NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
NO. 20: ADAM WAINWRIGHT
Carlos Beltran belted 41 home runs with 116 RBIs in 2006, but was skewered by Mets fans and the New York press all winter long for the way their season ended.
The Mets trailed the Cardinals by two runs in the decisive seventh game of the National League Championship Series, but managed to load the bases with two out in the bottom of the ninth.
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It was precisely this kind of moment manager Willie Randolph envisioned when his front office hooked Beltran on a $119 million free agent contract the year prior. And so, the 29-year-old All-Star and former Rookie of the Year stepped to the plate with the chance to be a walk-off hero in front of the home fans at Shea Stadium.
On the mound for St. Louis was 24-year-old rookie Adam Wainwright, a starter in the minors who was thrust suddenly into the closer’s role in place of Jason Isringhausen, the franchise’s career saves leader who was out with an injured hip.
“I can remember only a handful of times in my life when I’ve been really nervous,” Wainwright would say later. “This was the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life.”
His first pitch was a changeup on the inside corner for a called strike one. The switch-hitting Beltran, who had poked three home runs during the series already, just got a piece of the second pitch for strike two.
“I said, ‘All right, I’m going to throw the very best curveball that I can possibly throw down and away for a strike. If I miss, it’ll be away,” he said. “But literally, in the back of my head, I knew I was not going to miss. And I reached back and I threw the best curveball I’ve ever thrown.”
It started high and outside, then broke sharply across the plate at Beltran’s knees. The bat never left his shoulder and the umpire called strike three without argument — Beltran knew he’d been fooled fair and square. Still, New York chastised Beltran for “gawking” instead of swinging.
The 83-win Cardinals went on to the World Series, where they eventually defeated Detroit in five games. Wainwright did the honors there, too, closing Game 5 by striking out the Tigers’ Brandon Inge.
Those were just the first of many memorable moments authored by the 6-foot-7, slender-as-a-rail Georgia native. His teammates call him “Uncle Charlie,” an old baseball term for curveball, sometimes attributed to colorful newspaper and radio man Walter Winchell.
Wainwright was the 29th overall pick of the 2000 MLB Draft by the Atlanta Braves, his favorite team growing up. But with the sudden death of Darryl Kile and a series of injuries that prompted the retirement of Andy Benes in 2002, the Cardinals put on an all-points bulletin for rotation depth.
JD Drew, the oft-injured talent who vexed manager Tony La Russa with his lack of grit, was packaged with catcher Eli Marrero in a December of 2003 trade to the Braves for Wainwright, starter Jason Marquis and left-handed reliever Ray King.
Whatever assumptions Cardinals fans had made about Wainwright, given his shut-down dominance in the 2006 postseason, there was next to zero-percent chance he’d be used as anything other than a starter in 2007. His 14 wins that season were the most ever by a first-year Cardinals starter and his 2.71 ERA after the All-Star break was the third best in the National League.
After two frustrating seasons in which the Cardinals missed out on the playoffs, the co-aces of their pitching staff led the way back. Chris Carpenter finished with a 17-4 record and NL-best 2.24 ERA. Wainwright, meanwhile, led the league with 19 victories and 233 innings to go with a 2.63 ERA. The knee-buckling, signature pitch that had left Beltran frozen in the box three years earlier was as nasty as ever — 140 of his 212 strikeout victims that season were claimed with two-strike curveballs.
FanGraphs, the online statistical aggregator, declared Waino’s Uncle Charlie the most effective curveball in baseball between 2006 and 2016.
Even though he claimed 12 of 32 first-place votes for the NL Cy Young Award — the most among the five whose names appeared on a ballot — Wainwright came in third. With he and Carpenter splitting votes, San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum was the darkhorse Cy Young winner. Waino’s big-league peers made it up to him by naming him the National League’s Most Outstanding Pitcher. He also won the first of his two Gold Gloves.
The Cardinals were out of the playoff picture again in 2010, but Wainwright was back in the discussion for Cy Young. His 20-11 record, five shutouts, 2.42 ERA and 213 strikeouts in 230 innings earned him a second-place finish to Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay, who won it with a unanimous vote.
It was the 2011 season that witnessed the Cardinals’ return to the World Series. Wainwright missed out on all the fun, though, because he had been knocked out in spring training with an elbow injury. While he mended, his teammates closed a 10 ½-game deficit to Atlanta by going 23-9 in the regular season’s final 32 games, the largest comeback in baseball history that late in the year. They went onto a seven-game World Series win over the Texas Rangers, which included David Freese’s walk-off home run in a classic Game 6 comeback.
Two seasons later, after Wainwright’s encouraging 14-win return, the Cardinals won 97 games to capture the Central Division and National League pennant. The rebound can largely be attributed to Beltran’s solid season (.296/.339/.491) as the surprise free-agent replacement for the California-bound Albert Pujols.
Wainwright also did his part with his 19 wins, 2.94 ERA, five complete games and two shutouts in a career-high 242 ⅔ innings. He went 0-2 in the World Series, which the Cardinals lost to Boston in six games, and was runner-up yet again for the NL Cy Young.
Another 20-win season in 2014 included a 2.38 ERA, but placed him third in the vote for the National League’s best pitcher, his fourth finish in the top 5.
Wainwright has posted seasons of 13 and 12 wins, but has struggled with injuries and consistency since rupturing an Achilles tendon early in the 2015 season. Though his five-year, $97.5 million contract expired at the end of the 2018 season, the 37-year-old elected to return on a one-year, incentives-laden deal.
“I want to win, you know? There’s still a big part of me that thinks that I’m going to win a Cy Young,” he said.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 2005-present
148-85 (.635), 3.32 ERA| 3x All-Star | 2 Gold Gloves | Silver Slugger | 2 WS rings | 34.3 WAR
TOP 100 SCORE: 4.07