St. Louis Advances on the Arm of Wainwright

Elsa/Getty Images Adam Wainwright

I was going to tell you a story in many parts.

We were going to rave about David Freese, the playoff hero of all playoff heroes in 2011, doing it again in 2013. We were going to discuss Gerrit Cole’s emergence as an excellent starting pitcher, and how the rookie’s solid performance in an elimination game against a loaded lineup got swept under the rug by bigger factors. We were going to delve into a Cardinals player-development program so robust that a beastly, homegrown slugger like Allen Craig can get hurt, and another beastly, homegrown slugger like Matt Adams could emerge, blasting a big homer of his own late in the game. We were going to cover the great strides that the Pirates organization made this season, and how 2013 could be the start of something big.

There will be time for all those angles another day. Today, we’re going to talk about Adam Wainwright.

Thirty-one months ago, the Cardinals right-hander had Tommy John surgery. Medical technology has come a long way in the past four decades, such that the procedure now carries a high success rate, with pitchers able to throw within a few months and take the mound in a little more than a year. Surgeons have become so adept at it that once it’s done and the arm has healed, patients report being able to throw harder than they have in years. That’s led to all kinds of craziness, up to and including parents asking their doctors if they’d be willing to perform elective Tommy John surgery on their 14-year-old sons, in the hopes of juicing up the kids’ fastballs.

If you think Tommy John surgery is a picnic, there’s a 100 percent chance you’ve never had the surgery yourself. To get it, you’ll first need to destroy the ulnar collateral ligament in your elbow, which is painful and scary as hell. Then, consider what actually happens on the operating table. Doctors slice open your injured arm, then drill holes in your elbow bones to accommodate the tendon they’re weaving in to replace your tattered UCL. That tendon might come from your forearm, your leg, or a dead body. It’s then sewn into those holes and stabilized to prevent a similar injury in the future (that doesn’t always work — plenty of pitchers have had Tommy John surgery multiple times). Finally, your ulnar nerve gets displaced to curtail the searing pain that can come as scar tissue forms and presses down on that nerve.

This is just the beginning. The rehabilitation process is long, painful, and tedious — maddening if you don’t have a strong work ethic and an upbeat attitude. We interviewed Wainwright in August of last year, 17 months after he went under the knife. Even with 21 post-surgery starts under his belt, he still winced as he described the physical and mental grind he went through to make it back.

You have two months’ time where you have about a pound-and-a-half, two-pound limit where that’s as much as you can lift. You have a bunch of new action in your elbow, a new ligament, scar tissue, a lot of new stuff going on. You don’t want to complicate things by jerking anything out of place. Gradually that weight increases. But I can remember being in the shower, two weeks after surgery, having the shampoo bottle in my hand, not having the strength to hold it, and the bottle falling right out of my hand, hitting the floor of the shower.

Elite professional athletes can have both the physical prowess and uncommon focus to overcome major injuries. But even the biggest, baddest, most Zen-like hoss of all time can get rattled when reduced to the strength and dexterity of an infant.

Wainwright made it back from Tommy John surgery for Opening Day 2012, only to struggle badly early in the season. He had a 6.16 ERA seven starts into the season and a 4.75 mark at the end of June, after yielding seven runs and 11 hits to the Pirates in one of the biggest debacles of his career. It took him months to trust his pitches — especially his signature sharp-breaking curveball — to do what they’d done before the surgery. It wasn’t until the final days of the season that Wainwright looked like he was all the way back.

Starting this season at full strength, Wainwright was spectacular. He posted the lowest home run and walk rates of his career, tying for the lowest walk rate for any starter in the game. He was a machine of efficiency, averaging more than seven innings a start and leading the majors with 241⅔ innings pitched. He tossed fewer than six innings just three times in 34 outings, failed to complete five innings just once. That short start was the worst of his career, a nine-run, two-inning stinker; when he allowed six runs to the Reds next time out, Cardinals fans began to worry that something might not be right with Wainwright, the kind of lightning-quick panic you only see when talking about a no. 1 starter. That concern disappeared as soon as Wainwright chucked seven shutout innings his next time out, part of a five-start stretch to end the season that produced a 1.80 ERA.

Wainwright followed that streak with seven innings of three-hit, one-run, nine-strikeout ball in Game 1 of the NLDS. As ESPN Stats & Info noted, his fastball was humming at 92.9 mph, nailing its highest average for any start since he averaged 93 mph on his heater in a playoff start against the Dodgers in 2009. But Wainwright’s go-to pitch when he’s on is his curve, and it was nearly unhittable in the series opener. He threw 33 benders, 27 for strikes. He also induced 11 swings-and-misses with the pitch, tied for his second-most in any game within the last five seasons. That performance typified what Wainwright had done all year long. He struck out 115 batters with the curve during the regular season, second only to A.J. Burnett; his curve also generated more value than anyone else’s except Burnett’s. In the nine starts this year when Wainwright threw his curveball for strikes at least 70 percent of the time, he delivered a 1.78 ERA, with 68 strikeouts and nine walks. If the Pirates were going to have a chance against Wainwright in Game 5, they’d have to prepare for a ton of curveballs, and try to avoid swinging at the ones that start at a batter’s belt and end at his shoetops. Which is to say, almost all of them.

Whatever preparation the Pirates might have done, it didn’t work. Wainwright unleashed more curves Wednesday night than he had in any game this season. The pitch devastated everyone in its wake.

