Thriving in pressure-packed situations comes naturally for veteran Cardinals ace
ST. LOUIS -- It was July 22, 2010, at Busch Stadium, and it was not a perfect afternoon for a day game. The heat index was 106 degrees at game time, and there wouldn't be a cold front arriving any time soon. Walk down the street, and the heat came up off the concrete to meet you in waves. But it was a getaway day on the schedule -- let's go.
It was a matchup you wanted to see. The visiting Philadelphia Phillies, at the peak of their powers, were in the midst of their streak of winning five National League East titles in a row. And they had Cole Hamels, their top-shelf lefty, on the mound.
But for the Cardinals, Adam Wainwright was at the peak of his powers, too, on his way to a splendid season: 20-11, 2.42 ERA, 1.05 WHIP.
Wainwright, as usual, did all that he could, which in that blistering heat turns out to be six scoreless innings. The problem was that the Cards couldn't do anything against Hamels, and the Redbirds eventually lost, 2-0, in 11 innings.
After the game, then-Cardinals manager Tony La Russa opined that this kind of weather put the hitters at a disadvantage -- you know, the bat speed diminishes in the heat and humidity.
Inside St. Louis' clubhouse, Wainwright was queried by the reporters, because he was, after all, the starting pitcher. It was reported to the right-hander that his manager had said the intense heat and humidity put the hitters at a disadvantage on this day.
"The hitters are at a disadvantage every day," Wainwright said. "This is a very difficult game for them."
And those two sentences right there -- along with the skill and the will and the competitive fire -- are why Wainwright is the absolute right man to be on the mound for the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the NL Division Series (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, TBS) against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Wainwright got it then. He gets it now. He has this portion of the universe calculated in perfect order.
The pitcher initiates the action. The guy with the bat in his hand spends every day of his working life reacting to the pitcher. And even the greatest ones don't succeed anywhere as often as they fail.
True, if the fellow carrying the bat is Stan Musial or Henry Aaron, the odds become somewhat more even. But the game inherently favors the pitcher. It particularly favors the pitcher as good as Wainwright.
Here in 2013, Wainwright stopped the Pirates cold in Game 1 of this series. His mound opponent for Game 5, Gerrit Cole, in his turn, shut down the Cardinals in Game 2. There is no question that Cole is an extremely talented pitcher. In Pittsburgh's postseason rotation, this would be A.J. Burnett's turn to pitch. But Burnett was battered by the Cards in Game 1, and that was not a new development.
Cole is 23, he's a flamethrower, he has big-time stuff. But still, Wainwright is back in top form. And making this start is exactly where every fiber of his being wants to be.
Wainwright has already been a closer, for a World Series champion in 2006. On Tuesday in an interview session at Busch Stadium, he was asked what he relished about being a starter as opposed to a closer.
"I'd like to be both," Wainwright said.
How does this man keep coming up with all the correct answers? It might be because this is exactly who he is -- a consummate competitor.
Wainwright has done this sort of work before, with considerable success. He has a 2.27 cumulative postseason ERA. Asked Tuesday when he first embraced the notion of pitching in high-pressure situations, Wainwright said:
"I would say the first moment," Wainwright said. "I mean, all throughout my whole life -- I wanted that, I wanted to be in the pressure moments."
Wainwright added that the big league breakthrough moment for him was saving Game 7 of the 2006 NL Championship Series against the Mets. The curveball that got Carlos Beltran looking to end the game remains one of the most memorable pitches in postseason history.
For who he is and what he is, Wainwright is the ideal starter in this game for the Cardinals. He is the right pitcher for this moment. But he is also the right human being for this moment.