Adam Wainwright was great in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, but he didn't have to be in order for the St. Louis Cardinals to take the first LDS game of 2013. Behind a seven-run frame in the third inning, St. Louis' offense provided plenty of support for their ace.
While seven innings of one-run ball wasn't vital to a victory on Thursday, it will be a major cog if the Cardinals make a run towards a National League championship.
As the St. Louis ace, Wainwright is the perfect veteran anchor. With a postseason rotation that includes Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly and the dreaded TBD (to be determined) for Game 4, it's clear how much the Cardinals will rely on Wainwright to carry the load. If we include Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller, both of whom were available out of the bullpen in Game 1 and could start a Game 4, the four potential starters outside of Wainwright have combined to pitch 33 career postseason innings.
Prior to Game 1 of this series with Pittsburgh, Wainwright had 33.2 postseason innings under his personal belt. That number is now 40.2, most of which has been accompanied by dominance.
In the aftermath of the victory, Cardinals right fielder and all-time great postseason slugger Carlos Beltran had this to say to TBS' Craig Sager about the pitcher that has carried St. Louis all summer long: "It's great. Being able to see Wainwright all season long, shutting teams down. Today wasn't any different. Throwing that curveball for strikes."
That curveball, along with impeccable command and control, has allowed Wainwright to develop from 2006 championship closer to top-of-the-rotation arm to star after Tommy John surgery. Outside of Clayton Kershaw, no pitcher in the National League was more valuable, according to FanGraphs.
Despite posting a league-leading 97 victories en route to home-field advantage through the National League postseason, St. Louis doesn't feature a trusted, veteran staff outside of Wainwright. What the Lynn-Kelly-Wacha-Miller quartet lack in experience, they make up for in talent and upside, but predicting their October output is an exercise in futility.
In order for the Cardinals to navigate through an October slate that will include Pittsburgh and either Los Angeles or Atlanta, Wainwright will have to be the anchor that gives star performance and length in each outing. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny can't afford to navigate through his bullpen during Wainwright starts, yet still have enough firepower ready for underwhelming efforts from his other, younger starters.
The following is a look at Wainwright's first five October starts, including Thursday evening's victory over Pittsburgh.
Outside of the usual Wainwright traits (high strikeouts, few walks, limited runs allowed), the game logs all feature substantial innings. An anchor just doesn't pitch well, he takes the ball with the ability to go seven or eight frames in each outing.
Moving forward, St. Louis may meet up with Los Angeles and its duo of aces, Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. With most experts predicting a World Series trip for the Dodgers, Wainwright's ability to win multiple games in a series could change the entire complexion of the National League picture.
Over the past 25 years, many aces have come and gone through October, but ones like Curt Schilling and John Smoltz left their mark on the game by anchoring rotations during the biggest moments of the season. Now, as the game shifts to feature Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez as the best arms of this generation, another big October should land Wainwright's name aboard that list.
In fact, when looking at the numbers since 2007, Wainwright already deserves major inclusion among the top pitchers in the game. When factoring in the load St. Louis is asking of him this October and his consistency through the years, Cardinals fans should feel very, very confident with him as their anchor.
Part of Wainwright's success undoubtedly stems from the confidence gained from all those October innings and outings that the 32-year-old has been a part of since 2006. He expressed those feelings to Derrick Goold of The St. Louis Post Dispatch earlier this week.
"The experience that we've had in the past helps us be ready for each and every game," Wainwright said. "Helps us to naturally control our emotions. What I told the guys today, one thing that really helped me in 2006, Jason Isringhausen said 'Just breathe.' It sounds simple. It sounds childish, but when you get out there in the moment, to actually take some time to just breathe simplifies the game a little bit, it calms your nerves and allows you to just focus on the pitch you're making."
St. Louis has become an almost yearly participant in October and a threat to win a World Championship every season. A major reason for that success is its ace and anchor atop the rotation.
Can Adam Wainwright lead St. Louis back to the World Series?