s do it, let’s pump you up.'”
Taking a cue from the great closers Wainwright’s teams have faced throughout his career, he opted to come on strong from his first step out of the dugout.
“Nothing’s cooler than when I used to watch – besides the fact that you’re losing when this happens – but when Trevor Hoffman used to walk in the game,” he said. “Or some of those big closers. [John] Smoltz or [Craig] Kimbrel or Mariano [Rivera]. When you get to see that, that’s a cool thing, man.”
After struggling in his first start of the season in Pittsburgh and taking the mound for a team which had to recall bullpen reinforcements from Memphis on Sunday morning, Wainwright knew that the Cardinals were in particular need of every ounce of skill he had to offer. For that, he said, he needs to find an extra edge.
“That’s the way you’re gonna see me the rest of the year, man,” Wainwright vowed. “To get the most out of my ability, I’ve always gotta be on the verge of fist pumping strike two calls. That’s where I need to be mentally, so that’s where I’m gonna be from now on.”
Wainwright has admitted on several occasions to having doubts that his career would be able to continue in the midst of last season. On Sunday, he acknowledged going home between starts last season to “lick [his] wounds” and merely hope that his body would respond to the trauma of pitching in a way that allowed him to make his next start.
Wainwright also made minor major league history on Sunday afternoon. After striking out Fernando Tatis, Jr. in the second inning, he became the first pitcher to punch out both he and his father, Fernando Tatis, Sr. He was only the second pitcher to face the duo, following teammate Andrew Miller on Saturday afternoon.
The strikeout of Tatis Jr. was emphatic, a sinker called for a strike on the outer edge that Wainwright knew was a good pitch as soon as it left his fingertips. After some prodding he compared the pitch to Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors turning away after releasing a jump shot. No need to watch the ball when you know where it’s going.
“There’s been a few times in my career where, as it’s leaving the hand, I know that I’ve thrown a really quality pitch,” Wainwright said with a grin. “And that might’ve been one of those times.”
Wainwright wasn’t willing to completely give up the ghost on whether his must-be-maintained shoulder chip will require crowd engagement moving forward, but he did hint in that direction when he offered advice to those who might be coming to watch him at Busch Stadium this season.
“You’ll have to wait and see. Fans, show up on time.”