If Adam Wainwright is feeling any tension or anxiety around the possibility of Sunday’s start being his last appearance in Major League baseball, he’s doing a remarkable job of hiding it.
The 38-year-old righty laughed and offered good-hearted mock appreciation for a query about whether he’s ever faced an opposing pitcher young enough to be his son. Atlanta’s Mike Soroka, all of 22, will take the mound for the Braves in Game Three of a National League Division Series currently tied at one game apiece.
“I always tell these guys, old players means good players,” Wainwright said with a smile. “You don’t get to be an old player if you’re not a good player.”
“I guess I could be” Soroka’s father, he joked. “It does happen.”
Despite his chronological age, health has allowed Wainwright to wind back his performance clock an incalculable amount during the 2019 season. After pitching in recent years with pain in his right arm that often left him unable to raise the limb above his head, he was able to make 31 starts this season, recording 14 wins and pairing a 4.19 ERA with 171 2/3 innings pitched.
The total of starts equaled his combined number from 2017 and 2018. The innings pitched exceeded their sum by 8 1/3.
“He’s a ferocious competitor,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “Any time a competitor has any type of setback or competes in a manner that they think they could do better, they’re champing at the bit to get back out there. I’m excited to let Adam go unleash some of that drive tomorrow against Atlanta.”
Waino signs 1-year deal
Wainwright signed a one-year contract last fall which guaranteed him only $2 million in salary — $17.5 million less than his guarantee in the previous five seasons. He sat down and sketched out a series of incentives based on appearances that would allow him to scale up to a $10 million salary if he achieved each of those goals.
The final incentive was reached with Wainwright’s 30th start of the season. After spending the fall and winter declaring he hadn’t earned his money in recent years, he’s been as valuable to the 2019 Cardinals as anyone could have hoped.
Shildt offered Wainwright the opportunity to speak to the Cardinals in Chicago last fall after they were eliminated from playoff contention on the second to last day of the season. At the time, Wainwright was facing free agency and an uncertain physical comportment. He could have walked away and taken the opportunity to bask in praise. He didn’t.
“I asked if he had anything to say to the group,” Shildt explained, “but I said it with the caveat that I’m asking if it’s something that you’d like to say, but it’s not something I want you to say because I’d love to have you back, and I was very encouraging about wanting him to come back, but also very clear about respecting his wishes.
“But I did know at that point in time he had a lot of optimism based on how he finished last year and how he felt. And I know how much competitive spirit he has and the love for the organization, and a love for pitching. So, I was really optimistic he’d come back.”
The pull away from baseball has been strong. Wainwright, a Georgia native and former Braves farmhand, owns and operates a farm in his home state that focuses on sustainable techniques which can be taught to food insecure people in areas such as the Dominican Republic, where his Big League Impact foundation has done immeasurably important work.
Sunday’s start will be Wainwright’s 25th appearance in the postseason for the Cardinals, which will break a tie with Lance Lynn and give him the franchise record. He holds that record despite the club not appearing at all in the postseason since 2015 and despite not having a start since the year prior.
“I heard somebody say the other day, like, the Cardinals have been out of the postseason for the better half of a decade,” Wainwright said. “I was, wow, three years is the better half of a decade. But it does seem like the better half of a decade. It’s felt longer than three years. We had a couple close calls there.”
“But what I just was taking in the other day in Atlanta with a great crowd, the crowd was rocking in Atlanta. Those guys were on their A game, two very good baseball games played. Tense moments the whole time. I remember just looking at Michael Wacha and saying, how awesome is this? We were losing 3-1 in that first game, and I just looked at him and I’m, like, I feel confident right now and this is awesome. This atmosphere, I’ve missed this. I had missed that so much.”
He and his wife Jenny adopted a son last winter. Caleb, the couple’s fifth child but first boy, made an appearance in the Cardinals clubhouse several weeks ago. He grabbed at his father’s beard and reporters’ microphones as the elder Wainwright beamed and talked about baseball. The baby’s middle name is Adam, because the father wanted to leave no doubt that the son was truly a part of him.
So too is he a part of St. Louis baseball history. Enshrinements and celebrations will come, as will the end. This Sunday, though, Adam Wainwright will be on the pitcher’s mound in the postseason.
He will be — is — back.