By Rob Rains, STLSportsPage.com
Adam Wainwright has all of the motivation he needs going into Wednesday night’s start for the Cardinals in the win-or-go-home, wild-card game against the Dodgers in Los Angeles.
He knows there are very few people who expect him or the Cardinals to win. It’s a chip he is going to carry to the mound on his shoulder.
“’He’s too old to do that’; ‘it’s too big a moment’,” Wainwright said as if he was one of the skeptics. “I still carry those chips no matter if they should be there or not, I’ve placed them there and people think I stink. That’s what I’m going with.”
The 40-year-old Wainwright will become the oldest pitcher to start a winner-take-all postseason game since Roger Clemens started game 7 of the 2004 NL Championship Series for the Astros against the Cardinals. The game begins at 7:10 p.m. St. Louis time and will be televised by TBS.
Wainwright proved during the regular season that age is just a number. So is 17, the number of games he won in the regular season. Forty is the new 30 for Wainwright, who says he has never felt better about his performance than he does going into this start.
Like the rest of his team, which went on a historic 17-game winning streak to clinch the second wild-card spot, Wainwright believes the Cardinals proved all their doubters wrong by advancing to the playoffs.
The reward for the longest winning streak in franchise history, and for closing the year with 19 wins in their last 23 games, was a trip to Los Angeles to face the 106-win Dodgers, who finished a game behind the Giants in the NL West.
The two teams are both 0-0 now, however, and even going up against Max Scherzer, the Cardinals like the fact that they won Wainwright’s last eight starts in the regular season and went 13-1 in games he started from July 21 to the end of September.
“They don’t make many people like Waino,” said Matt Carpenter, his teammate for the last decade. “He is a special human being. I could sit here for an hour and tell you all the great things about him but the thing I think is the most impressive just from a performance and baseball player’s standpoint is his willingness to compete and be great. He always pitches with a chip on his shoulder.
“Just when you thought he was done a few years back he’s proven arguably that he’s better than he was before. He’s been really impressive to watch and I think this game is going to be a magical moment for him. I think he’s going to come through for us.”
Wainwright and Scherzer, 37, have only been head-to-head opponents three times in their respective careers, including game 2 of the NL Championship Series in 2019 when Scherzer was with the Nationals. Scherzer won that game 3-1 as Washington swept the series.
Wainwright won the other two matchups, when Scherzer was a rookie with Arizona in 2008 and earlier in the 2019 regular season. Scherzer’s last appearance against the Cardinals came on Sept. 6 this season at Busch Stadium, right before the streak began, when he allowed one unearned run in eight innings, did not issue a walk and struck out 13.
In his only start against the Dodgers this season, two days later, Wainwright won, allowing four runs in 8 1/3 innings. He gave up just two runs until the ninth.
“We really want him to go out and have a great game and prove that he’s had a great year and is going to follow it up with a big win,” Carpenter said of Wainwright. “I expect Adam to go out and do that; we all do.
“Max is going to be good as well. It’s going to be a battle for all of us in the lineup. I don’t think there’s anybody more prepared than us and I don’t think there’s anybody we would rather have on the mound than Waino.”
Wainwright has only allowed one home run in 120 career plate appearances by current Dodgers and that was hit by Max Muncy in the game on Sept. 8. Muncy is not expected to play after hurting his elbow during Sunday’s final game of the regular season. The Dodgers’ hitter who has had the most success against Wainwright is Trea Turner, who is 8-of-19 in his career.
It’s possible Albert Pujols will get the start against the Cardinals in place of Muncy. He is 1-of-10 against his former teammate.
For the Cardinals, their most successful hitter against Scherzer through the years has been Tommy Edman, 4-of-11, with the only homer by current Cardinals in 175 career plate appearances against Scherzer, including the postseason.
Paul Goldschmidt is 6-of-35, Nolan Arenado 2-of-10 and Yadier Molina 1-of-20. Combined, the current Cardinals have a career .171 average against Scherzer.
No matter what happens in the game, one streak will end. The Cardinals have won Wainwright’s last eight starts, the Dodgers have won 11 consecutive starts by Scherzer. The Cardinals ended the regular season by winning their last 11 games on the road. The Dodgers have won their last 15 games at Dodger Stadium.
If there is any concern for the Cardinals and Wainwright, who will be making his 16th career postseason start, it’s that the Cardinals have lost his last five postseason starts – despite the fact that his career postseason ERA of 2.89 is almost half a run less than his career regular season ERA of 3.35.
The last time Wainwright won a postseason start was game one of the 2014 Division Series, in Los Angeles.
Wainwright tells his teammates every time he pitches that it’s the most important game of the season. This time, it really is. He is ready for the challenge, chips and all.
“I’m having more fun pitching now than I’ve ever had,” Wainwright said. “What’s fun is anybody can get outs with 100 (mph fastball). Try doing it at 89. That’s fun. You’ve got to do things a little different. You’ve got to sink it and cut it and keep guys on their toes.
“The other day (Andrew) Knizner was catching and he called something that I would never do and I was like, ‘But they will never expect it. That’s brilliant. I’ve never done that before.’ I did it and it worked. It was crazy. I’m having those kinds of thoughts on the mound and that’s what’s really driving me.
“In my mind I’m just trying to build off what we did this year. Where can we get better? Oh, they think that was crazy? Wait until they see what I do next. What a great way to motivate yourself and to not be satisfied where you are.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports