Fall Classic opener culmination of rehab, rediscovery following 2011 surgery
BOSTON -- Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright has been hoping for this moment since the day he arrived in Jupiter, Fla., earlier this year and discovered that the zip had returned to his fastball, and the bite to his offspeed stuff. It is with his weapons fully restored that the right-hander will take the mound Wednesday night at Fenway Park in Game 1 (6:30 p.m. CT, 7:07 first pitch on FOX) for his first career start in the World Series.
Wainwright, who was the Cardinals' closer for the 2006 World Series and was recovering from Tommy John surgery when they won again in 2011, would have gotten the chance to make his maiden Series start a year ago had the Cardinals been able to finish what they started in the 2012 National League Championship Series. Still feeling the effects of elbow surgery and pitching with diminished stuff, he won Game 4 of that series to give the Cardinals a 3-1 lead that would slip away against the eventual-champion Giants.
A year later, in a particularly candid moment, Wainwright wondered aloud whether it was for the best.
"If I'm being honest, after Game 4 of the NLCS, I may have had one more start in me. I was pretty well spent," said Wainwright, who had missed all of 2011 following elbow surgery. "I gave every single thing I had. I had terrible stuff last year. I was trying to find a way to make it work. There would be days where my stuff would be OK, and there would be days where I didn't have any stuff at all. The fastball wasn't fast, the changeup wasn't changing, the slider wasn't sliding. The only thing I had was my curveball. That saved me last year, and especially when I had no stuff to rely on except for that pitch.
Key stat: The Cardinals are 12-4 in postseason games Wainwright pitches in (seven starts, nine relief appearances).
Key stat: Lester's only defeat this postseason is a 1-0 loss to Anibal Sanchez in Game 1 of the ALCS.
At Fenway Park
2013: N/A Career: N/A
2013: 13 GS, 7-1, 3.09 ERA Career: 104 G, 103 GS 46-26, 3.78 ERA
Against this opponent
2013: N/A Career: N/A
2013: N/A Career: 1 GS, 1-0, 2.45 ERA
Loves to face: Stephen Drew, 2-for-19, 5 K Hates to face: Shane Victorino, 5-for-22, HR
Loves to face: Yadier Molina, 0-for-3 Hates to face: Carlos Beltran, 1-for-1, 2 BB
Why he'll win: Wainwright has allowed four earned runs in 23 innings (three starts) this postseason.
Why he'll win: In 2013, Lester lost only one game at Fenway Park.
Pitcher beware: The Red Sox led the Majors this season in runs scored (853), slugging percentage (.446) and on-base percentage (.349), and were second in batting average (.277).
Pitcher beware: The Cardinals' bats came alive in Game 6 of the NLCS, scoring nine runs, seven of which came against Cy Young candidate Clayton Kershaw.
Bottom line: Wainwright has pitched like the Cardinals' ace he is this postseason, but the St. Louis offense struggled to produce his last time out, resulting in a 3-0 loss. Wainwright may not give up many runs, but he'll need some support to earn a win.
Bottom line: Lester's dominant second half has spilled over to the postseason, where he has held his opponent to two runs or fewer in each of his three starts. He'll need to keep that success going against a Cards offense that is getting its RBI leader, Allen Craig, back from an injury.
"And to flip that into this year, where I felt strong from the very first day of long toss in the offseason. Where the very first throw the ball came out of my hand this offseason, and it was like seeing that old friend you hadn't seen in a long time. It was like, 'There it is.'"
The results were obvious to see. After willing his way to 14-13 record and a 3.94 ERA in the 2012 regular season, Wainwright was 19-9 with a 2.94 ERA in 2013. It was his third season with at least 30 starts and a sub-3.00 ERA, and his second season with five complete games.
He led the Major Leagues with 242 2/3 innings pitched, and has logged 23 more innings this postseason.
In a Cardinals season that included the loss of Chris Carpenter and the late-season fade of Shelby Miller, Wainwright was the Cardinals' rock.
"We threw him into a situation last year where he was much better than anybody anticipated and was able to throw more than what many people thought he would, but he was just a lot of times just trying to fight his way through it, even last year in the postseason," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "This year, he showed up a little more crisp, a little more life on the ball, and that breaking ball had a completely different look to it than what it did last year.
"It shouldn't have been a surprise. It takes time when you have that radical surgery to be able to get back to normal. And he has been very, very impressive to watch, a Cy Young-caliber season. He had a couple of rough starts in the middle, but was as consistent as you could possibly be."
In the postseason, Wainwright has risen above mere consistency.
Before losing a duel with the Dodgers' Hyun-Jin Ryu in Game 3 of the NLCS, Wainwright twice beat the Pirates in the NL Division Series, including a complete-game performance in the decisive Game 5 at Busch Stadium, in which he allowed only one run.
Cardinals tradition dictates that the first bottle of champagne doesn't pop until the entire team is together. So, after players danced into a clubhouse draped with protective plastic, they stood in silence and waited for Wainwright.
"I think no matter who it was, we would have waited," said rookie closer Trevor Rosenthal. "But especially Adam, for what he did in that game, how much we respect him and for what kind of guy that he is and what he brings to our team. He's a big part of it, if not the biggest part of our pitching staff. He's our guy."
That was once a role unarguably held by Carpenter, who remains a strong presence in the Cardinals' clubhouse despite missing the year with injury.
"I think Adam has started to take that role over, but he'll never say that until I'm not here," Carpenter said with a smile. "He'll say I'm the one to lead the staff, but that's not true. I think we all do."
Wainwright has never faced the Red Sox in his career, but is positioned to pitch as many as three times in the World Series.
It was worth the year-long wait.
"It's pretty special to me," Wainwright said. "I've talked this year about the rehab after the Tommy John surgery, sometimes you can struggle a little at first to get that feel back. And I never doubted that I would return, but you do have those thoughts that creep in where you, for a half-second, wonder if you'll ever be any good anymore. To be able to pitch like I did this year and return to form, my stuff came back, and my ability that I knew was there kind of returned, and to be able to have some big time playoff moments this year, it's been very special. Something I'll never forget."