TOWER GROVE • Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright knows catcher Yadier Molina wasn’t expecting it and it’s possible Molina didn’t think Wainwright had it anymore, but there it was on the fourth pitch to Yonder Alonso earlier this week.
It arrived at 92 mph.
It had some late action that veered in on the lefthanded hitter.
It was a called third strike.
It was … a four-seam fastball.
During his shutout of the San Diego Padres this past week, Wainwright uncorked a pitch he had not used regularly since Class AA. He is learning to love it again.
Since arriving in the majors, Wainwright had thrown both a two-seam fastball and the one-seam sinker popularized by former teammate Joel Pineiro. He has been a devoted follower of the Sinkers R' Us crowd. He said in his career he had thrown a four-seam fastball twice in the majors. Both grip-it, rip-it pitches went to former Milwaukee Brewers catcher Jason Kendall, and Wainwright thinks both went for base hits to right field. It just wasn’t a pitch he wanted to use, not with the other options he had.
As Wainwright has groped for a grip in his return from Tommy John surgery, he started tinkering around with the four-seam pitch -- one that zips at a higher velocity but doesn’t always have the desired movement. He would throw it at about 50 percent when playing catch with teammate Jake Westbrook. He got into Tuesday’s game and thought he’d take the four-seam for a test drive. He didn’t tell Molina. He said he didn’t really know he was going to use it until the opportunity presented itself.
That was when Alonso stepped into the box.
“I had a weird feeling going into the game about the pitch, just something I was thinking about,” Wainwright said. “I was thinking about my start and I just saw that pitch working for me. I had a sense it was going to be a good pitch for me.”
One of the pitches that has misbehaved most for Wainwright this season was his cut fastball. With a sharper veer and harder velocity than a slider, it is the pitch of the now, thank you Mariano Rivera. Chris Carpenter has used one effectively for several years. Wainwright has become more proficient with it through the years, but he has struggled to make it cooperate this season as he returns from elbow surgery. It hasn’t had the same zip. There have been times when it just spins without the desired movement, and times when it cuts back over the plate. According to FanGraphs, Wainwright’s fastball has averaged 89.3 mph. He’s thrown it 49.3 percent of the time, and it has been a minus pitch for him. Locked inside that total is his cutter.
The Web site Brooks Baseball tracks such information on a game-to-game, pitch-to-pitch basis. According to the Pitch F/x data organized there, Wainwright threw six “four-seam fastballs” in Tuesday’s game and 34 “cutters.” The gizmo used to gather the Pitch F/x data was probably as unfamiliar with Wainwright’s four-seam fastball as Molina. It can be inexact, and there are some pitches and pitchers that give its categories fits. In truth, Wainwright said he threw maybe four cutters. He threw more than a dozen four-season fastballs, especially as it started working. The average velocity tells the story. According to Pitch F/x, Wainwright’s “cutter” averaged 88.2, and most of the higher end velocities – 91 mph, 90 mph – were his four-seam fastball, like the one he threw to Alonso in the first-inning at-bat.
That was the high-end pitch, at 92 mph.
His cutter doesn't have that sizzle.
The experiment with the pitch continued throughout the game as Wainwright crafted the third shutout of his career and what he called one of the “more emotional” outings of a career that has included pennant- and World Series-clinching pitches. Wainwright allowed four hits and struck out nine. He broke two of John Baker’s bats with the four-seam fastball. Each time the ball had late movement that went in on Baker’s hands.
Wainwright said he’s not yet sure what to do with the new old pitch, but that it did unlock a side of the plate that he hasn’t been able to find this season. It also gives him a pitch that can change the eye level – something different than the pitches he usually pounds at the lower reaches of the strike zone. Or, it could be a pitch that he abandons after one fantastic night together. He’s still toying with how to use it, and his next opportunity is a dandy. Coming off that shutout, Wainwright’s prize is the opportunity Sunday to be the first Cardinal to duel Roy Halladay since Carpenter had to be nearly perfect against him to win Game 5 of the National League division series. Halladay hasn’t had that same consistent success this season.
Wainwright has a sense he’s finally got a grip on his.
“We’ll see what I do with it,” a buoyant Wainwright said Thursday.
BIGGEST BLASTS AT BUSCH: I hope you’ll forgive a quick entry today because there is obviously other news going on and there are some assignments to finish up before an early day at the ballpark. But I received several questions last night following David Freese’s 456-foot blast into center field in the seventh inning. The estimated distance of that shot makes it the second-longest hit at Busch Stadium III, the ballpark that opened in 2011. All of the questions asked – well, swell, what’s the longest then? I can help:
Albert Pujols vs. COL, 2011 – 465 feet.
Freese’s shot eclipsed a home run hit a few weeks ago here at Busch by Carlos Beltran that traveled 454 feet according to in-house estimates. That homer had a short shelf life as the second-longest in Busch III history. It replaced Lance Berkman’s home run from last season that at 452 feet was the longest home run at the time at Busch III. Pujols broke that record, and all of this means that the four longest home runs in Busch III history have all been hit since the weather started to warm up a year ago.