As a young pitcher, Adam Wainwright was blessed with a powerful right arm that could throw 95 mph fastballs. He was gifted with a killer curve that was as fine as any we’ve seen in major-league baseball. At his peak, he finished in the Top 3 of the National League Cy Young voting three times in a span of five healthy seasons.
Waino could not let it be. Over the years he’s constantly adapted, adjusted, and found new ways to trick hitters. And that’s how he managed to keep an edge on the hitters, even as his fastball velocity dropped to put him at a disadvantage.
Despite the hardship of a diminished fastball, nothing could take away his mind, or his poise. Wainwright still outsmarts and outfoxes hitters. This 6-6 tower of calm doesn’t rattle. At age 41, he has more ways to get hitters out than MLB pitchers who are young enough to be his son.
I don’t know how long Wainwright will defy time and come up with solid performances using the magic of illusion, deception and his Uncle Charlie curve. The second-best starting pitcher in Cardinals history is retiring after the 2023 season, and his adoring fans hope he will have a positive and rewarding experience in his final year.
I make no predictions for the regular season, but unless his stuff improves, it could be a rough one. Again, that’s to be determined later. We just know he’ll be utterly determined in every way to be on the mound, take his turn in the rotation, and pitch effectively. His survival skills are masterful, and in 2023 they’ll have to be better than ever.
Over the weekend we saw Wainwright – the virtuoso escape artist – do his finest Houdini act. With Team USA’s fate on the line against Cuba in the World Baseball Classic, Wainwright loaded the bases before getting an out. And then he walked home a run. It was 1-0 Cuba, and the bases were still full.
Sure, the tense situation was mostly about bad breaks that went against him. Three infield hits set up this bewildering jam, and Wainwright made it worse with that untimely walk to Cuba’s cleanup hitter.
What can a pitcher do?
Well, we know what this old pitcher can do: get his brain working, and lean into his composure, to find his way out of an alarming predicament.
What we witnessed was a classic Wainwright sequence.
First, he threw a curve that produced a bouncer to third baseman Nolan Arenado, who threw home for the force-out. One down, bases still loaded. Wainwright needed to throw only three pitches to notch the final two outs on a pop-up and a grounder to short. Once Wainwright gathered himself, Cuba’s WBC chances were doomed. After failing to land heavy blows against Wainwright in the first inning, Cuba was done. Team USA advanced to Tuesday’s WBC Final.
USA manager Mark DeRosa was in a bind. Team USA needed six relievers to defeat Venezuela 9-7 on Saturday. The bullpen was spent, because some MLB clubs don’t want their relievers working on consecutive days. USA needed innings from Wainwright – as well as his St. Louis teammate, Miles Mikolas. If Wainwright had cracked, it could have led to big trouble. But it’s also true that Team USA figured to score a lot of runs, so Wainwright could afford to allow some damage.
He’s maneuvered his way out of tough spots throughout his 17 MLB seasons. This situation was nothing new, but that didn’t mean it was easy … even if he made it look simple. Wainwright needed only 23 pitches to dodge the first inning. That pitch count could have been a lot higher, but Wainwright got away with just a scratch. He needed only 41 pitches to take care of his next three innings.
Asked how he regrouped in the first inning, Wainwright offered this self-analysis:
“I think stepping off the mound and just realizing that it’s not like they were crushing the ball, hitting it real hard, I was making pitches and they were keeping it soft contact in the infield. It was 1-0 with no outs, bases loaded, and I hadn’t given up a ball out of the infield yet.
“So I think just recognizing that and just getting back to the focus of making pitches, and Paul was over at first base saying, Just keep making pitches, and (pitching coach) Andy Pettitte came out to the mound, and he’s got the pedigree of having the most wins in playoff history with a bunch of World Series rings in the most hostile environments, and looking me right in the face and kind of revalidating everything that I was already saying to myself, which kind of was a big thing for me. It was a good meeting.”
After the early danger and the mound visit, Wainwright cruised through. He pitched four innings, allowing five hits, a walk, and one run for the evening. Mikolas was next up, and he matched Waino by pitching four innings of one-run baseball.
It was a good weekend at the WBC for the Cardinals on Team USA. In the two knockout-round wins over Venezuela and Cuba, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado combined to go 8 for 18 (.444) with six RBI and six runs scored. Arenado tripled, and Goldy hit a two-run homer. For the entire WBC to this point, Arenado is batting .391 with a .440 OBP and .609 slugging percentage. Goldschmidt is batting .333, has seven walks, and has posted a .517 OBP and .524 slug. These young men can rake.
Back to Waino …
I’m going to lie; I’m concerned over Wainwright’s loss of velocity and his vulnerability against MLB hitters. Can he still bring it? Is he more hittable than ever? What if he pitches poorly, and can’t summon the magic to sidestep hard-hit baseballs? Those questions cannot be answered until Wainwright is challenged during the regular season. Every scenario is possible: Good, solid, average, below average or poor.
For now, let’s appreciate how he handled his assignment in the WBC. He’d wanted to pitch in the WBC for a long time, and now he had the opportunity. He was a lesser version of himself, his velocity is still an issue, and he didn’t face any of the elite teams in his two WBC starts.
Doesn’t matter. The problematic part of Wainwright’s age-41 pitching was there for all to see, but he pulled off feats of legerdemain and came through for Team USA. Wainwright was credited with wins against Great Britain and Cuba. Years from now, we’ll look at his 2-0 record and 2.25 ERA and say that Adam Wainwright did great, and fulfilled a dream.
No one will nitpick flaws and wonder how he pulled it off. He was a winner in the WBC – and, true to his style, a wily winner at that. What a fantastic way for Wainwright to launch his 18th big-league season.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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All stats used in this column were sourced from MLB.com, Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.