Chris Carpenter will throw out the first pitch before today’s Game 2 against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium. The distinction is part show of respect, part metaphor as today’s first offering is all but certain to be Carpenter’s last in the Cardinals’ employ.
To add greater meaning to the noon ceremony, Adam Wainwright should catch Carpenter’s offering. It would merely formalize what transpired Thursday afternoon in a game that began in shadows but ended in crystal clarity.
This wasn’t just Waino being bueno and winning for the 20th time this year — as if that wasn’t enough.
It was Wainwright using seven innings within the Cardinals’ 9-1 blast job to show that the franchise retains a veteran starting pitcher capable of placing his signature on a series, quite possibly a month.
The Cardinals conceivably could have found a way to win Thursday without Wainwright dominating opposite A.J. Burnett’s stunning meltdown. Burnett is still waiting to get the first out of a third inning in which he allowed seven earned runs on 37 pitches. After walking Wainwright with a 3-2 breaking pitch to begin the inning, Burnett self-immolated. He missed with his first pitch to the last seven hitters he faced, surrendered a monstrous threejack to right fielder Carlos Beltran, hit Matt Adams in the left foot, forced home a run with a walk and bid adieu after David Freese flared mayhem with a two-strike, opposite-field single.
Wainwright waited 34 minutes between his last pitch of the third inning and his first pitch of the fourth. Even given an outrageous lead, Wainwright worked with purpose and, yes, edge.
Reaching back for some bluntness, Carpenter noted afterward, “Our guy got it done. Their guy didn’t.”
Catcher Yadier Molina classified Wainwright’s curveball as “unbelievable.” If there was any wobble the second time through the order it was barely noticeable. By the third time through, Waino was again rolling. The Pirates took only one at-bat against him with a runner in scoring position. Wainwright struck out nine without a walk against 24 hitters faced.
“I’d say ‘dominant’ would be an understatement,” offered Shelby Miller, a potential Game 4 starter who viewed Wainwright from the bullpen.
This is Wainwright’s third go-round as part of the Cardinals’ postseason turn but his first without Carpenter among it. It was Carpenter who led the National League with 237 1/3 innings pitched in 2011, then went 4-0 in six postseason starts while the Cardinals strong-armed an improbable World Series. Then 36 with forearm and hand numbness as constant companions, Carpenter pitched a Game 5 three-hit shutout to clinch an epic NLDS against his close friend, Philadelphia Phillies ace Roy Halladay. Carpenter twice worked on short rest that October. It’s impossible to prove, but the 2005 NL Cy Young Award winner may well have compromised any future productivity to finish the Redbirds’ seven-game stand against the Texas Rangers.
Carpenter was “that” guy. He stands 10-4 in the postseason, including two losses when physically diminished during last October’s NLCS. Now Wainwright is “this” guy, the one who led the NL with 241 2/3 innings pitched two years after missing the season following elbow reconstruction. He stands at 99 career regular-season wins – 45 fewer than Carpenter with six years to spare.
“I’d love to be that guy,” Wainwright said at one point.
Thursday’s wipeout leaves Wainwright 3-0 in as many postseason starts at Busch. Carpenter’s playoff lore will forever include a 7-0 postseason record there. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny remained the Cardinals’ primary catcher in Carpenter’s first season in St. Louis. He sees similarities in Wainwright.
“We make no mistake about it, he’s our ace,” Matheny said flatly. “He’s the guy that sets the tone and gives the example of how this goes.”
Burnett set a different tone for his team. The Pirates committed three errors and managed only four hits. Burnett, usually armed with a devastating curveball, misplaced it his second time through the order and was quickly exposed after shadows stretched past the mound.
Perhaps managing on hope rather than what he saw, Clint Hurdle took the heat for allowing Burnett to face eight hitters in search of a third-inning out. Matheny’s biggest concern was how Wainwright would shoulder a massive lead.
Postseason success typically involves dominant pitching predicated upon an indisputable ace. Losing behind Wainwright on Thursday would have badly complicated a five-game series against an upstart club that captured the teams’ season series.
Those following Wainwright have also offered glimpses of dominance. Miller, certain to be found on Rookie of the Year ballots, retired 27 straight hitters after a leadoff hit in one start. Michael Wacha came within one out and several inches of a no-hitter in his final regular season start. Joe Kelly was all that stood between the rotation and a collective meltdown in parts of July and August. Lance Lynn starts today after pounding out 198 strikeouts, four straight September quality starts and 33 wins the last two seasons.
“We’d like to say we’re going to have three or four dominant pitchers in this postseason. I guess that’s yet to be determined,” Wainwright offered. “But you can definitely count me in. I’d love to be that guy. Chris Carpenter … if I’m ever compared to him I’ll take it as a huge compliment.”
Wainwright may consider himself complimented.
As Carpenter dressed, he had plenty of time to reflect on what he produced two years ago and what he consistently sees from his heir.
“That was a great start by Adam,” he said. “It’s important to have that guy that shoves. You know he’ll take the ball and No. 1, he’s going to go deep and No. 2, he’s going to give you a real good chance to win. Nothing is guaranteed in a situation like that. It’s stressful. There are a lot of distractions. It’s tough mentally to get rid of all that stuff. You need somebody to go out there and get rid of it all.”
Wainwright controlled the moment from Thursday’s first pitch. For the last two months his fastball typically topped at 94 miles per hour. This time he repeatedly reached 96 with command. A curveball that he had tipped against Cincinnati in early September was again a no-chance pitch.
At most Carpenter will dress at this locker nine more times before slipping into free agency or very possibly retirement. Wainwright next April begins the first installment of a five-year extension.
It would be entirely fitting for one man to throw to the other today — one last time from the mound before the shadows return.