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Adam Wainwright at Age 37: It’s Complicated, Awkward, Emotional, Inevitable

As always, Adam Wainwright gave it his maximum determined effort, challenging the Pittsburgh Pirates with everything he had. With their season down to 19 regular-season games going into Monday night’s series opener, the Cardinals have an urgent need to win.

Wainwright, 37, making his first MLB start since May 13, looked fresh and strong in the first couple of innings. Perhaps the advance reports were legitimate, with the optimism springing from his 17 innings of scoreless pitching during  minor-league rehab appearances. Perhaps Waino’s right elbow was healthy, and ready to fire.

So how did he do?

Two bottom-line conclusions, and both are true:

1. Bad: Wainwright pitched 5 innings, and was pounded for two homers and four earned runs. That’s a 7.20 ERA. Wainwright put the Cardinals in a 4-0 deficit position after three innings. Big trouble, considering the Pirates were starting Trevor Williams, who had the best ERA in the majors (0.66) in his last nine starts. For Cardinals hitters, a tough assignment was made more difficult when Wainwright gave Williams and the Pirates a four-run lead. When the Pirates went ahead 4-0, they had a 12 percent chance of coming back for a victory according to the Win Probability at FanGraphs.

2. Good. Actually, make it great: The Cardinals rallied once to tie the game at 4-4. And after Wainwright departed the game, and the bullpen yielded two runs, the Cardinals rallied a second time to overcome a 6-4 Pirates lead.  The home team — admirably, thrillingly, and in a perfect-timing way — pulled off an 8-7 win. It was one of the Cardinals’ greatest triumphs of the season.

By recovering from deficits twice in the game — with Matt Adams delivering the big-bam-boom with a three-run homer in the eighth — the Cards pushed two games ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the competition for the NL’s second Wild Card spot. The Redbirds also edged closer to the first-place Chicago Cubs in the NL Central, trailing by 3.5 games. The second-place Milwaukee Brewers are only a game behind the Cubs after winning 3-2 at Wrigley Field Monday night. The Brewers lead the Cardinals by 2.5 games in the quest for the No. 1  Wild Card slot.

The Waino portion of this game was the proverbial mixed bag.

Good: According to Statcast data, Wainwright averaged 91.3 mph with his four-seam fastball and sinker and 85.3 mph on his cutter during the first inning.

Not so good: In the second inning, the velocity started to drop. But not in an alarming way. Still, Colin Moran put the Bucs in front 1-0 by depositing an 85.3 mph cutter into the seats for a solo homer.

Really bad: By the third inning, Wainwright’s sinker was down to 89.6 mph … the four-seam was 89.8 mph … the cutter had dipped to 84.8 mph. The curve (74.9 mph) was about the same. But the Pirates lashed their way to three more runs including Starling Marte’s long two-run homer to straightaway center for a 4-0 lead. Marte blasted an 89.8 mph sinker.

Potentially bad: In the fourth inning, Wainwright averaged 87 mph on the sinker, 87.6 on the four seam, 81.6 on the cutter, and 72.6 mph on the curve. In the fifth, his sinker went back up to an average of 89.6 mph, but he only threw two. The Pirates had some juicy pitches to drive, but missed doing damage.

Really good: Despite the diminished velocity, Wainwright fended the Pirates off and retired the last eight hitters faced. His survival skills were impressive, and his friends the hitters evened the score.

Cardinals manager Mike Shildt gambled by staying with Wainwright in the third.

I was surprised Shildt let the Pirates crank out four runs without intervention. When it comes to Wainwright — a truly beloved and respected Cardinal and competitor — managers just can’t quit on him. Wainwright has received extra consideration that never would be extended to another STL pitcher. That was certainly true of Mike Matheny, who on multiple occasions sent an obviously injured Wainwright out to pitch with little chance of being effective.

I didn’t think Shildt would get caught up in the emotion, the sentiment, the nostalgia.  I believe Shildt is terrific — but yeah, he’s also human. Shildt talks so much about being proactive rather than reactive, I’d come to expect him to back his words with action. And at times, Shildt is properly aggressive — and deserves praise for that.

Shildt on Monday night was fortunate the gritty Wainwright saved him by getting through the fourth and fifth innings to keep the Pirates in check. And Shildt was the beneficiary of a lively attack led by Paul DeJong (two-run double), Harrison Bader (two sac flies, two RBIs), Marcell Ozuna (one RBI, two runs) and Big City Adams.

Shildt won the gamble because the Cardinals won the game.

I also  keep thinking about something that several managers have said (many times) through the decades. Hall of Fame managers that I covered including Earl Weaver, Joe Torre, Whitey Herzog and Tony La Russa.

To paraphrase:

➤ A manager can make the right call, a smart decision, and have it blow up on him anyway. It doesn’t mean his decision was wrong, or that his thought process was misguided. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. The players put the decision into motion, and they must execute the plan successfully.

➤  A manager can make a decision with his heart, rather than his head … he can go for the long shot. A manager can choose to stay too long with a pitcher in a game for reasons based on personal fondness or loyalty or stubborn but sincere faith. This option doesn’t make much sense to pragmatic observers. But a manager goes with his gut feeling — and maybe the long shot will come in. This doesn’t mean it was an intelligent decision. It just means it worked this time — and the next five times, the same move would likely lead to failure.

