The other day somewhere around the clubhouse, manager Mike Shildt walked up to his veteran ace who spearheaded the team into so many Octobers and who ownership called “one of the greatest Cardinals ever,” and he asked Adam Wainwright what the starter needed this weekend to be ready for Wednesday.
“What’s Wednesday?” the pitcher asked.
“You know what Wednesday is,” the manager replied.
Wednesday is the wild-card game, the win-or-walk one-game playoff, the focal point of everything the Cardinals are doing this weekend and their gateway to a division series.
“Am I pitching that game?” Wainwright recalled asking. “He said ‘yeah’ like it was obvious.”
In the casual nature of the confirmation, there was a compliment.
A confidence was implied.
“It was brought up to me in such a nonchalant way that it meant a lot to me,” Wainwright said. “That’s such a cool thing because three years ago, I was like, you know, on the mound basically dead. Three years later, to have it be a no-brainer that I was pitching the most important game of the season — this one really is the biggest game of the year — to have that, yeah, you’re the guy we want there, that means a lot to me.”
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Wainwright’s assignment to start the wild card was the second most obvious move with him of the week.
On the eve the postseason, the Cardinals and Wainwright finalized an extension for the 2022 season that will assure the veteran righthander an 18th season with the only major-league club he’s known. The deal is expected to be worth twice as much as he made this past season and around $16 million, a source described. Negotiations on the deal that both sides hoped would be inevitable accelerated earlier in the week, came to an agreement around Wednesday, and was announced, officially, on Friday.
“We look at him as a lifetime Cardinal,” chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said, referring to Wainwright as “greatest ever.” “And one whose legacy will remain among the top players forever.”
“I don’t want to be anywhere else. Who am I kidding?” Wainwright said.
In addition to giving him a chance to win 200 games and stoke Hall of Fame consideration, Wainwright’s extension couples with Yadier Molina’s extension in September to give the battery time to set the all-time record for starts by a tandem. They have started 304 games together and will need 21 next season to surpass Detroit’s duo of Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan. In the dugout recently, Wainwright and Molina saw a 20-something Cardinals fan holding a sign with both of their names and talked about how that fan had only known the Cardinals with them on the team.
“That is a powerful thing to think about,” Wainwright said.
While Miles Mikolas joked Friday that Wainwright is welcome back because “he’s got the good golf hookups,” Molina has privately (and publicly, honestly) lobbied Wainwright to return. Molina said he needs his “brother” on his last “get booed” tour of the NL Central.
Molina, 39, said he will retire after the 2022 season.
Wainwright stopped shy of being so definitive.
“I’m almost certainly going to ride off with him, but I’m not formally saying that,” Wainwright said. “Several of my favorite athletes growing up retired like three times, and I don’t want to retire three times. When I say I’m done, I want to know that I’m done.”
Last month, Wainwright shared a video of his family taking a vote on whether he’d pitch in 2022. The decision was unanimous. Behind the scenes, the decision took discussion. Wainwright’s oldest daughter, the one he cradled on his shoulder as an infant during the 2006 World Series parade, is in high school now — in Georgia, so she can have that experience without the upheaval of the baseball season. Jenny Wainwright and her husband have said their five children can get the dog they’ve asked and asked and asked for when he retires. They’ll have waited now for two, three years.
“The odds of my kids having a dog after the season next year are very, very high,” Wainwright said.
On Tuesday, Wainwright won his 17th game as the Cardinals won their 17th consecutive to clinch a wild-card berth in the postseason. Earlier in the streak, the righthander collected his 2,000th career strikeout to become the only pitcher other than Bob Gibson with that many as a Cardinal. He leads the team with a 3.05 ERA. His 184 wins are third all-time, his 3.35 career ERA is sixth all-time and beyond only Gibson and pitchers who all threw before him. Among pitchers who have debuted after 2000, Wainwright’s 184 wins are the second-most for a pitcher who stayed with one team, behind only Clayton Kershaw’s 185.
Three years ago, Wainwright described himself as “broken” and convinced the game had been taking from him because of injury. Bones in his elbow grated against each other with every throw. It hurt to lift a fork, let alone one of his daughters.
Out of the rotation in May 2018, he, the Cardinals’ training staff, and the happy coincidence of Dominic Leone needing a throwing partner got him back to the mound that September. He heard the concerns about his age, that sparks had left his fingertips, and that this era of velocity had retired his curveball. Encouraged he was healthy and determined to reinvent himself in 2019, he worked out a contract proposal on a napkin to present the only team he’d known, the “family” he could trust to give him a chance. The Cardinals did with an incentive-laden deal he maxed out. In the two seasons since, he’s been their best pitcher, arguably their MVP in 2020, and one of the most consistent starters in the game. His 29 quality starts the past two seasons top the majors.
The Cardinals bet on the person they knew they had.
Wainwright returned to being the pitcher he knew he could be.
On Friday, Wainwright listed all the people who helped him, from trainers to doctors to teammates. He did it with the Cardinals the way they’ll continue to a red jacket and beyond — together. But first, there’s Wednesday.
“I still carry those chips on my shoulder at all times, because even if (critics are) not thinking it, I’ve created it,” Wainwright said. “In my mind: ‘OK, he did it once, but he can’t do it again. He won’t beat whatever team he’s going to pitch against in this wild card game. He’s too old to do that. It’s too big of a moment.’ In my mind, I’m trying to build off what we did this year. This was another starting point where we can get better next year. That’s where I’m at in my mind.
“They think that was crazy?” he concluded. “Wait until they see what I do next.”