Waino struggles again but gets to exit with '2 of the greatest ever'

October 3rd, 2022

ST. LOUIS -- History rarely happens in a tidy and timely fashion -- except, of course, when it comes to record-smashing slugger Albert Pujols -- and reality certainly disrupted the Cardinals’ best-laid plans for a meaningful moment for three franchise fixtures Sunday.

In a perfect baseball world, retiring stars Yadier Molina and Pujols would have joined veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright at the mound at the start of the top of the sixth inning and the three stars would have walked off the diamond at Busch Stadium together. Instead, a cold dose of reality -- more pitching struggles from the 41-year-old Wainwright -- rained on that planned parade.

When the Pirates touched Wainwright up for six runs (including a three-run home run) on six hits and two walks over 4 2/3 innings, Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol was forced to pull the pitcher from the game earlier than expected. The former staff ace still strode off the field along with Pujols and Molina to the cheers of 46,680 fans jammed inside of Busch Stadium, but his head was bowed in disgust most of the way.

Wainwright, who paused a few steps before the dugout to let Molina and Pujols walk ahead of him, was none too pleased with another poor outing. Being forced to leave with two outs in the fifth -- and following another sketchy outing with reduced velocity on his pitches -- spoke to the quandary the Cardinals face with Wainwright and the looming playoffs. Wainwright, a student of the game and one of the most self-aware players in the Cardinals’ clubhouse, understands fully the position he has put the team in with the Wild Card Series just five days away.

“I went from probably, no doubt, pitching Game 1 to maybe not pitching at all,” a frustrated Wainwright said. “I can't control that. All I can do is keep trying to make improvements.”

The 7-5 loss to the Pirates dinged Wainwright’s record to 11-12 -- his first losing mark since going 2-4 in eight 2018 outings and only the second losing record of a career that has seen him pile up 195 victories. Not only did he win just two of his final six outings, Wainwright allowed 23 earned runs on 44 hits and 11 walks over his final 28 2/3 innings while battling through what he called a “dead arm” phase.

Wainwright said he was “surprised” by Marmol’s plan to remove him at the same time as Pujols and Molina. And he was disappointed the moment came at a time when he failed to hold up his end of the bargain.

“The plan was for me to go about 50 pitches, dominate, get on track and get out of there,” he said. “I’ve just got more kinks we have to keep working on. I was proud to walk off the field with those guys even though I was pouting a little bit. It was still a good moment for me to be able to say I was teammates with two of the greatest ever."

Molina, the catcher who teamed with Wainwright for their record 328th career start Sunday, stood behind his close friend should Wainwright be called upon to pitch in the playoffs.

“He’s our ace, and I never have a doubt with Waino,” said Molina. “When we need him, he’s going to be there, no doubt about it.”

Pujols, of course, had no difficulties in rising to the moment in his final regular-season home game. After doubling in two runs in the first inning and later coming around to score to give the Cardinals a 3-0 lead, Pujols delivered again for a fan base that stood and cheered his walk to the plate and thrust their cell phones up to try and record history. He delivered more history in the third inning when he hit a ball a Statcast-projected 409 feet and 105.3 mph for the 702nd home run of his career. When he was pulled from the game later in the day, it meant Pujols’ legendary regular-season career ended with him homering.

“It was pretty awesome, pretty emotional, and even though you were kind of expecting it, it was a great day,” said Pujols, who extended his record of homering off 457 different pitchers in his career. “It sucks that we got the loss, but at the end, that’s not going to ruin a special day and a special ceremony we had.”

Added Marmol of Pujols homering in his final regular-season at-bat: “Letting that be the last one here for the regular season is not a bad way to go out.”

As for Wainwright -- who has yet to announce whether he will return for 2023 -- he is hopeful the Cardinals do plenty of winning in the playoffs so he can work his way out of the funk that consumed the ending of his 17th regular season.  

“I kind of ruined a good season with these last four starts, numbers-wise,” he said. “That's the first losing season I've ever had pitching a full season … didn't get to 200 innings … didn't get to 200 wins … didn't really do a dadgum thing I wanted to, except help us win some games.

“But, yeah, just a tough ending. Good thing we have another month to play.”