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Waino clear choice for role of Opening Day starter

Cardinals' ace right-hander model of professionalism for other rotation members

JUPITER, Fla. -- The numbers alone confirm where Adam Wainwright belongs -- atop a rotation and among a select few considered to be in the top echelon of Major League starters. It's why he was the obvious choice to start for the Cardinals in Cincinnati on Monday, when they begin their defense of the National League pennant.

It will be the third Opening Day start of Wainwright's career and the second since returning from Tommy John surgery.

Wainwright wears the title of ace as a nod to his career numbers -- which included a career-high in innings (241 2/3), strikeouts (219), complete games (five) and shutouts (two) in a 19-win season last year -- but not because of them. He owns the designation also because of what he does when few are there to watch him.

"You can be a pitcher who stands out the most, but unless you're doing all the extra stuff on the periphery, that really isn't a title you deserve," manager Mike Matheny said. "Adam absolutely does."

In a rotation where no other member is over the age of 26, the 31-year-old Wainwright leads them like a shepherd does his flock. "He has control over us young guys," Michael Wacha said this week. He was serious.

As Wainwright leads, each of the other four -- Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller and Wacha -- follow. Lynn refers to Wainwright as "the rock ... the guy that we lean on to get us through our hard times, our ups and downs during the season." Miller says he looks to Wainwright as the example of "how I want to represent myself." Kelly admires how Wainwright "is never too big for the game."

Wainwright heads the pitchers' workouts and also the team Bible Study. He has an air of approachability, but does not hesitate to interject or correct, when necessary. The pitchers see how efficiently he gets through his workouts and have learned from the ways in which he prepares for starts.

Wainwright helped talk Wacha through the pressures of the postseason only to then sit back and watch in awe at how the rookie right-hander rose to the occasion of pitching on baseball's biggest stage. Wainwright has mentored Miller on techniques of preparation and body care.

Lynn thinks often about Wainwright's early advice not to abandon his strengths as a pitcher while trying to improve on the deficiencies. And Wainwright was the one who first encouraged Kelly to shorten up his stride last season. Kelly later credited that adjustment once he became one of the NL's best second-half pitchers.

"Every team would love to have somebody like Waino, who is both a leader and an ace," Miller said. "He goes about his business the right way. He plays the game the right way, performs the right way and does everything how you're supposed to. We learn something new from him almost every single day."

"It's just been unbelievable his help to me and the rest of our staff," Wacha added. "It's what he shows us. He's a leader by the way he talks, but also by the way he shows himself, his work ethic."

Wainwright welcomes all the extra sets of eyes and the absorption of added responsibility. In many ways, too, he is passing down lessons once impressed upon him.

"I constantly remind these guys that I'm 10 years older than them and they still have to look up at me," Wainwright kidded, before taking on a more serious tone. "It's a good challenge. I like it. I was always so blessed to have [Chris] Carpenter be the leader and watch him and follow his lead for many, many years. Now, it's kind of my turn to do that."

Realizing that the rotation was going to trend young with Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook and Carpenter moving on over the last two years, the Cardinals pushed to ensure Wainwright wouldn't leave. By signing him to a $97.5 million extension just days before his Opening Day start in 2013, the club locked up his leadership through 2018.

Financial security did not usher in complacency either. After a challenging first season back from Tommy John surgery, Wainwright was -- in the opinion of the Cy Young Award voters -- the NL's second best pitcher in 2013. He went 19-9 with a 2.94 ERA.

Wainwright has won 19 games three times in his six seasons as a Major League starter, though he is still looking for a first Opening Day victory.

"When you look at your staff and you see Adam Wainwright at the top, right off that's a good staff," Lynn said. "It doesn't matter what you put behind it. And then also his ability to not be all about him and be about the team, and the concept of us all being one as a pitching staff, that's hard to find in a lot of superstar ace guys."

With Monday's start, Wainwright has the opportunity to establish a high bar of expectation that he can then challenge his four rotation mates to meet. He won't put himself ahead of them, either, but rather alongside.

"I know guys right now are in good hands with what Adam is doing, with what he is expecting," Matheny said. "And then with the accountability that he gives to them, they can create [that] toward each other."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB.

St. Louis Cardinals, Adam Wainwright