Waino turns back the clock in 200th win: 'For tonight, I was me'

September 19th, 2023

ST. LOUIS -- While recently reliving some of the greatest moments in a nearly two-decade career that included three All-Star Game selections, two Gold Gloves, a Silver Slugger Award and a 2006 World Series ring, Cardinals right-hander mentioned how one of his most famous memories has proven to be both a blessing and a curse.

Even now, some 17 years later, Wainwright is most known for throwing the air-bending curveball that caught star slugger Carlos Beltrán looking to end the 2006 National League Championship Series and propel the Cards to a World Series they would later win. That memory, while certainly pleasant, has always hauntingly driven the 42-year-old pitcher to try to top it.

“I don’t think of it that often, but people bring it up a lot,” Wainwright said before the Cardinals' 1-0 win over the Brewers on Monday night at Busch Stadium. “That’s the blessing and the struggle of being a big league player -- the highlight of my career happened 17 seasons ago, and I'm constantly trying to make new career moments, but it's just not easy.”

Clearly in the bottom of the ninth inning of a career that will end in two weeks with his imminent retirement, Wainwright might have finally found a moment to rival that strikeout of Beltrán.

Needing one more win for a career-capping achievement, Wainwright twirled a season-best seven innings of scoreless, four-hit baseball on Monday, and the Cardinals did the rest in a victory that gave the 6-foot-7 right-hander the 200th win he’s desperately wanted and pursued all season.

“For at least a night, I was a real pitcher and the guy I still want to be,” said Wainwright, who admitted to pitching with arm pain and tape protecting his aching back. “That’s my first scoreless outing [this season], and certainly my longest. 

“And, you know, for tonight, I was me.”

The scene seemed like something straight out of a Hollywood set: the aging pitcher, battling injuries and a familiar foe one last time and figuring out a way to summon the magic once more. 

Brewers outfielder Mark Canha said as much when he got to second base in the seventh inning, telling shortstop Masyn Winn, “Man, this dude’s a movie tonight.”

When it all ended, with closer Ryan Helsley securing the victory for the franchise icon he first met years earlier and was slightly intimidated by, Wainwright was left “gasping-for-air crying.” Finally, he candidly admitted, after all those years of pitching and searching for an achievement that could rival what he did 17 years earlier against Beltrán, he found a way to conjure another career-defining moment.

“That first year [2006], I thought, ‘Oh gosh, we’re going to win the World Series every year and I’ll close it out, and it’ll be great. I’ll do this 20 times, and we’ll call it a career,’” Wainwright joked. “The Beltrán moment is something I get asked about probably more than closing out the World Series. 

“But tonight, for me, this is tied for first.”

Wainwright became the fifth active MLB pitcher in the 200-win club, joining Justin Verlander (255), Zack Greinke (224), Max Scherzer (214) and Clayton Kershaw (209). He also became just the third pitcher in the Cardinals’ rich history with at least 200 wins, joining Hall of Famers Bob Gibson (251) and Jesse Haines (210).

“When he got out of the fifth and went back for the sixth and seventh innings, you could feel those emotions building,” Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt said. “It’s crazy how this played out but was perfect, too.”

Hit hard in a season in which he is almost certain to post the worst winning percentage of his career, Wainwright turned back the clock on Monday and pitched like he did earlier in his career, when he led the NL in wins twice and finished in the top five in NL Cy Young voting four times. Working quickly and confidently, Wainwright threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of the 25 hitters he faced. Among the 10 ground-ball outs he got by mixing his sinker, curveball and cutter, Wainwright induced two inning-ending double plays.

With chants of “Let’s Go Waino!” filling the air, the venerable right-hander retired Josh Donaldson on a fly ball to end the seventh and strand the potential tying run at third.

Struggling, as he has more this year than at any point in his career, made this career-defining night even more meaningful, Wainwright admitted.

“Having to work as hard as I had to work for it made me savor it that much more,” said Wainwright, who went 11 starts between wins No. 198 and 199. “There was a time where I wasn’t sure I could keep going or if they would let me keep going. But I’m sure glad I got to and turned things around of late.”