ST. LOUIS — Heading into Saturday’s opener in the NLCS, we were told concerns about Adam Wainwright’s elbow were overwrought. The Cardinal ace called the issue “overblown.” His manager said the 33-year-old was “fine.” Saturday’s 3-0 loss to the Giants reopened the discussion in earnest, as Wainwright was unable to finish five innings in 98 pitches, allowing six hits and two earned runs (three total).
He said afterward his elbow felt miles better than in Los Angeles, but it was clear to all who watched that the Wainwright of September has not made the trip to October. The three-time All Star admitted his arm “doesn’t feel great,” saying though it felt better than in his disastrous NLDS start, he’s not where he needs to be.
“My cutter was good. Fastball, curveball were very average,” he said at his locker. “I didn’t throw any change ups, but more than anything I was finally able to get something on both sides of the plate. But definitely not sharp.”
Outside of the first inning, Wainwright never had a clean frame. He was often behind hitters, and he was unable to finish off batters on the ropes. At bats continued well beyond their expiration date, and it became clear he was in for a rocky night when it took 37 pitches to close out the second inning. His total reached 69 before the end of the third.
Wainwright clearly isn’t right, and no amount of dismissive hand waving can convince observers otherwise.
That’s a problem, since the man atop the San Francisco rotation is as sharp as a razor blade. Madison Bumgarner finished Saturday as the all-time record holder for scoreless innings on the road in the postseason (26.2), and muted the Cardinal bats to the tune of four hits and no runs.
“He’s throwing the ball really well. He did a really good job of mixing up his pitches throughout the lineup,” said Matt Carpenter, proud owner of one of the team’s four hits. “The way he was attacking guys the first time through, the second time through and then the third time through. He did a good job, Buster [Posey] called a good game and they executed what they wanted to get done.”
The 25-year-old mixed his approach like a master chef, changing speeds from inning to inning and frying the Cardinals to a crisp.
“First at bat, I got some fastballs to hit,” Carpenter said. “Second at bat, it was more slider/curveball. Third at bat some thing. More soft, he was kind of soft throughout the whole lineup. Then after he got over 100 pitches, he came right after me with the heater again on my last at bat.”
A sputtering Cardinal offense was matched by shaky defensive play behind Wainwright, who - had the fates smiled on him- might have escaped a two-run second inning unscathed.
Pablo Sandoval’s leadoff double was nearly an out, but Randal Grichuk couldn’t hang on to the ball after crashing full-speed into the wall in right. Several batters later, with Sandoval already plated, Gregor Blanco’s grounder to Carpenter was booted for a second run with the bases loaded.
Next inning, Kolten Wong was eaten up on the final hop of what appeared to be a double-play ball with two men on, and the Cardinals only got one out. That left a men at the corners and a sacrifice fly from Brandon Belt one hitter later made it 3-0 instead of three outs.
“Waino was battling. Really working hard out there. There was a couple things we didn’t do as a defense that might have prolonged that. You look at the way he pitched, he certainly could have got out of that without giving up any, maybe one at the most,” Carpenter said. “But at the end of the day you can’t win if you don’t score any runs. That was really the difference in the game.”
The difference in the series, however, may be the frighteningly large gap between the Bumgarner and Wainwright. Many times throughout the season, Game 2 starter Lance Lynn served as a crucial sealant; effectively plugging leaks as the Cardinals shoveled water out of a precariously listing ship. But in an NLCS that promises to be a gruesome street fight to the very end, he can only do so much. Even if he can even the series with a dynamic start Sunday, the Cardinals will no doubt see Bumgarner one more time. At this point, the Birds don’t have an answer- at the plate or on the mound. Wainwright may believe a return to form is just over the horizon, and he said as much after the game, but right now the Cardinals have to prepare for an unsure future.
October victories aren’t built upon such uncertainty. Playoff games aren’t won with question marks. Saturday Bumgarner and the Giants made their statement, and finished it with an exclamation point.