For Wainwright, gaining confidence has been key
Righty feeling good heading into Game 1 start against Nationals
ST. LOUIS -- Coming off reconstructive elbow surgery, there were discussions in Spring Training about limiting a talented right-hander's workload.
And that's where the similarities between Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals and Stephen Strasburg of the Nationals ends.
Under different circumstances, Wainwright and Strasburg might have squared off Sunday at Busch Stadium in Game 1 of the National League Division Series (2 p.m CT, TBS). Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, however, decided to limit his 24-year-old star to 159 1/3 innings before shutting him down, trying to ensure that Strasburg will have a long and prosperous career. Wainwright will match up against 21-game winner Gio Gonzalez instead.
No two situations are exactly the same. But on Feb. 19, here's what John Mozeliak had to say about Wainwright: "It's hard to imagine someone coming back from Tommy John (surgery) just 12 months removed, that he is going to be able to handle the day-to-day rigors of 200 innings."
Technically, the general manager was correct. Wainwright, 31, ended up with 198 2/3 innings. Even back then, though, he let it be known that he would fight any decision to hold him back.
"I refuse to put a limit on my innings," he said the same day. "I don't think it does anybody any good. I'm just going to try and minimize the tough innings and make them yank me out of the game. What happens if I throw 180-190 innings going into September? I can't pitch anymore?"
Mozeliak said during Saturday's NLDS workout that there were solid reasons for the way Wainright's season unfolded, just as there were solid reasons for the Nationals doing what they did.
"We look at that as really stressful innings, and we were more driven by pitch count than actual innings," Mozeliak said. "History shows that you do have to be smart with the workload when you're bringing somebody back. I also think the way you might reflect on it is different by the age of the player and what they've accomplished in the past. It's not one simple answer. I think you have to look through a sense of lenses that allows you to have some flexibility.
"When you think about [Wainwright's] rehab, it was absolutely flawless. He never had a setback. We always felt like he was building and getting stronger as the year proceeded. We really never felt like we had to slow him down or give him a timeout because of that. Again, I think what [the Nationals] did was the right decision for their player."
Wainwright said missing the entire 2011 season, including the Cardinals' stunning World Series comeback against the Rangers, makes him appreciate this opportunity even more.
"I felt like I was a huge impact to that team [last year]. I'm not so sure I did anything. But I tricked myself into believing I was, you know, pretty important last year. I felt like I was there for anybody who needed me, at whatever level that was. Nothing else to do, right?" Wainwright said. "But looking back on it, it really hits me when autograph seekers hand me a ball and it's a 2011 World Series ball, and then they take it back and say, 'No, no, sign this one instead.' That's when it hits that I really didn't get to do a whole lot."
Wainwright pitched twice against the Nationals this past season. The Cardinals won one game, 12-2, and lost one, 10-0.
"To be honest with you, I'd like to throw both games out and just know that we have two teams competing in this next go-around," he said.
"I think the first time around, I was coming off six straight wins, I was pitching really well. Best I had all season probably in that stretch, and I had just a horrible game," he said. "And when your starting pitcher has a horrible game, your team is probably going to have a horrible game. The second time around, pitched a better game. Our offense did a tremendous job against a tough pitcher in Edwin Jackson. A lot of times, your starting pitcher can lose the game in five minutes, or it can completely win the game for you if he goes out there and shuts things down."
Strasburg had his procedure in September 2010 and made five starts before the 2011 season was over. Wainwright had his surgery in February 2011 and missed the whole year. Under the circumstances, then making 32 starts and winning 14 and posting a 3.94 ERA could be considered an achievement. But Wainwright was far from satisfied.
"I pitched well in Spring Training. I thought I was going to go out and dominate. I'll be the first one to tell you, I was one of the worst pitchers in the first half of the season. That first month, I was an embarrassment to this team and to the game of baseball. I've never felt so lost on the mound in my entire life," he said. "That first half of the season, I would say, especially the first month and a half, I really had no life in my fastball, no slider and absolutely no changeup whatsoever. I had four pitches that if you can finish the season above .500 with three or four pitches, I think you've done OK tricking them.
"But the second half of the season, I feel like I turned the corner a little bit, got the life back on my fastball most of the time, and my curveball was pretty consistent most of the year, but my slider and changeup continued to struggle till the end, and I feel like I made some great adjustments.
"I totally get now why Tommy John recovery is so hard. Your arm just takes a while to get back, it really does, and it's hard for me to say that, because I thought I was going to be the exception to the rule. But it takes a while. I'm feeling very confident about it now, though."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com reporter Jenifer Langosch contributed to this story This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.