ST. LOUIS -- After the Budweiser Clydesdales circled, the history was honored, the bomber jet roared above and everything else this civic holiday spawns commenced, the Cardinals had a home opener to play. And had this not been the night for all that, Adam Wainwright still would've pitched.
Wainwright would've pitched because his hamstring and arm felt healthy. The latter has since the start of spring. The former, for a while. So while it could've looked from the outside that Wainwright hurried back from the disabled list to start Thursday's 3-1 loss to the D-backs to participate in what Cardinals manager Mike Matheny called "the pageantry" of the home opener -- perhaps for the final time -- the inverse is actually true.
"I've been ready for a week," Wainwright said. "I was just waiting on them to tell me when I could pitch."
That ended up being Thursday, as originally planned. The Cardinals realigned their rotation toward the end of spring to ensure Wainwright, entering the final year of his contract, toed the rubber for his fifth Busch Stadium opener. It was an honor the Cardinals wanted for the pitcher who has won more games at Busch Stadium III than any other. Only Bob Gibson has opened the club's home schedule more often.
Wainwright battled control issues early and decreasing velocity late. While winning pitcher Robbie Ray overcame command hiccups, Wainwright did not. The veteran Cardinals starter exited after throwing 89 pitches in 3 2/3 innings, as he allowed three runs on four hits and four walks.
"I didn't make it easy for myself out there," Wainwright said. "Certainly, there are a lot more outs in me tonight. I just wasn't effective the way I wanted to be."
Battling location problems of his own, Ray counterbalanced five walks with nine strikeouts, four of which he used to escape jams in the second and fourth innings. He allowed just two hits over six strong frames, including an RBI double to Yadier Molina in the fourth.
By then, the D-backs had scored twice against Wainwright. Ray drove in the game's first run with a sacrifice fly in the second, and David Peralta added an RBI single a batter later. Peralta added an RBI double in the fourth, swatting an 85.8-mph cutter hard enough on the ground that it split the right-center-field gap.
Wainwright's velocity drop was intentional, according to him and Matheny. They both characterized it as an attempt to improve control. Still, it was reminiscent of similar dips Wainwright experienced last season, after which he required elbow surgery. Wainwright's fastball averaged 91.8 mph during the first inning, according to Statcast™, 89.4 mph in the second and 87.3 mph in the third. It dipped to 86.2 mph by the fourth.
"I think he was fooling around with a lot of different things," Matheny said. "Taking velocity off to put more movement on, trying to find something that was going to get him into the strike zone."
Said Wainwright: "As soon as I started getting out of whack, I tried to tone it back a bit and get it back on the plate. When you do that, your stuff is not as good."
Wainwright's struggles came 10 days after he was scratched from his final spring start and placed on the 10-day disabled list. At that point, his chance at another home opener appeared nixed. Jack Flaherty, the Cardinals' No. 2 prospect per MLB Pipeline, was promoted in his place and pitched well in his season debut in Milwaukee. Michael Wacha was rested and ready.
But Wainwright said he never doubted his return. The Cardinals did not commit publicly to pivoting back to him until Wednesday, after he passed a few final physical tests in Milwaukee.
"In their minds, they were protecting me," Wainwright said.
One day in the not-too-distant future, Wainwright will celebrate a home opener in something other than spikes. He'll be allowed to leave early if he wishes, or to not show up at all. But the smart money says he will return, a modern hero among the aging ones, squeeze his tall frame into one of the motorcades and wave. Then, Wainwright will watch the next generation begin another season in St. Louis.
"Waino has been a consistent component or fixture of this club, and he certainly deserves the opportunity to pitch," president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said before the game. "Candidly, he had a great spring. So did Flaherty. But we have five spots. When you look at what Adam's body of work means, how he's looked, he certainly deserves this opportunity."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Double jeopardy: Ray twice walked himself into jams. And both times, he used his strikeout stuff to escape. Spotted two runs in the top of the second, Ray allowed a single to Marcell Ozuna before walking Jose Martinez to begin the bottom of the inning. After Molina lined out, Ray struck out Paul DeJong and Yairo Munoz to end the threat. Two innings later, Ray again faced DeJong and Munoz with two runners on, and he again struck both out to limit the damage.
Big spot: The Cardinals' last chance to get back in the game came in the eighth, when Ozuna came to the plate representing the tying run. D-backs manager Torey Lovullo called for Archie Bradley, who fanned Ozuna looking at a 97-mph fastball in the bottom of the zone to end the inning.
"I was a little disappointed not to pitch better in front of the home crowd tonight. The positive takeaway is that early, when I was in the right position to throw, the baseball was coming out nice. I haven't felt that way in years, since 2015. That's a positive for me. I have to execute better." -- Wainwright, on his results in the home opener
Friday's off-day and Wainwright's speedy return from the disabled list mean Wacha will make his second start of the season on six days of rest. He'll oppose D-backs ace Zack Greinke at Busch Stadium at 1:15 pm CT. Wacha threw six scoreless innings in his only start against Arizona last season.
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