Adam Wainwright and the identity of the St. Louis Cardinals
By Ben Remis
The St Louis Cardinals have struggled on the mound this year, and in turn, they’ve struggled to keep up in the playoff race.
Plenty of ink has been spilled about the St. Louis Cardinals amidst a disappointing and extremely tough season. Although they are still alive in the playoff race, the odds are stacked against them returning to October. While there have been many struggles this season, it’s been hard to pinpoint the exact reason why this talented ballclub has failed to produce. On Wednesday night, however, Adam Wainwright gave us the performance of the season and showed us the pathway for the Cardinals to return to their high standards of excellence.
Wainwright was as good as we’ve ever seen him, delivering a seven strikeout, two-hit complete-game shutout. In what I learned is called a “Maddux” (after the Fall of Famer Greg), Wainwright completed this outstanding performance on only 88 pitches. It might have come against the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, but he also hit a ground-rule double and a key RBI single – truly a masterful outing from the Cardinals legend.
The words that come to my mind when reviewing this game were “classic” and “vintage.” It truly was the Wainwright of old. Even on a night when Yadier Molina hit his 396th career double, tying him fifth all-time in MLB among catchers, it was the veteran pitcher who stole the headlines.
That’s fitting though, isn’t it? The successful Cardinals teams of the last twenty years have rallied around their ability to pitch. The identity of the ballclub revolves around their ace on the mound. From the bulldog days of Chris Carpenter up to the present, the pitching has always been the difference maker. Nothing feels better than seeing vintage Wainwright on the mound because it reminds us of how the Cardinals win.
Why have the Cardinals struggled this year? You can point to ill-timed injuries. You can point to a lack of offensive consistency. But really, it’s been the struggles of the pitching staff. Without that rock-solid starting rotation leading the way, the Cardinals have found little success.
The Cardinals have been consistently competitive over the years because they are built on starting pitching. Every hitter goes through a slump, and every closer blows a save. But you know you have a shot to win anyway if the first five to seven innings of the game are covered by a starter you believe in.
This is the underlying, unsung hero of the Cardinal Way. Depth, talent evaluation, and devil magic, and play a role. But as starting pitching has abandoned the team this year, it’s no wonder that all else has fallen away.
Luckily for Cardinal fans, the team doesn’t have to rest all of its hope on classic Wainwright showing out every single night. Wade LeBlanc has been workmanlike. Jack Flaherty comes back this week, with Miles Mikolas right on his heels. Depth is returning in the form of Daniel Ponce de Leon and (hopefully I’m not jinxing it) a rejuvenated J.A. Happ. It sure isn’t flashy, but this staff is a better foundation to build on than what the team pieced together through most of the summer.
I’m trying to be as positive as I can here in my assessment of the next two months, and a week full of games against the Pirates and Royals makes that much easier. I understand, however, if fans have given up on catching the multitude of teams ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals in the standings. Nonetheless, whether it is a magical stretch run in 2021 or a remodel of the team for 2022, the Cardinals will once again rely on starting pitching to take them to the next level.
It’s worth noting here how incredible Adam Wainwright has been this season. He has received down-ballot MVP votes four times in his career (2009, 2010, 2013, 2014), but I don’t think he’s ever been as valuable to a Cardinals ballclub as he’s been in 2021.