Emotional Wainwright searching for breaking ball amid slump

June 30th, 2023

ST. LOUIS -- As the owner of one of the most iconic breaking balls in MLB postseason history, 41-year-old  can hardly fathom the fact that he is still searching for the feel on his curveball nearly three months into his final season.

“There are a lot of different emotions I’m feeling, but I’m trying to not hinder the team with it because nobody needs a Debbie Downer, and nobody needs a negative force walking around,” said Wainwright, who was pulled after surrendering six earned runs in 1 2/3 innings in the Cardinals’ 14-0 loss to the Astros on Thursday night. “I’m still trying to stay positive and encourage guys and be a good teammate. Through my struggle, I can’t bring everybody else with me.”

Making the 400th start of his career, Wainwright was knocked around Busch Stadium by the surging Astros. Unable to locate his cutter or sinker and leaving his once air-bending curveball in the middle of the plate too often, Wainwright gave up six hits and walked three of the 14 batters he faced.

Wainwright’s career win total would remain at 198 -- where it has sat since beating the Mets nearly two weeks ago. Since then, Wainwright yielded 11 hits and seven earned runs to the Cubs in London, and he suffered through another dreadful outing on Thursday. It was difficult to watch even for Astros manager Dusty Baker, a long-time rival of Wainwright and the Cards when he headed the Giants, Cubs, Reds and Nationals in the NL.

“I've been watching him for years. He's a quality guy,” Baker said. “He's one of the best guys you'll ever meet. We had to do what we had to do. You hate to see him walk off sadly like that, but it happens to all of us. He's had a great career, and I'm hoping he gets those two victories he needs or more for 200. Like I said, he's one of the best guys you'll ever meet.”

How many more chances Wainwright has to get to 200 wins could be in question after he saw his ERA balloon to 7.45. In tears as he sat on the top of the Cardinals’ bench after being pulled, Wainwright was consoled by manager Oliver Marmol, who offered several pats to the hurler’s chest. Wainwright admitted that he kept his gaze toward the grass so as to not get emotional as he left the field even with fans behind the dugout cheering for him.

“I felt ‘em, but I wasn’t looking up because, you know, I was looking down, but I appreciated it. It was nice and our fans are great,” Wainwright said. “When you get my age, you just wonder sometimes if people have lost faith in you, and [Marmol] walked over and said he hasn’t lost faith in me and still believes I was going to finish strong and help this team win a lot of games. I asked him, ‘Don’t give up on me,’ and he said, ‘I’m not giving up on you until this is over.’ Everybody needs some words of affirmation now and then. After a game like that, I’d say, yeah, I probably did need to hear that.”

Marmol was adamant that Wainwright will make his next start even though the right-hander is coming off an outing in which he allowed a six-run inning or worse for just the seventh time in his nearly two-decade career.

“He’s a competitor who is having a tough time navigating the lineup at the moment, and it’s expected for him to be upset,” Marmol said. “He’s never been more determined to figure out a way out of it.”

Wainwright looked on last season as teammates Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina ended their legendary careers with the Cardinals. Now, he hopes for a second-half revival similar to the one authored by Pujols, who finished with 24 home runs after hitting six in the first half.  

That will happen, Wainwright stressed, only if he can rediscover the sharp bite on a curveball that legendarily froze Carlos Beltran to end the 2006 NLCS and struck out Brandon Inge to secure the World Series title that same season.

“I had a better breaking ball [two weeks ago], but I spun the ball tonight; I just spun it in the middle of the plate,” Wainwright said. “I just need better execution.”