Adam Wainwright may be the graybeard of the St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff.
But the butterflies will be there when the 38-year-old right-hander makes his 14th career playoff start for St. Louis – and 26th postseason appearance – in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series with Washington Saturday afternoon.
“Yeah, I like challenges,” said Wainwright, who will oppose Washington ace Max Scherzer, a St. Louis-area native and three-time Cy Young winner. “I like going into the game with some sort of preconceived idea that somebody’s betting against me or favoring the other side or some of that. That pumps me up, I’ve always done that, I’ve always used that.
“But certainly any time you’re competing against a guy like that you know you got to put zeros up. Our offense is very dynamic, there’s a lot of people that can do some cool things, but a pitcher like Max is capable of going out and shutting anybody out. So … I got to get those guys out, get zeros up.”
Scherzer, 35, a Cardinals fan growing up in Chesterfield, has been a fan of Wainwright for his entire career.
“It’s awesome watching him from afar,” “Scherzer said. “I just know how much of a competitor he is, and that’s what he goes out there and does, he tries to find a way to win in every single way he can. …
“You just know he’s going to bring everything he’s got. Nothing will be different facing him.”
Waino leads all Cardinals pitchers in history with 104 playoff strikeouts, and is second in innings pitched (96 2/3).
He has been in seven postseasons – also the most by any Cardinals pitcher in history – and admitted he feeds off the atmosphere when there’s bunting on the stadium walls.
“Feeling that champagne running down your beard never gets old, but feeling that playoff buzz in the crowd when the games are actually going on, you can never replace it or replicate it any other place in life that I’ve seen,” Wainwright said. “It’s just a feeling that is beyond compare.
“Every start is important. Every start is exciting and gets you amped up or whatever a little differently. But the playoff atmosphere is a little different. You have to account for some of the vibe that’s going on out there. You have to be able to calm your nerves and you have to be able to control your adrenaline, because I’ve seen it where guys go out there and they’re feeling on top of the moon and their adrenaline is rushing, and two innings later they’re out of gas.”
After a full year’s worth of wins spanning 14 seasons – he’s 162-95 in the regular season and 4-4 in his playoff appearances for the Cardinals – Wainwright is still intrigued by the matchups on game day.
“That chess match has really been always my favorite thing about pitching. And to a certain extent you have to go out there and rely on your best stuff and executing what you’re the best at, right?” he said. “Then, to a certain extent, you have to be able to adjust and move on the fly and realize that that hitter’s doing something different and change your whole game plan up midgame. That’s one of my favorite parts about pitching, no question.”
Wainwright will share that chess match with catcher Yadier Molina; the two have been battery mates for a team-record 277 times, including the playoffs.
Molina made sure to hug Wainwright after he walked off the mound after 7 2/3 shutout innings against Atlanta in Game 3 of the division series. Their unique relationship isn’t lost on Cardinals manager Mike Shildt.
“They’re individually elite players, storied Cardinal players and adding to their stories,” Shildt said. “They have this wonderful, rich tradition and accomplishment in this organization, both of them. But they’re hungry for more and expect more and want more, and they’re ready for more.
“So when you see those two together and you see how they come together, and such elite competitors and such a kinship. And they’re both really high character people, speaking to Yadi, rightfully winning the Roberto Clemente Award last year; Waino nominated from our team this year; and, again, a lot of competitive guys that have done a great job off the field.”
Wainwright, finally healthy after battling a torn Achilles tendon in 2017 and an elbow injury in 2018, was 14-11 during this regular season, making 31 starts after missing more than 30 starts the previous two seasons.
“But the last two years, especially, 2017 and 2018, the Cardinals paid me a lot of money to go out and perform a job and get them into the postseason and I didn’t do it,” he said. “I mean, 2017 I won 12 games but I had a 5 ERA, which hurt. The whole time I was trying to make something out of it. And missing by one game. I’m just thinking, man, if I win my 14 to 20 games like I do when I’m healthy then that’s the difference right there.
“So that hurts me a little bit. But there’s nothing I could have done about it. I mean, I tried every single possible thing to get back and my arm was just not recovering well.”
That brings him to the start today; he isn’t saying whether this season will be his last, but that’s a possibility – all the more reason to appreciate his singular contributions to the Cardinals the last decade and a half.
“I was very excited, I felt like I was a part of everything,” he said. “They made me feel at home in 2011. They included me in all the chats and (weightlifting) sessions and team dinners and let me travel on the road and … let me be up here for rehab.
“That was big for me.”
He’s anxious – there are those butterflies again – to return the favor.