ST. LOUIS — Throughout the postseason, the St. Louis Cardinals made it a point to keep Adam Wainwright involved. For now, ceremonial appearances will have to suffice for their on-the-mend 20-game winner.
The 6-foot-6 right-hander will always be a part of Cardinals lore as the stand-in closer who got the final out of the 2006 NL championship series and World Series. Before Game 1 on Wednesday, he shared first-pitch duties with two Hall of Famers — Bob Gibson and Bruce Sutter — who were also on the mound at end of title seasons.
“Kind of like one of my highlights of the year,” Wainwright said.
In the NLCS, Wainwright caught the first pitch from a pair of ‘06 Series stars, Jeff Suppan and Jim Edmonds. Then he retired to the bench and his unofficial role as No. 1 cheerleader for the surprise NL champs.
“I lose my voice every day,” Wainwright said. “It’s been so much fun, the last three or four trips I traveled with them in September and every playoff game I’ve been at home or road. They’re not going to get rid of me that easy. I’m going to be here for them whether they want me or not.”
They definitely like having Wainwright around.
“We said at the beginning that we’re not going to toss away the season and in respect to Waino we were going to compete like he did,” manager Tony La Russa said. “The only thing the staff asked was that he just cheer, and he does.
“The rest of the stuff, that’s organization driven, and rightly so.”
Next spring, they’ll be counting on his power arm again. The Cardinals have suggested that they intend to pick up an option on Wainwright’s contract. And, voila, a major upgrade without a foray into free agency.
Wainwright won 19 games in 2009, leading the league in wins, starts and innings and finishing third in NL Cy Young balloting while earning a Gold Glove. He was the Cy Young runner-up last year after going 20-11 with a 2.42 ERA. When closer Jason Isringhausen was sidelined by a hip injury in ‘06, it was Wainwright who froze the Mets’ Carlos Beltran with a big curve for the final out of th e NLCS on the road. He then fanned the Tigers’ Brandon Inge for the finishing flourish to the team’s first title in 24 years.
The Cardinals’ unlikely run to the Series has whetted Wainwright’s competitive juices.
“As excited as I am for this team and what they’re doing right now, I’m equally excited about what’s going to be happening for me next year,” he said. “Each throwing session I have, it’s positive.”
The Cardinals’ title hopes took a big hit when Wainwright had reconstructive elbow surgery early in spring training. A big first half from Kyle McClellan along with trade-deadline pickup Edwin Jackson helped give the staff just enough pitching to win the wild card without him.
Still, Wainwright has been an important fixture in the clubhouse.
“He’s been a great guy to have around, even though he’s been rehabbing,” said Kyle Lohse, who led the staff with 14 victories. “Just his presence is a plus for us.”
Wainwright has been throwing twice a week for two or three months and says “things are going great.” He’s even thrown a handful of bullpen sessions, and at one point tried to persuade the team to consider activating him if the Cardinals made it to the postseason.
The response was emphatic: absolutely not.
The Cardinals are unwilling to risk a setback with a pitcher who is at the top of the rotation with Game 1 winner Chris Carpenter and is expected back at full strength next spring.
“You’re talking about a guy who was missed greatly,” Lohse said. “You’re adding a guy who has had 19-20 wins the last two years and it’s going to be a huge addition.”