WASHINGTON -- Shortly after his emergency five-out relief appearance ended, Adam Wainwright retreated to the visitors’ clubhouse at Nationals Park and went through his normal post-pitching routine. He was convinced the Cardinals’ season was not about to end, which meant he might have to pitch again.
As the Cardinals' lineup erased most of their seven-run deficit, Wainwright thought back to the last time they faced the Nationals in October: Game 5 of the 2012 National League Division Series. Seven years ago, the Cards climbed out of a six-run hole that Wainwright put them in, stunned the Nats in the ninth inning and advanced to the NL Championship Series.
“It had 2012 written all over it, didn’t it?” Wainwright asked a group of reporters late Tuesday night. “Didn’t it feel like that for a minute?”
The feeling faded, and this time, the Nationals celebrated. The Cardinals’ season is over, and Washington is headed to the World Series next week after a 7-4 victory over St. Louis in Game 4 of the NLCS.
Now, the 38-year-old Wainwright -- who will become a free agent shortly after the World Series ends -- must consider his future. Or he will, anyway, when he’s ready to think about it.
“I haven’t even thought about it. We’ll talk about it over the next couple weeks,” Wainwright said. “Right now, I’m just feeling for these guys in here. We battled through a lot of stuff this year, battled through a lot. People did not think we were going to be here. I think if you’d have asked all of Cardinal Nation in Spring Training, if we got to the NLCS, would they be happy? Most of them would probably say yes, I don’t know.
“But our ultimate goal is to win the World Series, and I know our fans’ [goal] is too. We’re all disappointed collectively. We could have done better, and we didn’t.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Cardinals’ final game, Wainwright shrugged off a handful of questions about what comes next. Eventually, he will know for certain if his final appearance in a Cardinals uniform was Tuesday’s 16-pitch, 1 2/3-innings relief outing after starter Dakota Hudson got knocked out in the first inning.
Wainwright's teammates certainly want to believe he’ll return for a 15th season with the Cardinals.
“I hope he’s back. I think he’s got more in the tank,” shortstop Paul DeJong said. “He’s done everything he can, recovery-wise, to be out there every day, and you have to give him credit for how unbelievable he really is.”
“I hope he’s back,” added lefty reliever Andrew Miller. “It’s as good as it gets.”
This season wasn’t as good as Wainwright gets, perhaps, but it was better than he’s been in years. Late last October, Wainwright and the Cardinals worked out what amounted to a “prove-it” deal: one year for $2 million guaranteed with up to $8 million in incentives.
After making only eight starts in 2018, Wainwright went 14-10 with a 4.19 ERA in 171 2/3 innings over 31 starts this season. He earned his performance bonuses. Did he prove anything in the process?
“The only person I’ve got to prove anything to is me,” Wainwright said. “I wanted to make all my starts, which I pretty much did -- missed one start, I think -- and I wanted to pitch well in the postseason. I did that. … I could’ve always done better, but I was throwing the ball better in the postseason than I did all year, so I can hang my hat on that.”
Twice in the last 10 days, the Cardinals saw “Vintage Waino” take the mound when it mattered most. Wainwright worked 7 2/3 scoreless innings in their NLDS Game 3 loss to the Braves, and he pitched into the eighth inning again in Game 2 of the NLCS, even though he was outdueled by Nationals righty Max Scherzer.
“He’s everything the Cardinals could ever ask for. He has done everything you could possibly imagine to make an organization, to make a team so proud,” second baseman Kolten Wong said. “Waino is one of those guys I’ll cherish as a friend for the rest of my career, regardless of if he’s with us or not next year. I’m always going to be a fan.”
If Wainwright is contemplating retirement or considering a future with another team, if this truly was the end of an era, he didn’t show it Tuesday night. He’ll spend the next few days decompressing before planning the next step of his storied career.
But when Wainwright left Game 4, he was focused on pitching another game.
“Right now, I’m thinking about what just happened in these four games,” Wainwright said. “In just a minute, I’m going to be thinking about what kind of food I’ve got to eat in there. After that, I’m going to think about what kind of shampoo I’m going to use in the shower. Then, I’m going to think about which sock I’m going to put on first. Then, I’m going to think about going to kiss my beautiful wife. Then, I’m going to think about going to get on the bus. That is where my head is at right now.”