Adam Wainwright has said he wants to be a pitcher. Pitchers, after all, are the ones who go out on the mound and lead their teams seven, eight, nine innings into games. Those who can’t? “That’s a thrower,” he said recently.
There were two pitchers on the mound at Busch Stadium on Monday night. But of course, one had to fall on the wrong side of the ledger. It just so happened to be the one that pitched deeper.
It was Wainwright who took the complete-game loss -- remarkably, the second of his career -- as the Cardinals fell, 2-1, to Zack Wheeler and the Phillies. The two pitchers -- in vastly different manners -- combined for the lengthiest dueling outings from starting pitchers this season, with the Cardinals chasing Wheeler in the ninth but failing to scratch out a win in a hectic final frame.
“Still my favorite thing about pitching is being able to go out and get those last three outs,” Wainwright said. “The best starting pitchers are also closers.”
It was very easy to see Wainwright’s herculean night -- the first loss charged in a nine-inning complete-game effort since Houston's Justin Verlander in 2019, and the first for the Cardinals since ... Wainwright, in 2007 -- playing out the opposite way.
Staking his team to a 2-0 deficit entering the bottom half of the ninth, the Cardinals appeared to have a rally in them. Matt Carpenter worked a leadoff walk to get Wheeler out of the game, scored two at-bats later and ultimately brought up the man they wanted to bat with the tying run at second.
The tizzy induced by Nolan Arenado’s long fly ball made the 12,866 at Busch Stadium believe it was gone. In four ballparks around the league, it had enough distance to be.
But only one thought crossed Wainwright’s mind when Phillies center fielder Odúbel Herrera eventually came down with it: the missed pitch to Rhys Hoskins a half-inning prior, which became the eventual game-winner as part of Hoskins’ two-homer night.
“Should still be playing right now,” Wainwright said.
Wainwright’s effort -- his second consecutive start of at least seven innings -- was a watershed moment for the 2021 Cardinals, as he became the first starter to reach the eighth frame this season. It continued a rather remarkable turn of the tide for a rotation that struggled through its first three turns but has been dominant since.
Wainwright has been central to that about-face. Over his past two starts, he's amassed 16 innings, three earned runs (all solo homers) just one walk and 18 strikeouts.
“He’s incredible to watch out there,” said second baseman Tommy Edman, who was stranded at second to end the game “Every time he goes out there, you know he’s going to compete.”
Wainwright is competing indeed, and unlike few others out there, he's doing it at the age of 39. Since 2020, he owns three complete games, two of which are of the nine-inning variety. When it comes to the latter version, only one other pitcher (Lance Lynn) also has multiple.
Unfortunately for Wainwright, he ran into Wheeler in the midst of one of the best games in his young career. The pitchers utilized a wide gulf in skill for their career nights -- one whose fastball hit 99.5 mph on Monday; one who threw more curveballs than any other pitch.
But what matters most: one who allowed zero earned runs, and one who allowed two.
“That's the game of baseball,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “Doesn’t always reward you, which is why it's so beautiful some days and so frustrating others.”
Fourteen years have passed since Wainwright has landed on the wrong side like he did on Monday night. Much has changed about the pitcher who’s prepared his body to feel like he’s pitching with better health than he has in years and maybe in his career. And much has changed about the individual who’s weighed retirement in recent seasons but felt pulled by the potential glory of a 12th World Series ring for the Cardinals' franchise.
Those goals are too far off at this moment. Baby steps, like Monday.
“Getting a [base] knock, finishing the game, that's my ultimate dream come true,” Wainwright said. “We were pretty close to that tonight. Getting a win would have been great.”