JUPITER, FL. (KMOV.com) -- Adam Wainwright lowered his 6’7 frame into a tight crouch, a look of grim determination on his face. He stared daggers into a pitching machine as hundreds of eyes fixed on his big hands and the 30-plus inches of wood they were balancing.
A soft *fwoomp* was followed by a muted thud, then an eruption of cheers. In the first ever team-wide bunting competition at spring camp, the Cardinals’ ace earned himself another trophy for his growing collection.
“I’m really excited about it,” Wainwright said with a wry grin. “As many people as were watching right there for a silly bunt competition, there was some bragging rights on the line.”
The entire team gathered to watch the final two rounds, crowding around a batting cage that enclosed home plate, a patch of dirt and some infield grass with scoring lines painted across fair territory on a half field in the back of the Jupiter complex.
The rules are simple: if a bunt doesn’t make the grass in front of home plate, it doesn’t count. Any bunt that comes to rest between the start of the grass and the first line is two points, anything between the first and second line is one. A bunt that rolls beyond the second line is also discarded. Fair balls only.
Saturday morning was the culmination of days of trials, with a final four comprised of minor league catcher Luis Cruz vs minor league corner infielder Patrick Wisdom and Marco Gonzales facing off against Wainwright.
Players packed in tightly around boundaries of the scoring area, hooting when great bunts were dropped and bemoaning balls that rolled just far enough to be disqualified. Carlos Martinez knelt along the edge of the grass on the right field line, acting as line judge for balls that needed close investigation to determine proper scoring. If a ball came to rest within a whisper of the grass, the 24-year-old would bring his nose down to within an inch, raising his hands to urge patience from the crowd of curious heads encircling him. A ruling would be issued, followed by a chorus of groans mixed with cheers, depending on who a player was backing.
In the back of the crowd, Matt Carpenter fed pitches into the machine with the rote precision he applies to his swing.
Wainwright defeated Gonzales in the first semi-final, but Cruz and Wisdom took their match down to the wire. Near the end of his round, Cruz was on the ropes. Needing two points to force overtime with one ball remaining, he took a deep breath and squared up. Whispers went around the crowd like a stiff breeze, then silence fell as the pitch was lowered into the feeder.
Cruz laid his last bunt squarely on the first patch of grass, and his supporters erupted like the bench after a March Madness buzzer beater.
But Wisdom redoubled his efforts, eventually advancing after an abbreviated, high-stakes round to face Wainwright.
The crowd of Cardinal fans beyond the complex’s fences craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the dichotomous final pairing. Power hitter versus pitcher, minor leaguer versus MLB vet, with a day off from workouts on the line.
Wisdom grinned as he stepped in, cries of “let’s go Wiz!” following each successful bunt. But Wainwright, his demeanor the same as if he were standing on the mound in Game 7 of the World Series, accrued point after point. When the final ball came to rest and victory was in hand, he broke into a wide grin. He removed his helmet, bowed to the crowd of cheering teammates and administered high fives. The day off - in which he doesn’t have to even come to the complex- is his to choose. He joked afterward that perhaps he’d choose Monday, the day he is scheduled to make his first start.
As the team spread out onto the other fields for drills, the 34-year-old doffed his cap to a crowd of cheering fans. Before he jogged off to shag balls, he offered a trademark Wainwright moment.
“Now I have to put that to work, though, in the regular season” he said.
He’s never content to rest on his laurels, even the ones earned on the back fields of spring training.