Cardinals pitcher Wainwright no stranger to big-game situations
Having pitched so well against the Pirates less than a week ago, Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright was asked on Tuesday if he would need to alter his game plan Wednesday in the deciding Game 5.
It was a question Wainwright would not consider answering in any detail, lest he give away something — anything — that could be used against him in the game.
“I couldn't tell you that, could I? That sounds like a scouting report,” Wainwright said. “You'll just have to wait and see. I'll just try to execute my game plan, which I can not reveal on the set. But we'll be very prepared.”
There never was a question whether the Cardinals would turn to their ace for Game 5, if needed. The right-hander dominated in Game 1, allowing one run on three hits in seven innings.
Wainwright, 32, spent his entire life wanting to be the guy in the middle of the big situation, the one with the ball in his hand with the season on the line. He remembers two moments when the desire and the ability to thrive under pressure clicked.
Wainwright was pitching out of the bullpen as a rookie in late September 2006 and the Cardinals were down, 2-0, against the Milwaukee Brewers. Scott Spiezio hit a three-run triple with two outs in the eighth inning to put them ahead by one, and Braden Looper was warming up for the Cardinals. The call came to the bullpen for Looper to sit down and for Wainwright to start warming up. He quickly closed out the game, and the Cardinals won.
It was nearly the reverse situation in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets that same year. The Cardinals were up, 3-1, in New York when Wainwright came in for the save. The first two batters singled.
“I was hearing every fan in the stands, everybody who was booing me and cussing me. I could hear it perfectly, plain as day, right next to my ear, and there were a bunch of them,” Wainwright said.
“Then after those first two guys reached base, I stepped back off the mound, gathered my thoughts and just as (Jason) Isringhausen told to do so many times, just breathed. I got back into my focus level and was able to get outs. That's the lesson I learned in that big moment that I've been able to take forward.”
Wainwright stuck out now-teammate Carlos Beltran looking with the bases loaded to end the game and send the Cardinals to the World Series.
In Game 5, Wainwright struck out then-Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge to win title.
Wainwright said he wouldn't be where he is today without his experience pitching out of the bullpen in 2006. Going into games in the middle and working his way toward closing taught him a sense of urgency with every pitch and every out. He became more aggressive than he was as a starter in the minors.
“Before, I had the mentality of going through the lineup without showing all my pitches, just trying to get by until the end when I could start springing stuff on guys,” Wainwright said. “And what I found was for me to be successful, I have to give it everything I've got, every pitch, until they take the ball from me. And hopefully they don't take the ball from me.”
It's the ability to pitch on such a big stage that impresses so many of his teammates, including reliever John Axford.
“It's something that you have or you don't, and he's had it right from the get-go, even as a rookie,” Axford said. “Over the years, it's blossomed into something even bigger and he's able to handle himself out there in these really big and crucial situations.”