Adam Wainwright remains an ageless marvel for the middling Cardinals

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Jeff Curry/USA Today Sports

Dan Buffa, Special to the Jewish Light

On Sunday afternoon against Atlanta, Adam Wainwright threw a complete game, striking out 11 and allowing just a single run. He later pulled a cat out of a nearby tree.

OK, I made up the part about the tree, but would you really be surprised if Wainwright saved an animal from a perilous situation? That’s what he’s doing this season for a St. Louis Cardinals team that woke up Wednesday morning with a 36-37 record.

I read that recap headline of Wainwright’s performance and thought it was pulled from an article in 2013, possibly 2010. With a rainout on Saturday producing two games on getaway day, the 39-year-old starter gave the bullpen the day off, essentially assuring Cardinal Nation they wouldn’t see a game where an opposing player was walked home for a run. With Wainwright, it’s all business and baseball on the mound, no funny business. The umpires didn’t ask for his hat or check his glove or forehead for sunscreen either. He was a man apart from the Redbirds, who are building a nice home for themselves in third place right now in the National League Central division.

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If you think the season is swimming the opposite way of fine and dandy, just take Wainwright out of the equation. The oldest pitcher in the Major Leagues is still making quality starts look easy and dropping in his signature curveball like a sophisticated rain drop every fifth day, a signature chef working in his own realm. Wainwright’s 3.74 ERA is matched closely by his 3.98 xFIP, which calculates a pitcher’s performance without the aid of a defense. Seeing those two numbers live in the same neighborhood informs you how effective he has been for the team.

It just makes you wish he could pitch twice a week, or the team could figure out a way to clone him because nothing else is working out. The Cardinals rank 24th (out of 30) in the MLB in OPS, which combines a team’s slugging percentage with its on-base percentage. Long story short, they aren’t hitting. That explains the lack of run support for Wainwright, who leads a pitching staff that ranks 18th in ERA and 20th in WHIP, which informs you how many walks and hits are allowed per inning (in the Cards case, a lot). With Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson out, and Miles Mikolas on the mend seemingly forever, Wainwright is the only silver bullet this team has at the moment in the rotation. Johan Oviedo needs more polish in the minors and Carlos Martinez has lost a grip on what once made him an effective starter.

Add it all up and you have a non-typical situation: the old guy leading the pack of young bucks, as Wainwright often refers to his colleagues. Instead of Flaherty gunning for a Cy Young or another Cardinals starter breaking out in a big way, Wainwright is the man of the hour–something he has been for this team for over 15 years. He’s not doing anything that different either, but the results are still being delivered.

Wainwright’s 1.1 fWAR (wins above replacement) matches his 2020 output. If he holds up, the WAR could reach between 2012 (3.9) and 2016 (2.8). Not bad for a guy who was once deemed a closed case back in 2018. Remember that opening day in front of a packed Busch Stadium? He lasted less than four innings and would go to complete a troubling year where he admitted retirement was a possibility. 2019 brought a new day. Wainwright threw 171 innings, made 31 starts, and struck out 153 batters while winning 14 games. He followed that season up with a great playoff performance, continuing the renewed pitching effort into the shortened 2020 season.

He’s executing the same way, using an exceptional curveball to balance out a mound palette that includes a groundout-inducing cutter and a fastball that still collects flyouts with the occasional home run allowed. Wainwright is the guy who ends up with double-digit home run totals most seasons, but you don’t realize it lately due to his overall effectiveness. I’ll take a solo home run most nights over a few walks and a 35- pitch inning. You?

But how long will it last? Only the baseball gods know and they aren’t telling. Let’s hope the show doesn’t end too soon. I noted during Sunday’s commanding performance that there will be a day where Wainwright isn’t throwing baseballs to Yadier Molina-his battery mate since 2005-a day in Cardinals history that will be sad and should leave you wanting. He turns 40 on Aug. 30 but at this rate, he could pitch into his early 40’s. When you are this effective against much-younger hitters on a consistent basis, why leave a game you love more than most?

With Wainwright, it’s not just the field performance. He’s a champion of the city, performing charity work constantly and never turning his head away from an event that could help the team and the people he plays for. It’s the person who shines up the pitcher’s penny so much more in this case, but No. 50 still manages to raise the expectations each start.

He could have retired in 2018 and collected a red coat-but like his cohort who goes by “Yadi,” Wainwright wants to collect more wins and perhaps another World Series title. While the last part is becoming more of a dreamy concoction each week in the 2021 season, we can at least say that against all odds, “Waino” has still got it.

If only the team could clone him.