Pedro Alvarez came into Game 5 as the Pirates’ best hitter in the series, by far. He’d banged out five hits in 13 at-bats, including three homers and a double, plus a pair of walks. Then Wainwright dropped this sequence of death on him:

• 76 mph curve at the knees, strike one

• 89 mph cutter, low and in, ball one

• Another curve, 78 mph and by the shins, swing and a miss, strike two

• 94 mph fastball up and out of the zone, fouled off

• Another 78 mph curve in the dirt, ball two

• Huge, sweeping 78 mph curve headed for the outside corner, called strike three

Smiley face

Wainwright’s curve was so overwhelming that he could throw three in four pitches, at the exact same speed, to the Pirates’ most dangerous hitter this series, and not fret the result. Plate umpire Jim Joyce gave him that called strike three on a pitch a couple of inches outside, plus a few other breaks over the course of the game. That was bound to happen on a night when Wainwright was making his pitches do everything short of sit up and beg for treats.

Once he’d established the curve, Wainwright began using it as a setup pitch, sometimes throwing it in the dirt to knock hitters off balance and set up follow-up pitches in the strike zone. It was all part of a broader plan that included masterful sequencing, a barrage of pitches thrown high, then low, inside, then outside, up, then down, high, then low. A big part of that strategy included throwing his cutter for strikes. Wainwright had just started tossing a cutter with some regularity in 2012; he threw it a career-high 28.5 percent of the time this season. Neil Walker felt the sting of that pitch, as well as Wainwright’s deadly curve, while leading off the seventh:

• Biting 91 mph cutter on the inside corner, swing and a miss, strike one

• 77 mph curve in the dirt, ball one

• 92 mph cutter that just missed the inside corner, ball two

• 90 mph cutter right down the middle, with a slumping Walker possibly just looking to get on via leadoff walk with his team down 3-0, called strike two

• 80 mph curve below the knees, barely foul-tipped

• 79 mph in the dirt, swing and a miss, strike three

Smiley face

Wainwright did run into a bit of trouble later that inning. After retiring Andrew McCutchen for the second out, the Pirates rallied, with little to none of it being Wainwright’s fault. First, Justin Morneau reached on an infield single that could’ve been called an error, a softly hit tapper that led to second baseman Matt Carpenter falling down, then being unable to make the play at first in time. Wainwright then fooled Marlon Byrd on another curve, but Byrd’s weak seven-hopper to short took enough time to produce another infield hit. Alvarez then followed with a grounder to first that should have ended the inning, only the ball took a sudden, wicked hop over Adams’s head, scoring a run. Russell Martin then grounded to short on the first pitch. It was a 19-pitch inning, Wainwright’s longest of the game. With Wainwright due up second in the bottom of the seventh, TBS color commentator Bob Brenly began wondering aloud if the Cardinals should pinch-hit.

This didn’t make much sense, all things considered. Even with that 19-pitch inning, Wainwright had tossed just 88 pitches. He’d been in control all game, locating all his pitches wherever he wanted and giving up a run only because the Pirates managed three flukish hits in a row. Though the Cardinals did have decent options to set up for recently minted closer Trevor Rosenthal, none of them were better than Wainwright. Staying the course was the best choice.

The Pirates put a runner on with one out in the eighth, only for Starling Marte to line into an inning-ending double play. Though many objected to first-base umpire Paul Nauert’s call at first, super-slow-motion replays appeared to vindicate his decision. When the Cards tacked on three more runs in the bottom of the eighth, there was nothing stopping manager Mike Matheny from sending Wainwright back out.

That move worked like a charm at first. Walker grounded a 1-0 fastball to second for the first out. McCutchen then got out in front of another slow curve, flying out to center for the second out. One more out and the Cards would be back in the NLCS for the third year in a row. But the Pirates weren’t going to go down that easily. First, Morneau slapped a single to center. Byrd followed with a base hit of his own. St. Louis still led 6-1. But with two runners on, the Cardinals’ playoff lives at stake, and Rosenthal a signal away, you could’ve forgiven Matheny for walking out to get his starter.

That’s when the chants starting raining down from the stands. The sea of red-clad Cardinals fans serenaded Wainwright for all the big moments he’d given his team over the years. There was that big, spinning curveball in 2006, the one that caught Carlos Beltran looking and launched the Cards into the World Series. The breakout years of 2009 and 2010, in which Wainwright emerged as the staff’s co-ace alongside Chris Carpenter. That painful Tommy John surgery in 2011 that denied Wainwright a chance to pitch in a second World Series. Fans recognized a pitcher who never quite matched the reputation of Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander, nor the phenom sheen of Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey. Yet he still stood just a tick below the league’s best, an elite starter who’d bounced back from a hellacious rehab and reestablished his top-five status. The crowd was now chanting in unison: “Waino! Waino! Waino!”

The workhorse was staying in the game. He’d get his chance to finish what he started.

Alvarez stepped into the box, waiting for Wainwright to deliver. First, a yakker in the dirt for strike one. Then, Uncle Charlie at the ankles for strike two. There’d be no clever pitch sequencing now. As surely as a hitter would know Mariano Rivera’s cutter was coming, 47,231 screaming fans at Busch Stadium all knew what to expect next on Wainwright’s 107th pitch. He rocked back and fired. Curveball, diving out of sight, a big swing … and nothing but air.

In all, we saw 48 curveballs, 29 of them for strikes, 11 of them producing whiffs. As the entire Cardinals team doused their ace with champagne, their next opponent could already start drawing up their scouting report for Game 3 in L.A. Just like everyone else, they are going to get an onslaught of curveballs. And if Wainwright is on his game, the Dodgers are going to have a hell of a time doing anything with them.

Filed Under: MLB Playoffs, Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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