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NLCS Game 4 of Cardinals and Nationals

The Cardinals' Adam Wainwright pitches after relieving Dakota Hudson in the first inning of Game 4 of the National League Championship Series in Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. (David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com)

WASHINGTON — The great pitcher walked alone. He passed the dining area, where some forlorn teammates picked at food, and turned right, down a narrow hallway. And as he exited the visitors’ clubhouse Tuesday at Nationals Park, it was 11:59 pm.

Has the clock struck midnight for Adam Wainwright?

Was this the last time he’d leave a major-league clubhouse as a player?

The 38-year-old Cardinals veteran told reporters he’d talk it through with his family in the coming weeks. He’s a free agent, like he was this time a year ago, when he signed a one-year deal to prove that he could be Adam Wainwright again. And what happened this season was just a wonderful story. One of the best in baseball. The old pitcher made every start, winning 14 ballgames, compiling a 4.19 ERA – and even more impressive, he had a 2.56 ERA at home, a 2.97 ERA in all September starts and a 1.62 ERA in the postseason.

Adam Wainwright mattered again. And he should matter in the Cardinals’ 2020 plans, if he’s willing to return for one more season.

His $2 million contract with $8 million earned in incentives was a beautiful bargain for the Cards. If “Waino” wants to return within financial reason, it would be a win-win for the division winners and their winningest pitcher in the past 30 years.

“I think he’s still got more in the tank,” Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong said after the team was swept by Washington in the National League Championship Series. “‘Waino’ has been an unbelievable leader — I’ve been taking notes on everything he’s done. The way he brings us together, the way he talks to everybody in this clubhouse, the way he competes on the mound. A true pro. And an unbelievable Cardinal. A future red jacket. I hope he’s back.”

And, frankly, even if “Waino” was just a guy from another organization who joined the Cards in 2019, they could use that pitcher in 2020. Let alone the fact that he’s a local legend.

Right now, only Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson are sure-bets as Cards starters next season. It wouldn’t make much financial sense to re-sign Michael Wacha, so that leaves two open spots. The Cardinals have a long list of in-house options to compete for a starting role.

We’ll see if Carlos Martinez, once an All-Star starter, comes to camp physically prepared to be a starting pitcher. Beyond him, other possible candidates are Daniel Ponce de Leon, Genesis Cabrera, Ryan Helsley, John Gant, Junior Fernandez and Jake Woodford, who has yet to pitch for St. Louis. Of course, there’s always the Alex Reyes wild card. But last year, before his injuries, they tried to bring him back as a reliever.

So, yeah, there’s a desire for an experienced guy who logged 171 2/3 innings in the majors this season.

And the other Cardinals pitchers — and position players, really — talk about Wainwright with reverence. Mikolas said “it’s almost like having a third pitching coach on the team.” The young starters want to be around him and want to be him. And even if some fans think the importance of a clubhouse leader is sometimes overblown — bad teams have quality veterans, too — the guidance of “Waino” should be baked into the reasoning the staff excelled in 2019. Or, instead of baked in, maybe it was the seasoning to the season’s success.

“It’s as good as it gets, I think, the leadership that he and Yadi (Molina) bring, and the experience,” said fellow 6-foot-7 Cardinals veteran pitcher Andrew Miller. “You couldn’t script a better guy to play with. And, gosh, what he showed us as a player, what he’s been through? And what he did for us all year, down the stretch especially as things got kind of hairier or tougher, he stepped up his game.

“Sitting in the bullpen for some of the games he threw thing year, was some of the most incredible stuff I’ve ever seen. I remember that Cubs game, he threw 127 pitches. The way he pitched in the playoffs. The way he picked us up when we needed a stop or we needed a statement game, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything like it. And I’ve been lucky to play with a lot of really good guys. You want to talk about some who go out there and can back things up? He can talk the talk, and he can walk the walk. I just hope I see a lot more of him.”

There weren’t many memorable Cards moments in the NLCS. Or even runs. Or, come to think of it, hits.

But one particular at-bat in Game 2 captured the cunning curveballing of Wainwright. The batter was Juan Soto. He was 20. Wainwright was 38. It was almost as if Wainwright was trying to teach the young slugger a lesson. It was splendid.

The first pitch was a vintage Wainwright curveball, one that to this day might wake up Carlos Beltran in a cold sweat. The pitch kissed the bottom of the strike zone for strike one. Wainwright placed a second curveball just outside the zone for a ball. And then, he threw essentially the exact pitch, but perhaps one inch in, on the outside edge of the zone. Called strike two. That curve went 75 mph. For his fourth pitch, “Waino” unleashed an 89 mph fastball near that same outside spot.

Soto’s swing was so late, it looked like he was trying to swat the ball out of Molina’s mitt.

It was one of 11 Wainwright strikeouts in the game.

Incredible, right?

The guy who considered retirement last year threw 7 1/3 innings in the NLCS, walking one, allowing three hits and just one run.

If you said to a fan, “That’s a Wainwright postseason pitching line — guess what year it was from?” The fan might have said 2009. But it was 2019.

And in many minds, there are visions of him on the mound in 2020.

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