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Even after 148 wins and 14 seasons, Wainwright calls return to Cardinals 'a fresh start'

Even after 148 wins and 14 seasons, Wainwright calls return to Cardinals 'a fresh start'

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St. Louis Cardinals vs Chicago Cubs

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright gets ready to take the field before a game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field in Chicago on Friday, Sept. 28, 2018. Photo by David Carson,

The inning was not without its welts. The first three batters reached base, two scored, one on an error, and by the end the Cubs were on their way toward a victory in the final week of the season.

Yet captured within the play by play of that first inning on Sept. 28 were three strikeouts and a pitch Adam Wainwright was still grinning about this week as he spoke to his wife, Jenny.

Cubs infielder Javier Baez, who led the National League in RBIs, had a chance to break the inning open and, possibly, eject Wainwright from his final start of 2018. Baez fouled off a curveball to keep the count at 2-2. Wainwright turned to his sinker and wanted to drive it to the third-base side of home plate, hard and in on Baez. It’s a pitch he had abandoned in recent seasons — forced to try to reach that side of the plate with his four-seam fastball because of a grumpy right elbow.

Wainwright let loose a 91.1 mph sinker.

Baez let loose a swing, flinched — and missed.

“Whole new avenues are back in play that I haven’t been able to do in years,” Wainwright said Friday. “I left that inning with all kinds of moxie because I had been able to make a pitch that I haven’t had in years.

“You can only fake so much, like giving the hitter a scowl to buy yourself a second, but when the ball comes out of your hand, there’s no disguising the truth,” Wainwright added. “I left this season, I left that last start feeling motivated and feeling better than I have in a long time.”

Wainwright recalled that pitch and its sensation Thursday as he talked with his wife shortly before gathering their four daughters and heading to the Blues game. A few hours earlier the Cardinals announced an agreement that would bring him back for 2019. The new contract, which has a smaller base salary and is built around incentives, comes only after pitches like the sinker and starts like he had in September. It also concludes a four-week stretch that Wainwright acknowledges began with no promise he would pitch again after 2018 and finished with a new arm swing and two resolutions about his career.

This was not the end.

And the end shouldn’t happen anywhere other than St. Louis.

“I’m going to treat every year from here like it’s my last and go year to year,” Wainwright said. “I’m going to have a great time and maybe a year from now we’re having the same conversation or we’re having a retirement conversation. I wanted to do all I could to keep the door open with St. Louis. I was trying not to think about the possibility of going somewhere else. I didn’t want to go anywhere else.”

At the Blues game Thursday night, Wainwright received a standing ovation from the crowd, which he said moved his daughters. He was aware of caustic responses on social media to his return and wondered why no one had flexed their “Twitter muscles” in person.

During his phone interview from his home in St. Louis, Wainwright joked Friday that if the Cardinals didn’t want him he’d try to find a “beer ball league or something” to play. So acute was his ache to compete again that he had to find something for next spring.

It was far different from three months earlier, when all he had was an ache.

Wainwright injured his hamstring coming out of spring training and started the year on the disabled list. Three starts and 15 2/3 innings into the year, he was back on the DL when his right elbow stirred again with discomfort. When he returned a month later to start in San Diego, the joint caused such limitations that his velocity plummeted – and results with it. For several years, he’s had deep bone bruises in his right, surgically-rebuilt elbow, and while he could get through a few starts and a few innings in those starts the bruise would eventually win. Wainwright and the Cardinals mapped out a lengthy rest – the longest of his career that did not involve a reconstructive surgery – and eyed August as his possible return.

Role, TBD.

Wainwright disclosed Friday that when the Cardinals came to him to begin his rehab assignment, the team’s head trainer asked what “realistically” the righthander could do.

“I can pitch one inning every couple of days,” Wainwright said he told them. “I knew that was not what they needed. I knew that was not what they were hoping to hear. But that’s what I had.”

Wainwright’s early rehab appearances and the Cardinals’ trepidation with their veteran’s timetable reflected this shared uncertainty. Things changed, Wainwright said, after he threw 20 pitches in a backlot appearance against rookie-level hitters. He landed 16 of those pitches for strikes. Two were put in play. One eyebrow was raised. Not only because of the results but because his elbow didn’t have its nagging soreness and his pitches their sagging verve. Another rehab appearance went as well, and “at no point did I have the fizzle,” he said.

He called the Cardinals’ training staff in St. Louis and asked if he could try to push himself through three innings, maybe four. A new schedule was set — but first he’d get the extended work in the bullpen after throwing an inning or two in the game.

As September neared, Wainwright spoke with pitching coach Mike Maddux and asked him what the pitching staff needed. The young pitchers were starting to tire, their schedules massaged to save innings or steal extra rest, and Michael Wacha would not return as the needed reinforcement. Maddux suggested Wainwright build for as many innings as he could, because the team could them – three at time, four, six every five days, whatever.

“My thoughts and my prayers were whatever this team needs, whatever that is, let me do that,” Wainwright said. He did not allow a run during his rehab assignment. “And I mean this, I couldn’t stop smiling. I walked off the mound so ready for the next inning that I was like a Cheshire cat.”

At some point early in his rehab, the grinding in his elbow became so familiar and so frustrating that Wainwright exaggerated his arm swing. He made it lower, deeper, and less point to point. As he progressed through August, he realized that adjustment had alleviated the stress on his elbow and given the bruises time to heal without aggravation. He could get his arm to extend, to maintain its strength, and to deliver pitches like the sinker to Baez.

The Cardinals had data on the spin rate of these pitches, their break, and, of course, their velocity, and that gave them an analytic model that matched Wainwright’s description of how he felt. As both sides expressed interest in his return, Wainwright made it clear he understood the contract would pay him based on four starts in September and not four top-three Cy Young finishes or the previous 14 seasons or 148 wins.

Specifics of Wainwright’s new contract have not been disclosed in part because the deal will be filed and finalized after the World Series ends, as free agency opens. By rule, players who are on a team's roster cannot sign for less than a 20 percent pay cut, so Wainwright must become a free agent before the deal can be complete.

The potential value of the contract is significantly less than the $19.5 million yearly salary Wainwright had in his recent deal.

“I’ve got some carrots I can reach for, and the better I can pitch, the more I can pitch, the more I can give, the more I can give back,” Wainwright said. “I feel like it’s a fresh start. I know how that sounds coming from a 37-year-old pitcher who has been through several contracts, injuries, up and down, and I’ve been through a lot. But that’s how it feels. For the first time in a while, I have health. It gave me such satisfaction and such joy to be on the mound competing again, I don’t think I could have walked away.”

Ranking the players based on WAR

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