➤ Wainwright wasn’t a big long shot per se, but the odds were against him (and his manager) when the Pirates smacked their way to  a .444 average and .778 slugging percentage during the second time through the lineup. (Wainwright did retire the only two batters faced when the Pirates began to make their way through the third turn of the lineup)

I thought was a good idea to start Wainwright. It made sense. He’d pitched well in the run-up to this start. He felt great. Inserting him into the rotation created an extra day of rest for young starting pitchers Austin Gomber, Jack Flaherty and John Gant. And as I said a bunch of times on my radio show, I was reasonably optimistic about Wainwright’s chances to make a solid start.

But my concern was over the unpleasant possibility: If Wainwright didn’t have much going, and the Pirates were putting up runs, how long would Shildt stay the course? In May or July, you can go that extra mile with a struggling starting pitcher. But that isn’t the prudent way to go on Sept. 10, with your team grinding away in a division race, and a Wild Card derby, and every game is crucial.

I also have to look at myself on this. We’ve gone through this process multiple times this season — Wainwright trying to make it back from an injury, pronouncing himself fit to pitch, insisting he feels great. And fans and media — me included — reaffirm our appreciation and fondness for Wainwright the man, declare optimism, and anticipate a good result. Why? Because we know how much he cares, and we want to support him. We are willing to suspend our powers of logic and make a wish to the baseball gods — by asking them to watch over the hero of the 2006 postseason and one of the greatest starting pitchers in Cardinals’ franchise history.

Now here’s the reality:

— Since the start of the 2015 season Wainwright has made only 61 starts because of injuries. That’s an average of 15.25 per season.

— Wainwright had elbow pain late in 2014. He made three postseason starts. Two starts were a struggle; one was outstanding. His ERA in the ’14 playoffs was 5.62, and he had a surgical elbow cleanup after the season.

— Wainwright has spent 356 days on the DL since the start of the 2015 season. In ’15 he ruptured an Achilles tendon, was on the DL for 159 days and returned late in the season to serve in a bullpen role. He had elbow and back problems in 2017, missing 47 days on two DL stays. He’s been on the DL three different times this season (150 days total) with a strained hamstring and elbow distress.

— Since signing a five-year contract for $97.5 million before the start of the 2014 season, Wainwright has had one superb season (’14), a mediocre season (2016), and three injury-torn seasons. (2015, 2017, and 2018.) I say 2016 was mediocre because he had a 4.62 ERA, and his adjusted ERA was 12 percent below league average. But man, Wainwright’s 2014 regular season was special: 20 wins, a 2.38 ERA, 227 innings, and a quality start percentage of .781.

— Since the beginning of 2015, Wainwright will have been paid $78 million through the end of this season. Over the last four seasons he’s pitched 373 innings and has a 4.56 ERA that ranks 103rd among 129 MLB starters (350 IP minimum.) His quality start percentage (.462) ranks 109th among 129. His 90 ERA+ (10 percent below league average is 109th. And his average Game Score (48.6) also ranks 109th.

– In terms of value, Wainwright has only 2.0 Wins Above Replacement (the baseball reference version) since the start of 2015. That bWAR ranks 115th among 129 MLB starters (minimum 350 IP.) Wainwright has 1.1 bWAR since the beginning of 2016 (No. 115) and 0.2 bWAR since the start of last season.

My purpose isn’t to dredge up negative statistics. These stats are part of the record and stand on their own, without my assistance.  I’m trying to make a point here. Given the blatantly obvious trend, and numbers that reflect the severe decline phase, here’s the question: Why do managers, front office execs, coaches, fans, and media people (like me) maintain unrealistic expectations for Wainwright?

As of now, Shildt plans to start Wainwright in Sunday night’s game against the Dodgers at Busch Stadium. That’s a big game that can directly influence the Wild Card race. Heck, all of the remaining games are huge. Starting Monday the Cardinals will have only 12 games left to go.

So when Wainwright makes the start Sunday, Cardinals’ loyalists can only hope for these things:

✔️ He pitches well … or at least solidly.

✔️ If  Wainwright pitches poorly, and things turn awful early, we hope hope Shildt is aggressive about going to the bullpen to stop the bleeding and keep the score as close as possible.

✔️ The Cardinals win.

Look, this is the oldest story in pro sports.

An aging athlete, loved by all, the source of joy and pride for many years.

It’s complicated. Awkward. Emotions run high. Contradictory feelings are inevitable. You want to put the team’s priorities first without disrespecting a future Cardinals’ Hall of Famer. You want it it to be 2010 again.  A time when Adam Wainwright, only 28, won 20 games, had a 2.42 ERA, and finished second in the NL Cy Young voting for the first time. Sadly, those happy and perfect endings are rare. For one night, though, anything can happen. Maybe Sunday night will become such a night. Dream it, sure. That’s better, and fairer, than actually expecting it.

Thanks for reading…

Bernie 

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