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‘Unfinished business’: Back with Cardinals, Adam Wainwright says 2023 season will be his last

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St. Louis Cardinals president of operations John Mozeliak on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022 talks about the return of Adam Wainwright for another season with the team.

That final walk off the field and into the offseason was longer than usual this season for Adam Wainwright, who had to come all the way from the Busch Stadium bullpen, not to throw a pitch in the Cardinals’ playoff series but to spend that time ruminating why he did not.

He could not let those footsteps be the last ones he left on that ground.

He said as much to manager Oliver Marmol as they neared the clubhouse minutes after Philadelphia’s sweep in the wild-card series: “I ain’t going out like that.”

“That would have just left such a bad taste,” Wainwright elaborated Wednesday. “I pitched myself out of being able to compete. And I live to compete. That drives me crazy that I pitched in such a way the last three weeks of the season that I was not thought of (for) pitching one of those first two games. Walking in from the bullpen, I already had it in my mind.”

Inspired by his frustration, Wainwright agreed to a one-year extension with the Cardinals that was still being finalized Wednesday. The deal will bring the three-time All-Star and longtime ace back to the team for a 19th season — and what the 41-year-old right-hander says will be his last season in the majors.

Although several times he accepted a retirement gift on Yadier Molina’s behalf this past season, Wainwright purposefully did not join his teammates Molina and Albert Pujols in their preseason retirement announcements. He was not sure and considered the benefit of a quiet exit. Waiting in line to pick up his kids from school on Wednesday, he joked that he may have ruined the Cardinals’ “marketing” by returning after the team orchestrated the trio leaving the field at the same time in the middle of their final regular-season home game together. But the way he left the field — struggling through September, not used in the playoff series — ate at him.

He is unsure if he wants the “hoopla” of a final season.

He is sure he wants a different ending.

“It just kind of feels like, looking back on it now, that everything that happened happened to lead me back for one more year,” Wainwright said. “We’ve got some unfinished business, you know? If I tell you it’s the last one, am I going to have to go through a bunch of stuff? My main focus to play this year is to win and to help this team win. Anything that distracts from that is not wanted. Yes, this will be the last one. Just everybody relax. Let me pitch. Let me go out and perform. Don’t freak out about it every single day, and let’s see what happens.”

St. Louis Cardinals president of operations John Mozeliak on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022 talks about the return of Adam Wainwright for another season with the team.

Wainwright’s contract extension, which will be around the $17.5 million he made in 2022, leaves him as the last active player from the Cardinals’ championship seasons of 2006 and 2011. It also gives the Cardinals a complete rotation for 2023, though John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, stressed Wednesday that he would shop for more pitching this winter.

Since scribbling out a contract proposal on the back of a napkin to return to the Cardinals after a year sidetracked by injury, Wainwright has been one of the most reliable and durable starters in the majors. He was vital to the Cardinals’ success in the shortened season of 2020 and piloted the pitching staff through a rigorous run of double headers coming out of quarantine. Since 2019, Wainwright is 47-32 with a 3.57 ERA in 105 starts. He’s among the major-league leaders in innings, ERA and complete games in that span.

And he has recast his entire career — shifting it from one that was cut short by injury to one that will garner Hall of Fame consideration.

With 195 career wins, Wainwright spoke candidly Wednesday and said he has his eyes set on three numbers of note. He would like to reach 210 career wins and tie for the second-most all time by a Cardinals pitcher behind only legend Bob Gibson and then push it three more in order to tie his friend and Hall of Famer John Smoltz.

“The number I’m looking at is 210,” said Wainwright, already second all-time for the Cardinals in strikeouts (2,147). “I just feel like it would be cool to be behind only Mr. Gibson in everything. The other number I’m thinking about is (213). Because one of my greatest competitors in everything else off the field is John Smoltz. He closed out three (40)-save seasons. So he’s got me there. I always remind him I closed out a World Series. If I get more than 213, I’ll have some real bragging rights.”

The third number?

Well, he admitted he spotted a place for it on the left-field wall at Busch Stadium, even after they add No. 4 and No. 5 to the retired numbers in the coming years.

“Fifty is a beautiful number,” Wainwright said. “That puts the pressure back on me. I’ve got to win some games this year.”

Wainwright feels he’s in a better position to do that than in September, when a superb season soured, and it took him weeks to tease out why. Wainwright had a 2.50 ERA in six August starts, striking out almost as many (31) as he allowed hits (33) in 39⅔ innings. In September, his ERA bloated to 7.22 in six starts and he allowed 56 baserunners in 28⅔ innings. He lost his final three starts and pitched his way out of the Cardinals’ postseason plans and into that long walk from the bullpen. Wainwright initially diagnosed his issue as a “dead arm,” but subsequent review of video and work in front of a mirror and bullpen revealed the issue was his stride.

His lead foot was coming 8 to 12 inches shy of its usual landing spot and that truncated his extension, costing his pitches zip, crispness and familiar movement. He shouldered the blame for not picking up the issue earlier, saying in the final weeks of the season he did not maintain his practice of scrutinizing video of his delivery “click for click.” Mozeliak said the team was obviously comfortable with Wainwright’s conclusion and his planned correction to commit to him for one more season.

One Wainwright isn’t sure he wants it marketed that way.

As he was saying that an unidentified teammate texted him that he “deserved the hoopla” his peers received.

“What I’ve been told from players and fans and family is that I need to enjoy that and soak that up,” Wainwright said. “For me, if I went out and pitched 33 games and then six or seven more in the postseason and we win the World Series and I got to say on the stage — the World Series stage — if I got to say, ‘Nice knowing you. I’ll see you all later.’ That would be the way to do it for me.”

In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman recalls Game 7 of the ‘11 World Series (11 years ago today), in which the Cardinals won their 11th title. Also, a happy birthday shoutout to Braden Looper! And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat. Ten Hochman is presented by Window Nation!

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