The greatest thing about sports is its unpredictability. A young player stepping to the fore and becoming a superstar, like Albert Pujols did in 2001, or a hardworking yet pedestrian shortstop like David Eckstein winning World Series MVP in 2006 are things we never see coming, and when they happen we can never forget.
It doesn’t get much more unpredictable than Adam Wainwright pitching a gem here in September of 2018, a 5-0, losing streak snapping win over the Dodgers. Wainwright had arthroscopic elbow surgery after the 2014 season, and then suffered a torn Achilles tendon in April of 2015. He gave the Redbirds nearly 200 innings in 2016, but once again battled injury in 2017, dealing with a bone bruise in his elbow and other injuries that limited him to 123 innings.
Another elbow cleanup last off-season, along with limited use last year, provided hope for Wainwright heading into this season. But he had a spring training hamstring injury that delayed his start to the season. He probably came back too soon, and then was placed on the disabled list on April 22 with elbow discomfort that was found to be inflammation.
During the season, as Wainwright couldn’t find his velocity, there was discussion about how to say goodbye to a player who has been a stalwart for the franchise on the field since 2006, and has been one of its best representatives off the field during his career, too. Should they let him take the mound by himself to start a game, and then remove him to a standing ovation? Should the club hold a special ceremony before a late season game to honor him? Perhaps a relief performance in a blowout game, just to let him take the field one more time.
But a funny thing happened on the way to that ceremonial goodbye. Wainwright said he wanted to give pitching this season one more try, and the Cardinals obliged with a minor league rehab assignment. All Waino did in the minors was deliver 22 scoreless innings, with 25 strikeouts and four walks. With innings piling up for the young Cardinal major league starting pitchers, they decided to give him a start.
As we all know, Wainwright wasn’t great in his first start. He allowed four runs on seven hits in five innings against Pittsburgh, running into some good fortune as the Redbirds rallied for an 8-7 win. His innings helped the team out, but it sure didn’t seem that a second start was in the offing.
But it was. During the week, manager Mike Shildt announced that Wainwright would, indeed, get another start. And not just any start, mind you, but a nationally televised Sunday Night Baseball start against the Dodgers. The start grew in importance when the Dodgers won the first three games of the four-game series, knocking the Redbirds out of a playoff spot in the process, and rumbling to a 17-4 win on Saturday that decimated the Cardinal bullpen.
Wainwright started the game against the Dodgers, and Cardinal Nation watched with trepidation. This is a guy that not only had the rough start last week, but was 1-3 with a 4.70 ERA in five starts this season, giving the team just 23 innings; an average of 4 2/3 per start.
In his remarkable, unpredictable Sunday Night start, Waino took us back to 2009, when he led the N.L. with nineteen wins and turned in a brilliant 2.63 ERA. He gave the Cardinals an incredibly important and unexpected six scoreless innings. Vanquishing any talk about ceremony, he hit 93 on the gun with his fastball, and reclaimed the spectacular curveball nicknamed “Uncle Charlie.” Wainwright baffled the Dodgers, allowing just two hits and striking out nine in six shutout frames.
It’s not like Wainwright hadn’t done it before…we just didn’t expect it NOW. Not in the biggest game of the year. Not when the Cardinals needed it most. Not when he had struggled as much as he had in 2018. We couldn’t predict this. We couldn’t have dreamed that after the Cardinals lost games started by nominal staff ace Jack Flaherty, undefeated rookie Austin Gomber, and red-hot righthander John Gant (who since August 8 had ranked 7th among NL pitchers in ERA (1.60), was tied for fifth in wins (4), 6th in hits per nine innings (5.72), and was 7th in opponent batting average (.181)), Wainwright would stem the tide and stop the losing streak. By definition, Waino was a “stopper” for the Cardinals on Sunday night, ending a crunching four game losing streak that caused many fans to lose confidence in their ability to compete for a playoff spot.
Wainwright on Sunday night is why I love sports. I didn’t have any expectations of greatness, and I got it. Wainwright took us back to a better time, allowed us to see younger and healthier him. He provided a performance that was totally unpredictable, and showed us again why sports are so great.