ST. LOUIS — Looking back on last October, pitcher Adam Wainwright on Saturday suggested he was merely a space-eater when the St. Louis Cardinals made a dramatic run to their 11th World Championship.
"During the time, I felt like I was a huge impact to that team," Wainwright said. "I'm not so sure I did anything. But I tricked myself into believing I was pretty important last year. I felt like I was there for anybody who needed me, at whatever level that was.
"Nothing else to do, right?"
Wainwright was on the sidelines last season as his right elbow recovered from Tommy John surgery. Reminders remain everywhere.
"Looking back on it, it really hits me when autograph-seekers hand me a ball and it's a 2011 World Series ball, and then they take it back and say, 'No, no. Sign this one instead,'" Wainwright said. "That's when it hits that I really didn't get to do a whole lot."
At 2:07 p.m. Sunday, Wainwright will be back in the middle of the diamond, where he belongs, when the Cardinals play the Washington Nationals in Game 1 of the National League Division Series at sold-out Busch Stadium.
Wainwright, who was 14-13 with a 3.94 ERA during the regular season, will be opposed by Gio Gonzalez (21-8, 2.89 ERA).
"You know, it's a long journey recovering from Tommy John surgery," Wainwright said. "It was ups and downs this year, but it doesn't matter at this point. We're starting fresh. We're in the postseason. I learned a lot about myself as a competitor (this season). And I'm excited about the opportunity."
Wainwright said he has a newfound appreciation for being in the postseason, especially the year after winning the World Series.
The Cardinals failed to make the postseason in 2007, the year after they won their 10th World Championship.
"We had somewhat of a letdown through injuries and what not," Wainwright said. "That was kind of hard, when we had the team we had and not make it (back to the playoffs) again.
"This is a big accomplishment. We certainly had some injuries this year, just like every club will probably tell you they do. We lost some key guys to our run last year ... probably three Hall of Famers in (Albert) Pujols and Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan. Guys have stepped up and performed amazingly in their absence."
If there was a good time for Wainwright to be injured, it probably was 2011 when Chris Carpenter still had his health.
Wainwright came back strong in spring this year, a return that coincided with Carpenter's thoracic compartment syndrome injury that led to surgery and a miraculous return in September.
Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak said Wainwright's recovery period went smoothly. Looking back at the process, it played a major role in how Wainwright was able to return to the active list and essentially offset Carpenter's void.
"When you think about his rehab, it was absolutely flawless. He never had a setback," Mozeliak said. "We always felt like he was building and getting stronger as the year proceeded. We never felt like we had to slow him down or give him a timeout."
Wainwright agrees with Mozeliak's assessment, but emphasized that nothing has been easy this season. Asked whether he's had the type of season he expected, Wainwright was blunt.
"No. Absolutely not," he said. "I pitched well in spring training. I thought I was going to go out and dominate."
Instead, Wainwright was 7-8 with a 4.56 ERA at the All-Star break.
"I'll be the first one to tell you, I was one of the worst pitchers in the first half of the season," Wainwright said. "The first month, I was an embarrassment to this team and to the game of baseball. I've never felt so lost on the mound in my entire life.
"The first half of the season, I would say, especially the first month and a half, I really had no life on my fastball, no slider and absolutely no changeup whatsoever," Wainwright said.
Everything changed when Wainwright went 6-0 with a 1.80 ERA in seven starts from July 24 to Aug. 26. He averaged more than seven innings per outing and finished the season with 198 2/3 --second on the team behind Kyle Lohse's 211.
"The second half of the season, I feel like I turned the corner a little bit, got the life back on my fastball most of the time," Wainwright said. "My curveball was pretty consistent most of the year, but my slider and changeup continued to struggle until the end.
"I totally get now why Tommy John recovery is so hard. Your arm just takes a while to get back. It's hard for me to say that because I thought I was going to be the exception to the rule."
Wainwright's absence from the game might have hurt his performance this season, but his appreciation for the game has received a noticeable jolt.
"As a competitor and as a man, I'm just feeling blessed to be a baseball player," Wainwright said. "Professionally, for a living. I've learned to appreciate that a lot more. The game I get to play is very special to me, and missing that time last year, I really learned how much I love this game.
"There's just an incredible sense of feeling blessed. I can't describe it any other way than that."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2665.