St. Louis Cardinals

It's too early to pull Wainwright from the rotation, but the leash is getting shorter

Mike Matheny talks before home opener

St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny talks from the Busch Stadium dugout about opening at home and pitcher Adam Wainwright.
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St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny talks from the Busch Stadium dugout about opening at home and pitcher Adam Wainwright.

How many times can Billy Joel sing "Piano Man" before the words lose all their meaning? How many Nathan's hotdogs can Joey Chestnut eat before he decides he should switch to burgers?

And how many times can a St. Louis Cardinals player cruise the Busch Stadium warning track in the bed of a pickup truck before Opening Day in St. Louis before it becomes just another game?

I would never presume to speak on the behalf of Billy or Joey Jaws, but I can assure you that, for Adam Wainwright, 12 home openers before the sea of red wasn't enough.

He badly wanted the start Thursday. Really bad.

But being just a few hours removed from his stay on the 10-day disabled list with a strained hamstring — souvenir of a spring training wind sprint — Waino had to convince Cardinals manager Mike Matheny that he was really ready to go.

It wasn't an easy sell.

"I think they invented tests for me to try and pass to prove to them that I was ready," Wainwright said.

Then again, Wainwright has been trying to prove himself all spring.

He allowed just one earned run in 10 2/3 innings in the Grapefruit League and struck out more batters (10) than he allowed hits (eight). Yet there has remained a vocal contingent of fans who believed Jack Flaherty should have kept Wainwright's place in the rotation after the 22-year-old held the Milwaukee Brewers to a single run in a five innings Tuesday.

Wainwright has been that guy before, making himself the hero of the 2006 postseason with memorable strikeouts to save both the National League Championship and World Series. He proved himself all over again the next year with 14 wins as a starter.

But Wainwright will be 37 years old in August, is in the final year of a contract that will pay him $97.5 million and hasn't been the same since losing most of 2015 with a torn Achilles.

And as hard as he fought to get the start Thursday, Wainwright likely didn't do enough to silence those who think he needs to go back to the bullpen. It took him 89 pitches to get through 3 2/3 innings against Arizona. He allowed at least one Diamondbacks baserunner in each frame, was touched for three earned runs on three hits and four walks, and was tagged for the loss.

Adam Wainwright walks off the field after being removed during the fourth inning of Thursday's home opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks. AP

The Cardinals have done plenty to bolster their bullpen, but they're not as deep in the rotation, especially now that Alex Reyes' return has been set back to the end of May. They still need Wainwright.

But 3 2/3 innings isn't good enough. A repeat of the 5.11 ERA he posted last season, the highest of his career, won't be, either.

I'm not ready to join the ranks of naysayers who believe Wainwright is beyond realizing a renaissance, and that Flaherty's time is now.

First of all, Wainwright was hindered last year with a flap of loose tendon in his throwing elbow that contributed to a precipitous drop in the velocity of his fastball. That has been surgically corrected, and the fastball was back in the mid-90s Thursday night, as it was during a dominant spring. He just has to find his command with it.

The rest of the rotation has had its own early issues.

Michael Wacha didn't last five innings before dishing up a pair of home runs to the Mets. Miles Mikolas, though he got the win, allowed four runs in 5 2/3 innings in his first start. Luke Weaver, also a winner, had to pitch around three walks in five innings.

Carlos Martinez made amends with this second start, blanking the Brewers through 8 1/3 innings Wednesday after an Opening Day meltdown in New York.

Waino, likewise, is entitled to some measure of faith.

Let's take a moment to remember what Wainwright has meant to the franchise. He has won 19 or more games four times and needs just seven more to pass Bill Sherdel at No. 4 on the Cardinals' all-time wins list. He also is one of a dozen pitchers in baseball history to have pitched this long without a losing season.

Even last year — the worst of his career by a number of metrics — he won 12 of his 17 decisions. The run support he received is a clear sign that his teammates were confident with him on the mound.

But the leash will have to be shorter on this future Cardinals Hall of Famer.

Because more starts like the one he had Thursday will get old real fast.