By Jeff Jones

Twitter – @jmjones

ST. LOUIS — The mass of people at Busch Stadium on Friday night may have been surprised when Cardinals rookie outfielder Lane Thomas stepped to the plate for his first career plate appearance and deposited the second pitch he saw in the big leagues just over the right field wall for a two run home run.

One person who wasn’t particularly shocked was his team’s starting pitcher. Adam Wainwright saw Lane Thomas coming, and he was more than happy to tell people about it.

Wainwright spent much of the 2018 season deployed on rehab assignments as he tried to return to health and, ultimately, to form. Those assignments took him to three different minor league affiliates, including three starts and ten innings pitched for Double-A Springfield. That’s where he got to know Thomas and saw in him a future big leaguer.

“He’s a great player,” said Wainwright after Friday’s 5-4 Cardinal loss to the New York Mets. “I saw him a lot in my rehab starts last year and he was one of the four guys that I came back and reported that these guys were big league players, and I think we’re gonna see a lot of him. He’s gonna be a great player.”

The other three players Wainwright came back with glowing reports on were catcher Andrew Knizner, who was at Springfield, and outfielder Dylan Carlson and infielder Elehuris Montero, both at High-A Palm Beach. Carlson and Montero have since moved on to Double-A, while Knizner is the top catcher for Triple-A Memphis.

Wainwright made an impression on Thomas in that Springfield clubhouse. “He was always just really encouraging with certain stuff, and he was always very approachable,” Thomas recalled. “So that was always nice, having a guy like that come to a Double-A locker room and just be a guy you can talk to. It was just cool having him around.”

If Wainwright was evaluating players during his minor league stints, he was doing it of his own volition – “they don’t ever ask me,” the pitcher cracked on Saturday morning. He also wasn’t totally forthcoming with his assessments. Neither Thomas nor Cardinals manager Mike Shildt had heard Wainwright’s first impression before they were asked about it on Saturday morning, but Shildt didn’t betray a hint of surprise.

“I appreciate Adam’s evaluation,” Shildt said.  “He knows what a big league player looks like and I think [Thomas] was on display last night.”

So, what stuck out? How does a then-22 year old outfielder, acquired from Toronto in a nearly-unnoticed deal for international bonus slot money, make an impression on a pitcher with nearly 15 years and nearly 2000 innings of Major League experience?

If you ask Wainwright, the answer is that he hits. And he hits a lot.

“He had about three hits a game every time I was there,” Wainwright said. “You can tell a guy’s swing.”

“[O]ne game when I was pitching, he led off on a fastball, first pitch fastball, and I think he hit a homer. And then his next at bat he hit a liner in the third base hole on a slider. And then his next at bat he came up and he hit a changeup. I’m almost positive he covered three different pitches, hit to three different parts of the field, and if you can do that, that’s a pretty good thing to have.”

Shildt conceded that the organizational assessment of Thomas lined up with Wainwright’s recollection.

“Our player development department has always been a Lane Thomas proponent,” Shildt said, “and he’s here for a reason. It doesn’t surprise me that Waino had that evaluation. He has tools.”

The training staff recovered the ball from Thomas’s first career hit and home run and has plans to return it to him. He had a large family contingent in from Knoxville, TN for the weekend, and they were here to witness his historic hitting debut in person, as he became only the tenth Cardinal to hit a home run in his first major league at bat.

Thomas sat alone in the dugout before Friday’s game taking in the sights of Busch Stadium. On a blustery day when many of his teammates were sheltered against the wind, he scanned the empty seats and, he said, imagined what it would be like to come up and contribute in a big moment. The real thing lived up to the fantasy in all respects but one; Thomas said he always envisioned the home run coming in a victory.

He also understood the gravity of having the support of a player with Wainwright’s pedigree.

“It means the world,” Thomas said. “He’s a leader in this clubhouse, and to have a guy like that pull for you obviously helps and builds all the confidence in the world.”

One career is just beginning. One is winding down. Wainwright understands his place in the organization, both past and present, and though he laughed when asked about how much his scouting reports are valued, he also expressed gratitude for finding new ways to make contributions.

“When you consider yourself a Cardinal lifer,” Wainwright said, “it’s stuff I’m excited about. I want to share that information. I want to be a part of that going forward.”

Assuming he’s assessed Lane Thomas and crew correctly, Wainwright has already secured that future.