Wainwright goes from near-scratch to best game of season

September 21st, 2023

This story was excerpted from John Denton’s Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

On the historic night when  turned back time and forever immortalized himself in Cardinals’ lore, he woke up hours earlier not to an alarm clock, but instead to searing back spasms.

And, as it turns out, that was just the agonizing start to an afternoon and night when “Waino” went from uncertain to even pitch, to looking “just terrible” during a pregame bullpen session, to somehow authoring his best outing of his final season to secure win No. 200 of his storied career.

As if Wainwright throwing seven scoreless innings as a pitcher clearly in the bottom of the ninth of a career that has spanned 18 seasons wasn’t impressive enough already, he somehow did all that with a body that was badly betraying him leading up to his first pitch.

“Woke up with back spasms hitting and ribs out of place,” Wainwright told MLB.com. “I came in here [to the Cardinals trainer’s room] and got taped up a little bit for, like, the 14th time in a row. That’s when I found out [head athletic trainer] Adam [Olsen] had gone into [manager] Oli [Marmol’s] office and said, ‘Hey, you might want to think about Plan B here because it's not good at all.’

“Being able to somehow persevere through the way my body felt and the way my arm felt meant a lot to me,” Wainwright continued. “Even when I was warming up, it was easily one of the top three toughest warmups I've ever had in my career. But, even in that moment, I knew we were going to find a way to win that game.”

Added Marmol, referring to the reports he got about Wainwright’s balky back and the veteran’s struggles during his pregame bullpen session, to MLB.com: “Before the game I was told, ‘Hey, his back just went out and you might want to have a Plan B if we scratch him.’ Then, Adam went out there and threw his pregame bullpen and I was told [catcher Willson] Contreras could have caught it barehanded [because of the lack of velocity]. It was really bad, but this game is just beautiful, isn’t it? There’s no part of how his body felt that should have led to him even getting out of the first inning. To do what he did, it’s crazy.”

What he did was use his sinker and curveball to induce inning-ending double plays in the first and sixth innings, strike out veteran slugger Rowdy Tellez to end the second and fourth innings and work his way out of a seventh-inning jam with the potential tying run on third base. How the crowd of 33,176 at Busch Stadium chatted “Let’s Go, Waino” and almost willed him through his first scoreless outing in 29 starts reminded the Cardinals cornerstone of years earlier when he pitched with the biggest of all baseball stakes on the line.

“The strikeout of Tellez on a 3-2 count, where it was a nine-pitch at-bat, the crowd just erupted and they were with me on every pitch the rest of the way,” recalled Wainwright, who got messages from former managers Tony La Russa, Mike Matheny and Mike Shildt and dozens of former teammates following the victory. “Walking off the field in the seventh and feeling the crowd so excited. It felt like when we were getting close to winning a couple of those World Series and you start counting outs. Three more outs … two more outs … one more out, come on baby!”

When closer and close friend Ryan Helsley secured the final out to make Wainwright the fifth active MLB pitcher with 200 wins and just the third one in Cardinals history to join that club, the 6-foot-7 franchise fixture was noticeably absent from the dugout. Wainwright wanted to savor that moment where the afternoon precariously started for him -- in the trainer’s room. Needless to say, his body felt much better after securing the milestone he’s been chasing all season than it did hours earlier when he didn’t know if he’d be able to pitch.

“A really special moment for me that no one else got to share was me being in the trainer’s room, and when the third out was made the first two people I hugged were [performance specialist/physical therapist] Jason Shutt and Olsen,” Wainwright told MLB.com. “Those guys have spent countless hours helping me be able to go out there and pitch. That [private moment] meant a lot to me.”