He arrived in the big leagues as the rookie closer. The famed curveball he blew past future teammate Carlos Beltran to clinch the 2006 World Series berth will forever be remembered as one of the most memorable single pitches in Cardinals history.
But Adam Wainwright wasn’t just a flash in the pan.
He made quite the name as a closer in the short term before making the transition to the starting rotation.
There was promise in him as a starter from day one. Thrust into a rotation considered then to be veteran-heavy, Wainwright was mentored by the likes of Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder.
After several successful years and recovering from Tommy John surgery, he finds himself given a new task. Now the tables have turned, and instead of being the exciting young arm, he has become the veteran presence in a pitching staff that seems to be getting younger by the week.
After the loss of Chris Carpenter prior to spring training and the temporary loss of Jake Westbrook, Wainwright is the lone man left.
“Each year I keep getting older and they seem to just keep getting younger,” he said after Thursday’s loss to the Mets.
While technically, he is taking on a “new” role, Wainwright says it’s just business as usual for him. Just like any other season, he shows up early and puts in his time.
He’s not trying to lead through lessons, but instead by example.
“I come in here and I work my tail off,” Wainwright said. “I do like I always do, and these guys are watching.”
A humble player with a colorful sense of humor, there’s no doubt the Cardinals' young pitchers are learning from one of the best arms in baseball today.
Wainwright is a career 85-50 pitcher with a 3.11 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP. His postseason numbers are even better: (2-0, 2.48 ERA, 1.01 WHIP).
Despite having had his own success over the years, Wainwright does remember what it was like to be the new kid on the block. Because of that, he’s made it clear to all of the young guys that he’s there for them if they need anything.
“If they want to know anything, they know they can come to me anytime,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who know how to prepare and know how to work their tail off, too.”
Despite their age, Wainwright feels this crop of youngsters—Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal—are quite mature as pitchers. Of course, amidst all of the rookies, it’s easy to forget that Lance Lynn is still relatively new as well.
These are talented players who have what it takes learn the ropes quickly—and Wainwright believes his young teammates are no exception.
“It’s not a rotation that needs to be policed or anything like that,” he said.
Learning to make the adjustments to life in the big leagues—being away from family, handling their money and even dealing with the media—isn’t always easy. While there are amazing highs, the lows are hard to prepare for.
Walking into the clubhouse after a rough start with reporters ready to analyze your mechanics and emotional state isn’t easy for those guys, but they know it’s just part of the game.
Watching how Wainwright handled himself after Thursday’s start is a prime example.
After throwing six innings and giving up three runs on six hits, he clearly wasn’t pleased with his outing. It wasn’t a terrible outing by any means, but he knows he’s capable of better.
Wainwright could have made plenty of excuses, for instance that he was still feeling the effects of the complete game on Saturday, but he was quick to shrug off that notion and own up to his mistakes.
“I made a couple of mistakes in the middle of the plate that ended up costing us some runs,” he said. “Murphy hit a couple of good pitches off of me…The one that they were supposed to hit, they hit, and the ones that I executed, they didn’t."
“That’s how simple it is,” Wainwright said after the game. “If I make my pitch, most of the time they don’t get hits.”
He accepts favor when it comes his way and accepts his mistakes. While he made clear he was surprised to be pulled after only 87 pitches, Wainwright also explained that it’s not always his decision.
There are a lot of lessons in those few quotes that the team’s younger pitchers are learning. They learn plenty just from spending time together and picking one another’s brains.
“We’re always sitting beside each other on the bench during games,” Wainwright said. “That’s some of the best time you can spend with anybody is just hanging out with them for nine innings talking baseball, talking pitching and learning from each other.”
As time goes on, they’ll all continue to grow, even Wainwright. One could easily argue by looking at his early-season performance that having some of this young firepower around has even re-ignited a spark in him.
He’s going deep into games, chasing strikeouts and seems to be having fun playing baseball again. Gone is the Wainwright of early 2012 who struggled to find his way as he returned to form after surgery.
The Wainwright we’re watching in 2013 is the same one who took on the “head cheerleader” role for the 2011 team. He still dances in the dugout and seems to be genuinely enjoying the game.
That’s a good thing both for him and for the men who are following the examples he’s setting early in 2013.
All quotes obtained firsthand by the author.